The Crawfish Whisperer

A few years ago, Chad Kassem, John Atkinson, and I attended a Pink Floyd conference in Princeton, New Jersey, where among other things we listened to Roger Waters' Amused to Death in surround at ungodly, ear-splitting levels.

Rather than permanently damage his hearing, and being a wise man and an incurable vinylhead, Kassem, head of Analogue Productions, made a beeline for the Princeton Record Exchange. He returned with a big bag of LPs he'd just scored at that hallowed Jersey vinyl palace. Amongst his treasures was Swampland Jewels, a compilation of Zydeco, Cajun and swamp pop numbers originally released by Goldband Records. I've always been a big Louisiana music fan and Chad is born and bred, hailing from the lovely city of Lafayette. And while we both loved the music on this compilation, it was that cover art image that really registers in the essential, gotta-have-it range. There are a few records, Sticky Fingers, Abbey Road, The Velvet Underground & Nico all come to mind, where the cover art really became a discernable part of the album's success.

Always up for a big game LP hunt, I began combing websites, searching for a copy of Swampland Jewels. It proved a more difficult task than I had anticipated. After literally months of searching during which I found one banged up cassette copy, I finally located an LP copy on eBay in the unlikely locale of Riga, Latvia. Against my better instincts, I pressed "Buy Now."

Unsurprisingly, on the way to New York, it was somehow, somewhere run through a lethal mail-processing machine and arrived in Gotham looking like a crushed potato chip, mashed into a thousand black vinyl pieces. An email to the seller produced no results. A negative rating however prompted a phone call from Latvia where a man who spoke English with an American accent informed me his wife was in charge of running their eBay account and she'd recently been slacking on the job. In short order, a refund appeared in my PayPal account, but I still didn't have a copy of the record whose original cover featured a girl in a bikini riding a giant crawfish while a clam with eyes and a smile lingered at her feet.

Happily, Yep Roc Records and the Southern Folklife Collection has now remastered Swampland Jewels and it's now been re-released—original cover art intact—on CD, LP, MP3 download, and streaming.

While the music here is rough-hewn and fairly obscure, even those not into the minutiae of Louisiana music will still get a kick out of listening. The opener "Paper in my Shoe," is one of the late Zydeco master Boozoo Chavis's most famous tunes as well as one of Zydeco music's biggest hit singles. "Yard Dog," by rockabilly cat All Ferrier is a super-funky boogaloo and a tune and arrangement unlike any other on this collection. Leroy Broussard shouts his way through "Lemonade Song." Jo-El Sonnier strums a guitar and gets downright folky on "My Blue Letter." The album's most interesting track, the stomping "Sugar Bee" by Cleveland Crochet and Jay Stutes, was the first Cajun record ever to break into Billboard's Hot 100 singles chart in 1961.

These recordings were done in a studio in Lake Charles, LA. that was "eight feet wide, eighteen feet long and twelve feet high," according to a quote in the new liner notes by radio shop owner and part-time recording engineer Eddie Shuler. Using a simple, quarter-inch, mono tape recorder, Shuler recorded local musicians in an era when getting a song on the radio could make you a local hero and a surprising amount of money. His recordings were released on the Goldband and Folk-Star labels.

Sonically, these tracks hav now been remastered with new edits and mixes added for this release. Much like everything recorded by the legendary Cosimo Matassa in his rudimentary New Orleans studio, the sound of these recordings is to be appreciated more for its raw immediacy than its clarity and wide dynamic range. Though I've never heard the original Swampland record, I was impressed by how much low punch and high end is actually left in these recordings, considering the age of the source tape and how primitively they were originally recorded. But then, of course, what would recordings like Little Richard's earliest records, all made in Matassa's studio, be without that audible funk? Though this version was transferred from an original Goldband 45rpm single in unknown condition, listen to "Sugar Bee" below.

michaelavorgna's picture

is the bee's knees!

dalethorn's picture

Makes perfect sense. That box of 78's that left Louisiana circa 1950 and arrived in the hands of Alan Freed in Akron Ohio started something big. Sugar Bee sounds like a classic.

deckeda's picture

That needle drop has ALL the hallmarks of playing a very worn record. It's a particular type of distortion seldom forgotten across the decades, once heard. A true distraction. I know an accordion is prominent on the recording, only because it's cajun. It really sounds more like a broken kazoo, agreed?

Mr. Baird you scared the crap outta me because I thought you were supplying the link as some sort of representative example for what's on the release.

This now 8-yr-old YouTube iteration is instead, quite listenable!

It even sounds better than the copy on Spotify, for whatever reason.


And yes, thank you for the heads-up on this fun recording!

Russell Dawkins's picture

Deckeds, I noticed in listening to the Sugar Bee version that you posted that it is a different performance—perhaps a different recording session? Listen to the bass at 6 seconds in to hear what I mean.
I particularly noticed because the type of bass playing on the noisy version really bugs me. He starts on the wrong note then corrects then gets out of sync repeatedly as the tune progresses. He plays a little better in the YouTube version you posted.

hnickm's picture

I've always heard it referred to as "Clanky-clank" (sic?) by aficionados of the genre. Lots of strange instruments, like hardy-gurdies, were used. Watching and listening to them was a rather outside-of-earth experience. Interesting article.

Bluejimbop's picture

BTW, Stereophile, C/Z music is alive and evolving, with its own set of recording points of interest. Hint, hint.

swclow's picture

This is one of the best CDs produced in the last 20 years, primarily because it avoided the loudness wars. Plenty of dynamic range and plenty of air for Jeff Beck's beautiful guitar work. I love listening to this CD. I also bought the SACD version with 5.1 sound. A great remastering and, once again, avoids smashing the music to death. A great demo CD.