So, along with the multiple Elton John & BTO albums, as well as Band on the Run and Toys in the Attic, Jim Stafford’s 1974 self-titled debut album was one of the first albums I ever bought.
I’m not sure why, but it was probably because he’d had a string of hit singles on KYNO — “Swamp Witch,”Spiders & Snakes,” “My Girl Bill” and “Wildwood Weed” — going back to summer of 1973, and I figured I could get all of them on the same disc.
As it turns out, Jim Stafford was a sly little album full of smartly silly novelty tunes. You probably remember the aforementioned singles, but those were supplemented by songs that lived up (or down, as the case may be) to titles like New Orleans rag of “I Ain’t Sharin’ Sharon” and the slow blues “16 Little Red Noses and a Horse That Sweats,” which actually featured a banjo as a lead instrument. To 11-year-old Jim, hearing a slow blues picked on a banjo felt like a clever inversion of what a banjo was for.
Anyways, all all these years later, the song that stands out to me is “Swamp Witch,” which — courtesy of an atomspheric wah-wah and a swirling pedal steel guitar — felt both swampy and witchy enough to mask the fact that it didn’t really have a chorus.
What it did have, however, was a mythological tale of the uneasy relationship between a town and its local witch. (Which I assumed that every town near the bayou had.)
Black water Hattie lived back in the swamp
Where the strange green reptiles crawl
Snakes hang thick from the cypress trees
Like sausage on a smokehouse wall
Where the swamp is alive with a thousand eyes
An’ all of them watching you
Stay off the track to Hattie’s shack
In the back of the Black Bayou
But in lieu of a chorus, “Swamp Witch” had a kickass line full of internal rhyme — “track,” “Hat-ties” “shack” “back,” “black” — at the end of nearly every verse.
So after establishing the atmosphere of an uneasy truce, Stafford then says that everybody in the town caught some kind of mosquito-borne disease, and with everybody dying, they first turned to what they thought was the likely suspect.
Some say the plague was brought by Hattie
There was talk of a hangin’ too
But the talk got shackled by the howls and the cackles
From the bowels of the Black Bayou
Once again, I love the internal rhymes: “shackled,” “howls,” “cackled,” “bowels” “Black.” This is fucking stellar songwriting, folks.
Anyways, instead of them killing her, Hattie delivered a cure to the center of town, where they “found a big black round vat full of gurgling brew,” and after their recovery from the plague, they all got woke about how they’d treated Hattie, and decided to send a thank you committee to fetch her back to town. But of course, Hattie was having none of that.
Never found Hattie and they never found the shack
Never made the trip back in
There was a parchment note they found tacked to a stump
Said “don’t come lookin’ again”
And with that, the mists rise and the whole swamp is obscured in the haze as the song fades not so much out, but away.
After this album, Jim Stafford never really had the same kind of success in the pop charts, though — like a lot of other hit-makers, he did end up hosting his own variety show, which given that it ran for a few weeks in the summer of 1975, I’m pretty sure I watched.
Fan-made video for “Swamp Witch”
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