How Cajuns and Creoles reinvented rock 'n' roll — swamp style

The World

In 1963, “I’m Leaving It Up to You” by the duo Dale & Grace hit number one on the Billboard charts and went gold. It was a breakout hit for both the band and a new style that was bubbling up in the bayous of southwestern Louisiana: swamp pop.

If you think about music in southwestern Louisiana, you're probably thinking about Zydeco or Cajun music, and artists like Clifton Chenier — the "King of Zydeco" — playing classics in Creole French. But in the 1950s, as rock 'n' roll exploded on the national stage, folks who grew up listening to Zydeco and Cajun classics were also swept up in the new sound.

“When the Cajuns of the 1950s grew up, they didn't want to play the Cajun music," says Mark Layne, the General Manager at KVPI, the local station down in Ville Platte, Louisiana. Instead, they blended the sounds of artists like Elvis and Fats Domino with Cajun classics, creating a new style. 

"It was like an influence of New Orleans rhythm and blues," Layne says. "It had a saxophone and horns and it had a backbeat and it’s called swamp pop — and its located right here."

Layne has been working at the station, which plays swamp pop, for 40 years. But when he first started DJing there as a teenager, he couldn't stand Cajun or Zydeco — or even swamp pop.

“I wanted to play the big rock bands like the Eagles and Grand Funk, and then later on I had a come-to-Jesus moment and I got to meet them," he remembers. "These guys have as much talent as all these big national acts, but they just never got the breaks."

So it's not surprising that you probably haven't heard of Cookie and the Cupcakes, Johnnie Allan, Randy and the Rockets or Bobby Page and the Riff Raffs. And in some ways, it seems these artists just were creating a version of rock all their own, translating the mainstream 1950s and '60s sound into something more familiar for themselves and their neighbors.

At the height of the twist craze, for instance, Randy and the Rockets released their own twist tune: “Let's Do the Cajun Twist.”

Swamp pop artists also sang, as they say down here, en franglais. Songs like “Colinda,” by Rod Bernard had lyrics in both in both French and English.

Many songs by swamp pop artists actually went on to become hits when covered by mainstream artists; the song "Later Alligator," originally written and recorded by Bobby Charles in 1955, was covered by Bill Haley & His Comets in 1956. Their version went on to become a top 10 hit.

Ville Platte has become the epicenter of swamp pop. The town has a little museum dedicated to the style, and an annual Swamp Pop Festival that Layne started. Though the swamp pop greats are getting up there in age, people from around the world come every year to listen and dance. But if you can't get down here for the festival, you can still listen to the music streaming every Friday all day long on KVPI.