When I was very young and my dad was on the road with his job, sometimes my mother would pack a small suitcase and her and I would walk down and catch the bus headed out of town. I’d be excited at first, but then time would slow down for me as the bus tediously moved through the countryside with occasional stops at rural crossroads, until finally it would hiss to a stop and leave us at one of those isolated spots. (Years later, when I saw Cary Grant at the side of the dusty highway in North By Northwest, I had flashbacks, although I don’t remember any crop-dusters chasing us!)
If our timing was right, my granddad – who looked nothing like Cary Grant – would be waiting in his old Chevy coupe, and we’d climb aboard and ride to their house, where we’d stay until reversing the whole process a few days later.
It was during one of those visits with my grandparents that I remember first having wild greens…as in my grandma saying, “I think I’m gonna go pick us a mess of greens for supper”. (I think “mess of greens” might qualify as one of those collective nouns; you know, like “gaggle of geese”?) I hated greens, not just because calling them a “mess” made them sound unappetizing — although it did — but because I just didn’t like the slimy, sour stuff. But finding, picking, cooking and eating wild greens was — and still is — a long-standing tradition in many parts of rural America, and add an important supplement to the diet of many families.
There are a lot of different leafy plants that are eaten as greens, and in the South one of the most popular is something called Pokeweed, or Polk Salad, Poke Salad, Po’k Salad, Poke Salet, or even Pork Salad, a name that might have been used because leftover pork drippings are sometimes added for flavor.
Most songwriters write about what’s familiar to them, so maybe it’s not surprising that the humble Pokeweed would serve as inspiration for a talented and husky-voiced young man named Tony Joe White, who came out of Louisiana around forty years ago with his crossover hit, “Polk Salad Annie”.
The “Swamp Fox” (as he’s sometimes known) has always been difficult to pigeonhole. Southern blues? Country? Swamp rock? As a songwriter, he’s been recorded by Elvis Presley, Tina Turner, George Jones, Ray Charles, Waylon Jennings and many other stars, which gives you an idea of how tough it is to classify his music.
He’s always been popular in other parts of the world too and his first minor hit, “Soul Francisco”, became successful in Europe before it did in the US. His biggest hit, though – the one about Annie – was actually kind of a dud at first. It took some hard work and promotion, but eventually it took off and became his signature tune.