“If the songs stop coming I will become one of the best fishermen there is.”
Louisiana guitarist, singer and songwriter Tony Joe White has been playing his form of the swampy blues for over 50 years. CHRIS HAVERCROFT speaks to White about his latest – and some say finest – album, Hoodoo, and his current Australian tour. Tony Joe White plays a special Fly By Night Club show at the Astor Theatre on Sunday, March 15.
Tony Joe White is the youngest of seven children and grew up on a cotton farm. It is there that he developed his two greatest passions, music and fishing.
His early single, Polk Salad Annie, is still his most well known song, but his constant touring and recording has kept him vibrant at 71 years of age.
He may regularly play shows, but White doesn’t stay out on the road for too long on any one stint. Three or four weeks away from the river and the swamps is about as much as he is willing to take in any one time. When he does return home though, it is often to a few cold beers and a memory of something that someone said to him whilst in the pubs and clubs.
“You have to be out there at the clubs amongst all the people and the sweat and all of a sudden a song will pop up out of it,” says White of the fertile nature of life on tour. “I never actually did write all the time. When I started I was 18 or 19 years old and I was playing at the clubs and I didn’t give it any more thought. Songs were something that came down from above and came to me and my guitar. I didn’t think about how many I did or didn’t write each year. It was something that is a way of life and I have just accepted it for what it is.”
When White started writing and playing two of his first songs Rainy Night In Georgia and Polk Salad Annie were a success and gave him a guide to go by. White wasn’t trying to write for radio or commercials, but he now had a standard that he knew he could write to. The deep throated bluesman sees himself as just a receiving station for the tunes, and they come from somewhere beyond his conscious.
“If the songs stop coming I will become one of the best fishermen there is,” jokes White about his craft. “I still like to play Polk Salad Annie and Rainy Night In Georgia, but I also play songs right up to the latest album. This time around I will do five or six songs from Hoodoo. I always try and write better with each album and I hope that they are. I try to play the song in the same way that it comes to me when I am around the camp fire. I am lucky to have my own studio where I can go in any time day or night and try to capture them. That is the way to do swamp music.
When the Foo Fighters took residency as the house band for a week on the David Letterman Show recently, they invited White to perform a version of Polk Salad Annie with them. To say that it went well would be a serious understatement.
“The lead singer (Dave Grohl), he came down about four months before the show and was interviewing me about my style of playing. He did a two hour interview with me and I thought that was it. All of a sudden he calls from New York and asks if I want to come up and play Polk Salad Annie with them on David Letterman.
“I went up there and it was a real happening performance and we really shook old David Letterman up. He didn’t know what to think about it. He usually sits behind his desk, but this time we walked over and he looked all pale and pulled at his necktie and said ‘I can hardly breathe, what happened up here’.”