American Routes Shortcuts: Johnnie Allan
Each Week, American Routes bring you Shortcuts, a sneak peak at our upcoming show. Johnnie Allan is a Swamp Pop legend, born John Allen Guillot, a sharecropper’s son. His mother and grandfather were musicians who played with family member Joe Falcon, on the first Cajun record in 1928. At 13, Johnnie Allan formed a Cajun Band. Later, he joined accordionist Lawrence Walker’s band on steel guitar.
JA: I jumped on the steel guitar and I played until 1956, or early 1957, and by that time of course, rock and roll music was sweeping the bayous of south Louisiana and I just got very interested in it.
NS: I wondered if you’d say something about this word Swamp Pop, because you know, Cajuns don’t all live in the Swamp, not everybody who lives in the swamp’s a Cajun, but we still call it Swamp Pop music, why is that?
JA: Well Nick, originally it was just known, basically, South Louisiana Music, that was the term that was used. Then in the early 1970s, John Broven and Bill Miller, two friends of mine from London, uh Bill Miller, I think, was the one who really came up with the term. He found that the term South Louisiana Music was just too broad so he shortened it down and just called it Swamp Pop, and the term stuck. And when John Broven wrote his book, South Louisiana: The Music of the Cajun Bayous, he used that term in there. So basically we have these two British guys to thank for this. They gave us a name and of course now it’s known worldwide.
NS: You had quite a hit on your version of South to Louisiana, which was itself kind of a take off on North to Alaska with that deep bass voice, but your version has got kind of a little bit of that Cajun high-pitched run at the end of the line. It’s such a distinctive song.
JA: Well I can’t sing like Johnny Horton that’s for sure. Actually, I’m glad that PeeWee Trahan, who wrote the song introduced me to the song because it’s become a standard here in South Louisiana Music, Swamp Pop music.
NS: This is American Routes, I’m Nick Spitzer, and we’re talking to the great Cajun man of songs and voice and documentarian, historian, many things Johnny Allan. And while we’re on the subject of the songs that are sort of about an anthem, this is a song that goes in sort of another direction for you, Chuck Berry’s Promised Land.
JA: Promised Land, I must say, Nick, that actually when we were in the studio, Harry Simoneaux who was my lead sax player and friend, he says, “you know, I’m kind of tired of taking sax rides,” we were cutting a new album that night. He says, why don’t you put a different ride in there? And then I think Floyd Soileau he says, “well I can get Belton Richard in here to put an accordion ride.” And thank goodness those two put their heads together because I really think that was a selling point, the accordion ride on there.
JA: There is one little story, Charlie Gillett and one of his friends, they were over here from London, he was a promoter and of course a radio personality and author. Charlie would go worldwide and collect music. And they were here in this country looking for something new, you know, you like for unexplored territory. They came to Louisiana, they didn’t find anything they were really looking for.
They were on their way back to New Orleans to the airport, and they had time to kill and they decided to stop at a little lounge, bar. They stopped and then they were having a beer. And somebody went to the jukebox and punched Promised Land and Charlie said, “This is the song we were looking for!” So to this day, Nick, I don’t know who put the quarter in the jukebox, but if I ever find out I want to thank them and thank them and thank them, and give them their quarter back.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturday at 6 or Sunday at 6 on WWNO, or listen at Americanroutes.org