After the Flood
When the music of life turns to noise, there is no better place to run than a deep, black swamp. But the man who goes in is seldom the same man who comes out.
I still don’t trust ’em,” Joe says, pausing to glance down at the newspaper box on the sidewalk outside Susie’s Kitchen. Actually, the Georgia Times-Union headline is good news in an old war, a late-breaking promise from the DuPont corporation not to mine titanium along the east rim of nearby Okefenokee Swamp. Nonetheless, 30 years of watching a region sell its soul to the big chemical corporations and corn-row timber merchants does not engender much trust in a man. And when Joe mutters away the headline and hobbles through the door on his recently replaced knee joints (made of titanium, actually), it is not clear whether the old swamp rat means that he does not trust DuPont specifically, or our species in general.
Besides, old people get like that. And Joe is old now, “older n’ dirt,” he likes to say, leavening the thought with his baritone chuckle as he limps along the buffet line of boiled shrimp, fried catfish, flat beans, corn bread, and iced tea. Joe is wearing his familiar blue jeans, rubber boots, and open denim shirt, but when he is on the road doing school assemblies these days, the kids sometimes have the gall to tell him he doesn’t look like he does on TV, the husky, silver-haired woodsman sitting around a campfire yodeling about frogs, snakes, and ’gators.
“Man, that was 12 years ago,” he says. “Time marches on.”
Yet down here south of Georgia’s great onion fields—where the snowy egret perches on blackened slash piles and the buzzard flies a little lower—everyone knows Joe. Some people still even call him Dick. But to most folks he is just Joe, or Okefenokee Joe, a brilliant bit of marketing alliteration that has made him as familiar to Georgia Public Television viewers as Yanni concerts and half-hysterical funding breaks.
Ten and 12 years ago, he narrated a couple of nationally syndicated documentaries called The Joy of Snakes and Swampwise. Both are among the top 10 most-watched programs in GPTV history. His folksy charm, hokey ballads, and pervasive love of the South’s most unique wilderness area have made him, at 68, a bit of a regional legend. For 20 years he has traveled the South giving lectures on wildlife to schoolchildren and adults alike, using song, storytelling, and his “dynamic visual aids” (giant rattlesnakes) to drive home his message that, in nature, everything has its role.
When he appears at Wal-Mart during Christmastime, the kids don’t want to see Santa Claus. They want to see Okefenokee Joe. And if you tell someone you’re headed down to the “Land of Trembling Earth,” they will often smile, cock their head suspiciously and say, “Yeah, but are you swomp-wiiiiiiise?” mocking Joe’s lovably corny refrain for an understanding of swamp lore that is gained only through decades of living in one.
But fame, however great or small its dimensions, is never more ironic than for the man who wants nothing so much as to hide from the world. And so it was back in 1973 that a tomahawk-jawed Nashville crooner named Dick Flood “woke up” in the Okefenokee Swamp.
In his best days as a country singer/songwriter, he had regularly appeared on The Jimmy Dean Show. He had toured the world playing military bases as Dick Flood and the Pathfinders, and he even had a number-one hit … in India. His acquaintances of the era included Willie Nelson, Chet Atkins, Jerry Reed, and George Jones. He knew June Carter before she married Johnny Cash, and at one time Dottie West played bass in his band.
But he is best remembered, to the extent that he is remembered at all, for penning a song called “Trouble’s Back in Town,” America’s number one country tune of 1962 and the biggest hit its recorders—The Wilburn Brothers—ever had. The lyrics took him 10 minutes to write and eventually got his name on a gold record in the Country Music Hall of Fame.
By the early ’70s, however, Dick Flood had burned out on Music City’s broken promises. “I still have dreams I’m back in Nashville,” he says. “Someone’s going to record us, and it never happens. Or we’re going to a gig and can never get there, and I wake up and want to scream.”
His thick hands tighten on the steering wheel as we drive from his country home outside of Jesup, Ga., toward the swampy wilderness where, at age 41, he washed up on the verge of his second divorce, the father of five, facing a restraining order, eventual bankruptcy from alimony and child support, two days of jail, and another broken heart.
Better hide until she goes,
Uh-oh, Trouble’s back in town.
And hide he did. First in the Everglades, where he spent four months camping and walking the sugarcane fields. There he pondered “what to do about it all” and pursued his lifelong passion for catching snakes, especially gargantuan rattlers. Moving northward, he landed a job as animal curator at Okefenokee Swamp Park, a privately operated, 1,600-acre park within the federally designated wilderness area. After seven or eight months he returned to Nashville to, well, face the music. And after finally settling his affairs, he fled back to the Okefenokee. During the next decade, living 10 miles from his nearest neighbor, he was one of the Okefenokee Swamp’s few, if not its only, human inhabitant.
It’s what he calls swamp music, simple, three-chord ballads of legendary gators, good dogs, bears, eagles, wild boar, snakes, Indians, and swamp spirits.
“I swore that if anything good was ever going to happen to me, it was going to have to come to that swamp, ’cause I wasn’t going looking for it,” he says. He took care of the private park’s deer, bears, raccoons, bobcats, alligators, and snakes. As a lifelong outdoorsman who used to schedule his music gigs in Texas around that state’s annual rattlesnake roundups, he delighted park visitors with lectures on all the swamp’s creatures, great and small.
One day, a park employee began announcing over a loudspeaker that Dick Flood was about to give his wildlife presentation. He confronted the guy, harshly telling him never to call him by that name in public again.
“Well, what in the world should we call you?” he asked.
“I don’t care. Anything but Dick Flood.”
A guy standing at the boat dock said, “Well, how about Okefenokee Joe,” and his second life officially began.
A quarter century later, Joe has come back to that beginning, though reluctantly. His new knees are killing him, and he really needs to get back to his property, where some of his Indian friends are coming to donate free labor to the environmental education center he is building. Besides, he says, the park is too commercial for him now.
Yet, despite the fancy gift shop, the little train ride for kids and the mechanical bears that sing “Achy-Breaky Heart,” one can still sense the proximity of a magnificent wilderness. The park’s blackwater canals teem with many of the swamp’s 600 species of plants, including bonnet lilies, Spanish moss, cypress, and black gum trees. It is still a place where a man could sit and wait for the last car to leave the park at the end of each day, as Joe once did, and seek his salvation in the twilight symphony of bullfrogs, barred owls, southern toads, and crickets.
“The day that man realizes that the ant and the grasshopper are more important than him is the day he learns to cooperate,” Joe says, snagging a bayberry leaf off a nearby bush. He squeezes, holds the aromatic crushings to my nose and recites some of the plant’s many uses by native tribes. “When I came here, I learned that everything around me was busy working,” he says, staring up into the trees. “I was the only one who wasn’t part of the team, who wasn’t needed. That’s what I woke up to in the swamp.”
Joe pauses along the path to size up the park’s amphitheater. He hopes to someday use the venue to film a TV version of his nature program, which is part snake-handling show, part natural history, and part concert on his booming six-string Martin. It’s what he calls swamp music, simple, three-chord ballads of legendary gators, good dogs, bears, eagles, wild boar, snakes, Indians, and swamp spirits.
Staring down into the empty theater with Joe, I ask him, “You don’t sing the lovesick blues anymore?”
No, he says, and walks on.
The fire is glowing at Bear Grass Camp, Joe’s re-created Indian settlement of palm-thatched huts, or chickees, which overlook his private bayou outside of Jesup. Joe’s voice rises like wood smoke as he sings about his dog, Swampy, a sweet dog that reduced a grown man to tears when, one day years ago, he floated up in the black waters behind Joe’s cabin—half-eaten by an alligator.
Swampy the dog,
Skeeter the cat and me.
Chief Vic Vasco, one of the Indians who, years ago, officially adopted Joe as a “brother” in the Muscogee tribe, is throwing a steel tomahawk into a round of heart pine. And the camp is soon expecting Smokey, a flint knapper and expert in the many medicinal plants that Joe is nursing back to life under the property’s false reign of plantation pines. A few more of the Indians, half-Indians and Indian pretenders that Joe calls family are coming tomorrow to help build the camp’s thatched roundhouse, or communal gathering place.
Joe hopes to begin busing groups of school kids into Bear Grass Camp by this fall, but first—Injun’ Joe need money. Plenty money. He would like to sell producers on a regular series where he would highlight Native American culture, wildlife, and nature lore; but so far he has no firm commitments.
Joe says that, at one point, a TV producer told him DuPont was interested in sponsoring him in another television project. “I told [the producer] yeah, I’ll do it … if DuPont will drop their idea of mining for titanium,” Joe says, one day after the world’s largest chemical company has announced it will do just that. “Smartest thing would have been for me to take the job and use it as guilt money to help get my message out.”
Joe never heard back from them.
So we have another cold beer around the fire and listen to the night. At my request, he plays a few lines from “Trouble,” then sets the guitar down and announces that he is tired. “You’re gonna sleep down in the swamp shack, right?” he asks.
This is where Joe goes to write his songs, a single-room shanty overlooking his private swamp full of egrets, wood storks, bullfrogs, owls, yellow-bellied turtles, anhingas (the snake bird), flowering dogwood, cypress, and alligators. Night brings the full moonlit explosion of life, and it is a good place to be alone, if you want to be. If the world will just let you be.
But we keep finding him. Public television. CNN. The Wall Street Journal. Sundry other newspapers. And me.
When NBC filmed Joe here for a segment on Dateline back in 1996, they called the place his “high-tech recording studio” making it look so romantic that he got calls from musicians all over the world wanting to record there. He had to tell them to quit calling but still refers to the board-and-batten shanty as his “high-tech recording studio.” The thought makes him laugh since, in reality, the place is small, musty, and covered in spider webs because, as Joe says, “Everything is welcome here.”
Inside is a small sofa, a wood stove, and an armoire. A microphone leans toward a table heaped with crude recording equipment for laying down demo tracks. Mementos from two lives, a few yellowed photos, and a dusty dream catcher adorn the chipboard walls.
In the early ’90s, this is where Joe wrote the songs for his first album as Okefenokee Joe, calling it, My Life in the Okefenokee. When he was done, he closed up the swamp shack and, for the first time in 20 years, went back to Nashville to record his songs. He also wanted to visit his record in the Country Music Hall of Fame and show his third wife (currently of 22 years), where he had once scratched his name in the back wall of the famed Ryman Auditorium. It was still there.
Driving into town, they tuned into Nashville’s WSM-AM, the voice of the Grand Ole Opry, where Joe had often performed.
Suddenly, crackling back to life on the radio, he heard an ancient refrain:
Coming hack to torture me.
Uh-oh, Trouble’s back in town.
Okefenokee Joe still laughs at the fact that people would even remember Dick Flood, much less play the song he wrote. He has a hard time remembering much from those days, or perhaps wanting to. And hell, he says, he wasn’t even the one who made the tune famous, which, in the end, is probably just another of nature’s lessons in a world where everyone has his role. Where the swamp does not care if it steals your heart, the ’gator does not care if it eats your best dog, and the hit song does not care who sings it. ✦