Think of rock ‘n’ soul, social and political protestations, and song-cycles from the ‘70s, and there’s a catalog of music by Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder that fits the bill. Ambitious, self-contained songwriters making meaningful music in a time of political upheaval was business as usual back then, though how the big statement records got made often leads to a story itself. The way Gaye, for example, created a mood for his masterpiece What’s Going On (based on his brother’s experience in Vietnam) and delivered it to a less-than-excited Motown is a dramatic story of personal and professional challenge that’s been well-documented. Lesser known is the story of Jerry Williams, also known as Swamp Dogg. He’s one of those singer-songwriters who’s got it all, from melody and message, to rock and righteousness.
His 1970 album, Total Destruction to You Mind, is his own slice of rage against the madness, and his song “Synthetic World” is one of his greatest “hits” of the era, a kind of personal excellence/eco-conscious statement, compassionate and ready to blow, though you can’t be blamed if you haven’t heard of it or him. Most folks have left Swamp Dogg’s records out in the cold based on their eccentric cover art alone. Plus, he was dropped early on from his label Elektra for getting “too political.” The whole mess conspired to make his titles hard to find, but through the years they’ve slowly become available again and this month Kent released It’s All Good, A Singles Collection 1963-1989. Thanks to the miracle of polycarbonate, you can still get “Synthetic World”on a disc.
“Hey you, I’m up from the bayou, where wild life runs free, you could say that I’m country,” is how Swamp Dogg begins, and then he hits it: “But let me tell you what I see: Your world is plastic. I can see through to the other side.” The great reggae singer Jimmy Cliff heard something in “Synthetic World” and cut it around the same time it was released. Cliff was no hack in the message music department. He wrote “Vietnam”, a pretty heavy-hitter when it comes to anti-war songs, and a story circulates that Bob Dylan called it the best protest song he ever heard. Not long after recording “Vietnam” and “Synthetic World”, Cliff’s career broke wide open when he played the hard luck reggae singer turned to crime in The Harder They Come; the film helped deliver reggae music to the world.
But Cliff must’ve really liked something he heard in Swamp Dogg’s songs: In “The Harder They Come”, there’s a shout-out to him when Cliff sings, “as sure as the sun will shine,” the very words that Dogg used on his track, “Total Destruction to Your Mind.” A bit nonsensical lyrically, “Total Destruction to Your Mind” is nevertheless a serious musical burst of country-soul, from the album of the same title—the same one on which Cliff heard “Synthetic World.” Total Destruction to Your Mind was Williams’ debut as Swamp Dogg, with an album cover you can’t miss: It’s the one where he’s riding on the back end of a garbage truck with some kind of pot or pan on his head.
Little Jerry Williams was an iconoclastic singer with some minor hits like “I’m the Lover Man” and “Baby You’re My Everything”, and a ‘60s career as a producer, engineer, and songwriter for Atlantic under his belt. Raised on old-time country radio and trained on the road and in studios, Williams hung out and wrote with the likes of Gary US Bonds, Charlie and Inez Foxx, and Patti LaBelle and the Bluebells. For Williams, writing songs with layers of social and political content and depth was no sweat, but as Swamp Dogg, he could do that and then some.
A soul singer of the ages, an original rocker paid low wages, a put upon showman, trash talker, and the original d-o-double-g, Swamp Dogg says on his website that he’s written and sung on matters as similar and disparate as sex and love, war and peace, his daughters and Sly Stone, as well as “politics, revolutions and blood transfusions (just to name a few),” and he’s done it without missing a beat. But hardly anyone could have predicted the riot of words and sound going on throughout 1970’s Total Destruction to Your Mind, credited to this new persona. In the high era of psychedelic topical soul, Total Destruction was an attempt to turn the music inside out and upside down and it did, its point of view irreverent, its music a fusion of country, blues, and rock. It was definitely on the leading edge of “country-funk,” if not on the edge of something else entirely.
The lyric “sitting on a cornflake,” from “Total Destruction to Your Mind” was, of course, a Beatles-borrowed reference to acid dreams and nightmares, but Swamp Dogg himself was anti-drug. He preached his own original brand of unaltered mind expansion; his songs were also anti-war, pro-equality, and upfront on matters interpersonal and sexual. A totally conscious offering to communicate and entertain, without forsaking the twisted truths and humor of life, the bold combination of words and musical styles fell on deaf ears in the marketplace. Primed to release a follow-up to Total Destruction, titled Rat On!, (1971), the album became known primarily for its cover, depicting him riding the back of a white rat, instead of its hard truth-telling, Memphis soul-styled ”Remember I Said Tomorrow,” and others like it.
Swamp Dogg told author Richie Unterberger, who profiled him in his book, Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll, that the combination of race matters and his anti-Vietnam stance didn’t do him any favors at Elektra Records either. “When they signed me, they had one black act on the label,” he said, referring to the Voices of East Harlem. “And when they signed me, they released that act. It was like one to a customer.” With a spot in Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland’s satirical song and sketch comedy revue FTA (Free the Army), “I was with Jane Fonda… we were out protesting the war and all that and they said…’we don’t need this.’” Dogg also got in hot water with the Irving Berlin people who didn’t like his “God Bless America For What.” “I wasn’t trying to help overthrow the government… I was just trying to enlighten people and say what I thought,” he says. (You can read a full transcript of Unterberger’s profile with Swamp Dogg at Perfect Sound Forever.)
Since taking on the name Swamp Dogg in 1970 the handle stuck, if only because the handler’s made of stubborn stuff. He’s released countless albums, many of them repackaged and resold and some of them available at the Bandcamp Swamp Dogg store.
Not quite 70, he’s still in business, touring the world. Beloved in the UK and throughout Europe, Swamp Dogg’s brand of musical satire and solid songwriting remains better appreciated there than in the US. “Houses are paper but folks don’t hear a word you say. Friendship’s like acid, it burns as it slides away,” he still sings in “Synthetic World”, as if he’s a force of nature. The last studio album I heard was 2007’s Resurrection (it’s the one with the picture of him in a crucifixion pose), and he’s still writing topical songs, like “In Time of War (Who Wins)?” and “They Crowned an Idiot King.” Jimmy Cliff’s obscure compilation, Goodbye Yesterday, was reissued in 2004 and includes his take on “Synthetic World” that’s lost none of its sweet bite in the years since its 1970 recording.
Through the years, Swamp Dogg’s own covers by his fellow songwriters show a taste for a common thread, whether its “Sam Stone” (John Prine’s story of the plight of a vet), to the hopeful turnaround in “Got to Get a Message to You” by the Bee Gees. (If I had a dime for every time I mentioned them in this column, I might have a dollar by now.)
I never know why I choose what I’m going to write about each month, though it’s true I like a good ode to the earth when I hear one. But that wasn’t really why Swamp Dogg’s “Synthetic World” called out to me this winter. The song’s deeper, not-so-hidden meaning got under my skin. Sometimes it’s not so much the origin of the song I’m interested in, but the origin of why I’m feeling it. As I write this I realize I’m tired and need a vacation. Once again I find myself uncovering the unheard and the unsung. I need to get outdoors more, visit with friends. I want stuff I can’t have but I know that stuff isn’t the solution to feeling discontent. “So you see, my patience is growing thin with this synthetic world we’re living in.” Funny how all my passing thoughts in this cold, short month were tied up in a Swamp Dogg song, and for a couple of minutes, it also provided relief from them.–published on February 28, 2011 in Crawdaddy!