The Swamp Tigers are a Southern Illinois music scene mainstay.
Their toe-tapping brand of old-time rock ‘n’ roll became the soundtrack to so many of my fond memories here, after I became intimately familiar with their set when my search for a good swing-dancing rhythm brought me to their shows weekend after weekend.
After a final show on Dec. 9 at Cobden's Old Feed Store, the rockabilly three-piece will take its final bow. (They're also playing Nov. 18 at The Varsity Center.)
Swing dancing saved me my first fall in Carbondale.
I moved here in 2011 alone, lived in an apartment alone, and struggled to find my place in a town where everyone seemed to know everyone. I haunted bars alone at happy hour, and spent evenings strumming my ukulele in my empty apartment or talking on the phone to friends back home.
But then a man asked me to dance. I was sitting alone, listening to some local Americana band pluck away on a Friday night while the people who had taken me out did their socializing with people who were more familiar to them than I was.
He asked me if I could swing dance, and, when I said yes, he led me to the front of the stage. We were pretty decent, that first time.
We signed up for swing dancing lessons not long after that first happenstance dance. We met in the basement of the Rec once a week and learned how to swing properly. And we forged a friendship.
On the weekends, eager to practice and show off our new skills, we hunted for the perfect accompaniment to our turns and dips. We ended up at a lot of Swamp Tigers shows. Pretty soon, anytime they performed in Carbondale, we made an appearance, even if just for one quick turn on the dance floor before moving on to our next planned activity.
That dance partner moved away, and another dear friend took his place.
Once a week, we’d scoot the coffee table to one side of my living room, and I’d turn on a Swamp Tigers song, and we’d practice the basic East Coast step. One of their recordings in particular was the perfect song for a beginner. “Step, step, rock-step. Step, step, rock-step,” I’d repeat over and over in my friend’s ear, while that Swamp Tigers song wailed away on repeat. Of course, when he graduated to behind-the-back passes, we started showing up at Swamp Tigers shows, waiting for the fast songs to show off our breakneck, somewhat sloppy brand of self-taught swing.
That dance partner moved away, too.
Last fall, I was trying to befriend a woman who’d just moved here from Champaign. So I took her to a Swamp Tigers show — it was last year’s Carbondale Rocks Revival, and we stood in the mud, sipping beer from plastic cups, searching for ice breakers as the band played on. She’s not much of a swing dancer, but still, she and I frequented their shows over this past year. We joked that the moment she bought a Swamp Tigers T-shirt, she officially became a Carbondale local.
And, a couple of months ago, though I didn’t know it at the time, I treated myself and all my friends and family to a fantastic farewell Swamp Tigers show when I booked them to play my wedding. I knew their Oldies-inspired set would please my new mother-in-law. And I knew their oh-so-danceable covers and originals would get my dancing friends out of their seats. All my former dance partners were there, and saved a dance for me. Even my husband, who would rather saw off his own leg than swing dance, swayed with me to one slow song.
We wanted our friends and family who weren’t from here to know why we had chosen to build a life here in Southern Illinois, and what better soundtrack to that than the Swamp Tigers?
They have been such a mainstay here because their sound is just pleasing to so many — they play songs we all know, songs we can't help but dance to — and not too loud — and they’re polished, professional; they seem comfortable together after years of regular gigs.
They were the beat to my dance practice, the soundtrack to many nights of fun and friendship-building.
Dance partners move away, bands break up. Still, the music and the memories echo inside us.