A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
July 20, 2007
Nobody has ever accused Swamp Dogg of being too subtle. The cover of his new album, Resurrection, features a picture of the singer nailed to a cross, clad only in an American flag loincloth and a cap that reads "Witness Protection Program." Above his head a sign reads "Program Failure."
Yep, it’s a Swamp Dogg album all right, and it’s Swamp Dogg through and through, with songs of love, lust, and cranky political ranting.
While the notion of “cult artist” is overused, it fits Swamp Dogg (aka Jerry Williams). While he’s been releasing records for nearly 40 years, he’s never been a mainstream success. As he said in a June 2007 interview in the London newspaper The Guardian, “I’m not a down-and-out R & B singer. I’m not a used-to-be because I never was. I am so glad now that I didn’t become a great R & B hit in the ’60s, because I may still be in the ... ’60s, running around singing ‘Baby You’re My Everything’ and ‘I’m the Lover Man.’”
One of the things I love most about this singer is that he embodies so many contradictions. He’s known as a musical renegade and iconoclast who bolted the big-label, music-industrial complex and started his own independent label (Swamp Dogg Entertainment Group) years before it was fashionable. And yet his music, instrumentally at least, is basically conservative — old-fashioned, late ’60s/early ’70s soul that sounds as if George Clinton, Prince, and hip-hop never happened.
Although Dogg’s a soulster through and through, his biggest songwriting success is “She’s All I Got,” a country hit for Johnny Paycheck in the early ’70s.
And then there’s the matter of his lyrics. You’d probably expect him to be a fire-breathing, radical militant judging by the cover of this album; the titles of some of the songs (“America is Bleeding” and “They Crowned an Idiot King,” a one-fingered salute to the current chief executive); and his comfort with casual profanity and liberal use of the N word (Swamp Dogg obviously didn’t go to the recent NAACP “funeral” for the offensive epithet).
It’s true Swamp Dogg is anti-war and anti-Bush, and he believes racism is alive and well in modern America. But from his lyrics you also learn he opposes abortion and gay marriage, doesn’t like Mexican immigrants using Civil Rights-era slogans, and wants to keep God in the Pledge of Allegiance.
By my count, his politics are pretty close to those of Merle Haggard, which I personally find far more fascinating than those of the straight paint-by-numbers, talking-point liberal or conservative.
The 12-minute title song is a tour de force of Swamp Dogg’s political theory. Starting off with the rumbling of thunder he evokes the days of slavery, comparing it with the crucifixion. He praises Martin Luther King Jr. as “the messenger.”
Soon some of his social conservatism becomes apparent. Swamp Dogg denounces the welfare system, saying it encourages fatherless families. He blasts drugs, espousing a just-say-no policy. “You don’t have to do nothing about it, just leave it the hell alone and it will go away/It’s a proven fact that if a product is not being consumed the supplier will soon move on to other things.”
Swamp Dogg offers some sound economic advice to African Americans (or anyone else for that matter): “Start putting $10 to $15 a week into a savings account until it becomes big enough to buy a six-month certificate of deposit at 9 percent then continuously roll it over and don’t touch it and buy no damned Christmas presents!”
He also advises his people to put aside frivolous reading and “read a copy of Black Enterprise, Forbes, Money, and Fortune/Discover what the upscale black is doing and what the white man is planning to build in a year on the same site where you’re renting.”
He works himself into an emotional frenzy by the end of the song. “I will see you when you come out of the tomb!” he shouts. “ I will see you when you rise!”
Besides politics, the other major topic on Resurrection is love, specifically his recent marriage. “Today I Got Married” is a string-sweetened, tinkly-piano tribute to his wife, with a refrain that goes, “She knows how to fight to funk/She knows how to lift a [N word] up.” He promises to “do the things that make a marriage work/Bring my money home, get my lovin’ at home, and spend more time in church.”
This is a man who is passionate about and believes in everything he sings. It makes his music a true pleasure.
* Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions by James Blood Ulmer. Here’s another 60-something black musician who has a way with angry protest songs.
Ulmer is a jazzman who has played with the likes of Ornette Coleman and Art Blakey. But in recent years his art has taken him deeper and deeper into the blues. I loved his 2005 album Birthright, but this new one is even more exciting. It was recorded in New Orleans’ Piety Street studios with a full band.
Ulmer performs several fresh-sounding covers of songs by Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker, and Junior Kimbrough. But New Orleans — particularly, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — is never far from Ulmer’s mind. Songs include “Survivors of the Hurricane,” “Katrina,” “Let’s Talk About Jesus,” and “Backwater Blues,” a traditional blues number that in Ulmer’s hands sounds like a prophecy.
Ulmer’s main strength is that he captures the mysteriousness of the blues. Even when the band is rocking, you can imagine the husky-voiced singer in a graveyard, sitting on a tombstone, playing his guitar, and shouting melodies that double as secret incantations and dark warnings.
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