Caught by the River

Caught by the Reaper: Tony Joe White

Jeb Loy Nichols | 30th October 2018

Jeb Loy Nichols shares memories of the legendary swamp rock and blues singer, who died last week aged 75

In my life as a musician, no one has been more important to me than Tony Joe White.  For forty-five years his music has been my soundtrack, my daily touchstone, my reminder, my bedrock.  I once asked him who, or what, had been the biggest influence on him; he thought about it for a moment and then, in his quiet drawl, said, the rain.

There was a market, when I was growing up, on the east side of town, in a mostly Hispanic section, that sold cilantro and chickens and hats and bags of rice; roasted beans and records and hammers and dogs; toys and dresses and sandals and posters of Pancho Villa.  It was there I bought my first Tony Joe White record.  I hurried home and I came through my yard and pushed open my door and went quick into my room and the first Tony Joe White track I ever heard was ‘Stud Spider’.  The very first.  I put the needle on and there it was.  Side one, track one.  It leapt out.  I was mystified.  I was only a kid.

What the hell was all this?  All this local colour?  A Stud Spider? The Sheriff Of Calhoun Parrish?  Conjure Woman?  Tony Joe made no sense to me.  Not a bit.  He was coming from somewhere far away.  This stuff he was singing about, and the way he was singing, was all unkempt and peculiar, as if from Saturn or Zimbabwe or some far flung outpost.  Places with their own removed histories.  Places with their own language, their own food, their own families and national holidays.  What intrigued me was the sound of it.  The ooze, the seep, the puddled noise of it.  As if listening to the muttered grunts of thunder clouds.  The uneven flow of water.  The clatter of tractor wheels.  Sounds that inhabit the world in a primal way.

I didn’t know what to do with it.  I was out of my depth.  I listened but couldn’t hear it.  I held it at arm’s length.  I looked at the front and back covers.  I put it to one side.  I returned, some hours later, still mystified.  Still a little kid but slightly older.

Back then, in the days of my youth, in my little house amongst the cedar trees, I sat with the first five Tony Joe White albums and was briefly satisfied.  Black And White (1968), Continued (1969), Tony Joe (1970), Tony Joe White (1971), The Train I’m On (1972).  My hair longer, my waist less.  No beard yet.  In my t-shirt that said Inner Sanctum.  Humming a song made popular by Al Green.  A song about a river and being taken there and being washed in its water.  Perhaps, I thought, this is all ruining my life.  This collecting.  This scavenging.  With all the markets and the swap meets and the hero worship and the late night radio and the thrift stores.  Sitting, as I was, in the falling shade, on my bed with the green quilted cover, turning records over and over.  I laid back and was set upon by all these many, indescribable things: fear, hope, yearning, privation, panic.

While visiting a friend near a foreign ocean I found Home Made Ice Cream.  Walked into a record shop and there it was, the title in his own handwriting.   I turned it over and read the back.  All in his own handwriting too.  At the bottom of the cover it said: Special thanks to Leann, who done the pictures up at Turkey Creek.  

My friend and I ate at a restaurant owned by Salvadorians.  Flat breads filled with beans and cabbage.  Sweet tea too, flavoured with jasmine.  Pickled carrot.  My friend, who lived near the ocean, asked me, so what’s the deal with this Tony Joe White?

The deal?  The deal, I said, is difficult to verbalize.

Ah, my friend said, the deal.  He said this as if to say: you and I are on the same side of this question.  We stand united.  We agree as to the manysidedness of the deal.  The deal is slippery.

Tony Joe White was no game player or realist.  Nothing practical.  No technician or craftsman.  He was only ever entirely himself.  Impossible, unreasonable.  A disputant.  It was a simple, unsimple thing.  The mark of a solitaire.

Tony Joe White, my Steppenwolf, referred to himself as ‘The Tennessee Swamp Fox’, allying himself with the nonhuman, the untrainable, the questionable, the shadow being.  On the ceaseless prowl.

I like, I told my friend, his pace and his flow.  His delivery.  His reluctance.  He waits, he watches.  Or so it seems.  So I believe.  It feels to me like he goes about things in a slower fashion than does the average citizen.  The generally accepted standards of speed and acquisition are not what you get when you’re dealing with Tony Joe.

I can’t tell you why I love Tony Joe’s music.  I can only say: listen to it.  Listen to every record he ever made.  Listen to the way he doesn’t sound like anyone else.  Listen to the way he sings ‘Rainy Night In Georgia’.  There’s an important lesson there.  In the original version, and the way Tony Joe sang it his entire life, there’s a middle eight that says:

How many times I wonder, 
it still comes out the same, 
no matter how look at it or think of it, 
you just got to do your own thing.

When Brook Benton sang it, and had a huge hit with it, he sang the last line as:

You just got to play the game.

Tony Joe never played the game.  He always did his own thing.  And maybe that’s why I love Tony Joe White so much.  In a world of imitation and replication and endless things that sound and look exactly like everything else, Tony Joe did his own thing.

Tony Joe White R I P.

Tony Joe White, 23 July 1943 – 24 October 2018