To conclude this series I bring you yet another cover, this one by the little known Swamp Dogg, doing a soulful rendition of phenomenal songwriter John Prine’s signature tune about a man who’s “popped his last balloon,”—“Sam Stone (a.k.a. The Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues)”
Prine was born October 10, 1946, to Bill and Verna Prine, who had left rural western Kentucky for Maywood, Illinois, a working-class suburb of Chicago. Prine had been stationed in Germany while serving with the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War and afterwards held a job with the U.S. Postal Service. Through his live performances Prine began to be a figure in the Folk Revival scene of Chicago and befriended Kris Kristofferson who helped him secure a recording contract with Atlantic Records (Powers, 2009).
John Prine’s eponymous debut album—on which today’s song first appeared—was released in 1971. The album was received as a critical success and Prine became one of those recording artists cursed with the label of being a “new Dylan.” Years later, he went on to win two Folk Album of the Year Grammies for 1991’s The Missing Years and 2005’s Fair and Square. However, to get a real good sense of what a great storyteller he is, I recommend 1988’s John Prine Live.
So today we have Swamp Dogg taking on one of those great stories, that of the American soldier returning home much worse off than when he left. In the spring of 1971, two members of Congress released a report alleging that 15 percent of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam were addicted to heroin, and by 1973 it was stated that 34 percent of American soldiers in Vietnam had commonly used heroin (Brush, 2002). Prine’s “Sam Stone” personalizes these percentages and presents them with his clever lyrics and a catchy melody. Artists such as Johnny Cash, Al Kooper, and Evan Dando of The Lemonheads have covered the song. However, most memorably, the 1997 masterpiece Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space by Spiritualized closes with the epic song “Cop Shoot Cop…” which references “Sam Stone” repeatedly with the lines “There’s a hole in my arm where all the money goes/Jesus Christ died for nothing, I suppose.”
Swamp Dogg (Jerry Williams, Jr.) released his version on his third album, 1972’s Cuffed, Collared & Tagged, and makes the most of his soulful moan to convey the song’s pathos. Swamp Dogg, working as a producer and engineer for a few years, first began to display his idiosyncratic take on soul and rock music with 1970’s brilliantly nuts Total Destruction to Your Mind
and followed that up with ’71’s Rat On!
Quite a talented yet oddball character, I highly recommend seeking these records out. While you’re at it, I’d look for the 1969 album Swamp Dogg produced and arranged for Tyrone Thomas, which came out under the moniker of Wolfmoon.
Coming out on Al Bennett’s L.A. based Cream label, 1972’s Cuffed, Collared & Tagged was self-produced at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Alabama, and features some prominent area studio musicians tackling originals like his tribute to Sly Stone, “If It Hadn’t Been for Sly,” as well as soul-flavored covers like his rendition of The Beatles’ “Lady Madonna.”
Well, here it is, the conclusion to my Narcotic Wreck Quintet: Sam Stone
Like it? Buy it.
Brush, P. (2002). HIGHER AND HIGHER: AMERICAN DRUG USE IN VIETNAM. Vietnam Magazine, Vol.15, No. 4. Retrieved February 19, 2012 from http://www.library.vanderbilt.edu/central/Brush/American-drug-use-vietnam.htm
Powers, L. A. (2009). Prine, John. Musicians & Composers of the 20th Century. Cramer, A. W. (Ed.). Vol. 4. p1145-1147. Pasadena, CA: Salem Press. Retrieved February 19, 2012 from Gale Virtual Reference Library
Prine, J. (1971). Sam Stone [recorded by Swamp Dogg] On Cuffed, Collared & Tagged [CD] Cream. (1972)