The Swampy Funk of Slim Harpo
"Scratch My Back" is a low-down classic that John Fogerty surely loved.
When you write about artists from the ‘50’s and 60’s, some may assume you don’t like what’s going on now. I don’t know if I do or don’t, as I listen to so little current pop. The revolution that occurred mid century is still what interests me. It’s a deep well of great, weird and wonderful music. So I have to go with what I know. That has to be better than an out-of-touch take on something not really aimed at me anyway. And maybe writing about it might make it interesting to some who weren’t there.
Over the years, the expanded role of producers and engineers has completely changed music. The emphasis on dance and other kinds videogenic content for multiple screens has lowered our tolerance for flawed but beautiful performances. Moments of quirkiness and spontaneity are few and far between in an environment that obsessively corrects wobbly pitch and moves stray beats to a rigid grid of perfection. Who can you trust? To write about artists like Slim Harpo is to understand the growing irrelevance of performance in the studio.
There was this song, “Scratch My Back,” a loopy hybrid of instrumental and monologue he was famous for. It went to #16 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. It may as well have been from 1865, though, it’s that far removed from current trends. It might mark the last time something like this, the musical equivalent of folk art, would climb so high in the charts. The video here is a nice piece of nonsense, clips from old movies of various rubber- legged dancers and a couple barnyard animals trying to get at their itch.
Slim Harpo was born poor in Louisianna, the swampy part. He spearheaded something we now call Swamp Blues or Swamp Rock. His songs caught on big time over in England: they were rerecorded in the 60’s by The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Yardbirds and Pink Floyd. The Moody Blues took their name from one of his songs before they moved toward the semi-classical direction. The great band Creedence Clearwater Revival would have been something completely different without his influence. Slim had to have been a huge influence on John Fogerty, who grew up in the Bay area. He sounded like a nasally midwestern weatherman when he spoke, but when he sang you couldn’t picture Fogerty anywhere but in a Louisianna swamp. Big wheel keep on boinin’!
All of this good fortune and growing fame came later in Slim’s career. He kept his trucking business as insurance until the royalties started rolling in. Sadly, he didn’t get to enjoy his elevated status for long — he died suddenly in 1970 of a heart attack. He was only 45 years old. This lyric, delivered in a laconic, unhurried drawl, is as cool as it gets:
Aw, I’m itchy
And I don’t know where to scratch
Come here baby
Scratch my back
I know you can do it
So baby, get to it
Aw, you’re workin with it now
You got me feelin’ so good
Little bit to the center now, baby
This little girl sho’ knows how to scratch
Now, you’re doin’ the chicken-scratch
Aw, it’s lookin’ good, baby
Just gettin’ scratchy
That’s what I’m talkin’ about
Slim’s real name was Isaac James Moore. It’s important to note that his wife, Lovelle Moore, wrote many of his songs with him. Although he gave her credit, in typical 60’s fashion her name was left off the credits. There are may schools of lyric writing, but I know for sure this one didn’t go to the nice private school “Send In The Clowns” did. Of course we need both low and high-brow culture, but I’d much rather be in a sweaty shack on a Saturday night, dancing to this, than nodding my head politely at perfectly crafted masterworks of irony like Mr. Sondheim’s. There is a naughty double entendre hidden not all that well in this song. And Slim’s delivery lets you know he knew. But even if was simply about getting your back scratched — and who says it isn’t? — it does the job.
The music is sloppy and less concerned with technique than feeling. That’s a plus. This song is pre-rock criticism, that suspicious branch of literature that allows writers to ask penetrating questions about what book your favorite artist is reading or who your favorite director is. When these kind of interviews succeed, the back story flips and becomes the front story. I prefer stand-alone songs, ones that tell you what you’re listening to without a study guide.
Interviews with Slim Harpo are hard to come by, as are videos. What lives on is his music — the masterful harmonica playing, his sweet lopsided take on the blues and all the testimonials from his family, friends and band about his hard work, honesty and general niceness. So the man with two nicknames, an important architect of modern music, fades further into the mists around Baton Rouge. But the echoes remain and we should listen. Things weren’t always perfect and sometimes that makes them wonderful.