I love eclectic musicians, and Swamp Dogg (the persona adopted by singer/songwriter/producer Jerry Williams, Jr. in the early ) is extreme even by my standards. This is a man who can pull off some of the most incisive social commentary I’ve heard (e.g. “I’ve Never Been to Africa”) and also songs that are just silly (e.g. “Santa’s Just A Happy Fat Fart” from his An Awful Christmas and a Lousy New Year record) or smutty (just scan his song titles, I’ll spare you an example).

As such when I went to listen to his new bluegrass album Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street (2024), I’m embarrassed to admit that I thought it might be cornball and/or a hastily-assembled bandwagon-jump in the wake of Beyoncé’s new record. Embarrassed in the sense that, quite the contrary, it’s an utterly brilliant record – he’s 81 now and I think this is the last time I’ll doubt him.  

Most folks I know are unaware of his legacy, and it’s difficult to explain it in part because the comparisons to other artists are inherently imperfect. Eclectic like Stevie Wonder. Snarling in his witty social commentary like Frank Zappa. Able to vacillate between the deep and the absurd like John Prine (with whom he collaborated and whose “Sam Stone” he definitively covered). So the best I can do is encourage you to take my word for it and check out some of this music – if you dig it, his first few albums (starting with #3 below) are particularly rewarding, and if you dig the diverse eccentricity, then you pretty much can’t go wrong.    

1 ) “Don’t You Feel” (single, also available on Little Jerry Williams Anthology) by Little Jerry (1962)

I was tempted to take it ALL the way back to the boogie-infused “HTD Blues” that he recorded as a pre-teen in 1954, but instead landed on this one to represent the pre-Dogg era. The B-side of the single “There Ain’t Enough Love,” this catchy one is a great example of his knack for the pre-Beatles R&B/pop music akin to the Brill Building, early Motown, and so on.   

2 ) “You Are the Circus” (single, available on compilation Cotilion Soul Singles: 1968-1970) by C and the Shells (1969)

I was a little ambivalent about including a track where he doesn’t perform, but I love this one so much – usually when I spin it, I have to hit repeat multiple times. My personal favorite of Jerry Williams’s writing and production credits from this era, this is an epic production of a clever and catchy song, elevating the obscure C and the Shells to (heresy alert) a level equal to the Supremes.  

3 ) “I Was Born Blue” from Total Destruction to Your Mind (1970)

This album is the first under the Swamp Dogg moniker and it is a stone classic. I was tempted to go with the ahead-of-its-time psychedelic funk of the title track or the mournful dystopian innocence of “The World Beyond,” but landed instead on this soul ballad, which I first heard in Etta James’s live cover version. It is emotional, catchy, and clever, which belies the depth and pathos of its tale of racial inequality.

4 ) “Do You Believe?” from Rat On! (1971)

We had to get SOME early-70s funk in there, however, and this thought-provoking and booty-shaking tune provides us with that, thus edging out some of my other favorites on the record, including “God Bless America for What” and his cover of the early Bee Gees song “Got to Get A Message to You.” I read somewhere that the cover of this album is known for being among the worst ever – decide for yourself, but I couldn’t disagree more.  

5 ) “Mighty Mighty Dollar Bill” from Gag A Maggot (1973)

Before reggae and other island sounds became de rigueur in American pop and soul music (around the same time as the US release of the Wailers’ Burnin’ album, for a little context), Swamp Dogg laid down this irresistible groove as the basis for a particularly incisive screed on greed and capitalism.   

6 ) “God Ain’t Blessing America” from Have You Heard This Story? (1974)

If your kids are around and you’re trying to protect them from potty-mouth, maybe cover their ears. Otherwise, enjoy yet another example of an undeniable groove underlying a scathing social critique.

7 ) “Sexy Sexy Sexy #3” from I’m Not Selling Out / I’m Buying In! (1981)

It was a coin toss between this and “Party Tonite” from his prior album. Either way, it’s worth acknowledging that while my choices from Swamp Dogg’s initial glory years focus on his activism-oriented songs, he’s plenty capable of laying down catchy party music where the intellect and social conscience can take a break for a few minutes.

8 ) “Y-V-O-n-n-E” from The Re-Invention of Swamp Dogg (2000)

I’ll admit that it surprised me, after years of listening to Swamp Dogg songs about sex and infidelity, to learn that behind the scenes, Jerry Williams, Jr. was happily married. This grooving tune from the turn of the millennium is so wholesome and endearing that it further underscores his unpredictability.

9 ) “I’ll Pretend” from Love, Loss, and Auto-Tune (2018)

Sadly, Williams’s wife Yvonne died a few years after the previous song in her honor. Fast forward fifteen years and when I heard that he was putting out an album full of autotuned vocals I just figured it was another quirky experiment. And it is that, but the ongoing grief shines through the technological layers, especially on this dark lament.  

10 ) “Your Best Friend” from Blackgrass: From West Virginia to 125th Street (2024)

This is just one of the new classics filling the aforementioned bluegrass album. He remains in fine voice (maybe even more soulful than ever) and the rollicking instrumentals on this track feature another genre-defying Jerry, in this case Jerry Douglass tearing it up on the dobro.  


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