Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tony Joe White -- "Polk Salad Annie" (1969)

Down in Louisiana
Where the alligators grow so mean
There lived a girl
That I swear to the world
Made the alligators look tame

I have a strict policy of staying away from any woman who makes alligators look tame.  

Maybe if I found myself in New Orleans on business and I could avoid giving this woman my real name, I might consider one teeny little "date" with such a femme fatale.  Especially if I had been drinking at this fine French Quarter establishment:

But it's probably a better idea to steer clear -- especially if the woman's momma was working on a chain gang as the result of a rumpus involving a straight razor, which was the case with "Polk Salad Annie's" momma.

Polk salad -- American pokeweed (Phytolacca americana) -- is a large herbaceous perennial that is native to the eastern half of the United States.  ("Poke salad" seems to be the more common spelling, but I'm following White here.)

Parts of the plant are quite toxic, but the leaves are apparently safe to eat if you pick them before they mature.  (One source I found says leaves that are under seven inches in length are OK, but I think I'll take a pass on pokeweed altogether -- there are plenty of varieties of lettuce, spinach, etc., at my local grocery store to satisfy my needs.)

Pokeweed (a/k/a/"Polk salad")
If you live out in the woods and have no money and decide to pick you a mess of polk salad and carry it home in a towsack, my understanding is that you need to rinse the leaves in cold water, cook them in boiling water, rinse them again, boil them again, and rinse them again.

Of course, you can just buy them in a can:

Polk salad is similar to collard, turnip, or mustard greens, and is at its best when cooked in bacon grease and served with bacon.  But you could say the same thing about almost any green vegetable (e.g., Brussels sprouts).

Click here for an article that tells you everything you need to know about cooking polk salad.

Tony Joe White was born and reared (not raised -- as my high-school English teacher taught us, you raise animals but you rear children) in a small town in northeast Louisiana, near the Mississippi River.  

"Polk Salad Annie," White's only hit single, was recorded in 1968 in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and released late that year.

Initially, the record went nowhere.  White was living in Corpus Christi, Texas, at the time, and the people who heard him play live bought enough copies to make it a local hit.  Eventually, it charted nationally in July -- months after its initial release -- and stayed in the top 10 throughout August of that year.  (We started school in August in those days, so "Polk Salad Annie" qualifies for inclusion in my ongoing series of one-hit wonders from my senior year of high school.)

White's other singles didn't do nearly as well, although his "Soul Francisco" single was something of a hit in France and Belgium.  ("Rainy Night in Georgia" -- which he had written in 1962 -- became a big hit for Brook Benton in 1970.)

Here's "Soul Francisco":

Tony Joe appeared in the 1974 movie Catch My Soul.  That movie -- think of it as "Othello" meets "Hair" -- was directed by Patrick McGoohan, the star of two of my favorite television series of all time, Secret Agent and The Prisoner.  

The movie starred Richie Havens (of Woodstock fame) in the Othello role, Lance LeGault as Iago (you might remember him from The A-Team), Season Hubley as Desdemona, Susan Tyrrell as Emilia, and White (who wrote and performed several songs on the movie's soundtrack) as Cassio.  Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and Billy Joe Royal also appeared.

Patrick McGoohan in The Prisoner
Catch My Soul was -- in director McGoohan's words -- "a disaster."  (He never directed a movie again.) 

Here's an excerpt from Vincent Canby's review in the New York Times:

The music, a lot of it written by Tony Joe White, who plays Cassio ("a wino from Baton Rouge, Louisiana") is not at all bad, especially when it's being sung by Mr. White or Richie Havens, who is as creditable an Othello as it's possible to be under the nervy circumstances.  It's the hybrid plot and dialogue that keep one in what is genteelly called stitches. . . .
Says Desdemona in plighting her troth: "Whither thou goest, I will go. Whither thou lodgeth, I will lodge."  . . . You wouldn't be at all surprised if she added: "In whatever car thou renteth, I will be beside thee, on the fronteth seat."
When Desdemona, asks Cassio why Othello no longer favors him, the sodden Cassio pulls himself together just long enough to say: "Ah don' know.  A mess a things.  Ah ain't much of a talker."
"I like not that," says Iago, as Desdemona goes off to whisper into Cassio's ear. Says the distracted Othello: "Wha's dat?" . . .
Susan Tyrrell, who was so good in Fat City, turns up as Emilia, a woman who talks like Mae West and who dresses as if she had access to the wardrobe of the Madwoman of Chaillot.
Forget the movie and get the soundtrack album.
"Polk Salad Annie" has been covered by a number of artists -- unfortunately, Tina Turner was not one of them.  

Elvis Presley regularly performed "Polk Salad Annie" in concert.  Here's a video of one such performance featuring Jerry Scheff's fuzzy bass solo.  (Scheff, whose first achieved success as the bass player on the Association's "Along Comes Mary," was a member of Presley's "Taking Care of Business" band from 1969 until 1977, and also played bass on L.A. Woman, the final Doors album.)

Click here if you'd like to watch a video of Tony Joe singing "Polk Salad Annie" with Johnny Hallyday, also known as "the French Elvis Presley."  (You've never heard of Hallyday, but he has recorded 18 platinum albums and sold 110 million records.)  Why Tony Joe and Johnny were sharing the stage in Memphis in 1984 is a very good question.

And click here if you'd like to hear Dan Aykroyd and Jim (not John) Belushi's version of "Polk Salad Annie."  It's OK, although Aykroyd's faux-Louisiana accent is a bit much.

Here's the original "Polk Salad Annie":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

1 comment:

  1. Good timing! Adam Marsland's Chaos Band covered "Polk Salad Annie" Saturday night. Adam wanted to get into a "swamp rock" groove, and this was plenty swampy. Afterward there was a discussion on whether it was "Polk" or "Poke".