“Polk Salad Annie” is a 1968 song written and performed by Tony Joe White. It was recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Its lyrics describe the lifestyle of a poor rural Southern girl and her family. Traditionally, the term to describe the type of food highlighted in the song is polk or poke sallet, a cooked greens dish made from pokeweed. Its 1969 single release peaked at Number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. In Canada, the song made #10 on the RPM Magazine Hot Singles chart. Elvis Presley also made the song very popular as well.
The song vividly recreates the Southern roots of White’s childhood and his music reflects this earthy rural background. As a child he listened not only to local bluesmen and country singers but also to the Cajun music of Louisiana, that rare hybrid of traditional musical styles introduced by French settlers at the turn of the century.
His roots lie in the swamplands of Oak Grove, Louisiana, where he was born in 1943. Situated just west of the Mississippi River, it’s a land of cottonfields, where pokeweed, or “polk” grows wild, and alligators lurk in moss-covered swamps. “I spent the first 18 years of my life down there,” said White. “My folks raised cotton and corn. There were lotsa times when there weren’t too much to eat, and I ain’t ashamed to admit that we’ve often whipped up a mess of polk sallet. Tastes alright too.. a bit like spinach.”
Sallet is an old English word that means “cooked greens,” not to be mistaken for “salad”; in fact, a great many cases of pokeweed poisoning result from this linguistic mistake. While it may be that record companies labeled the song “salad,” the dish in question was a “sallet” made of pokeweed.
In a January 17, 2014 interview with music journalist Ray Shasho, Tony Joe White explained the thought process behind the writing of “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.”
I heard “Ode to Billie Joe” on the radio and I thought, man, how real, because I am Billie Joe, I know that life. I’ve been in the cotton fields. So I thought if I ever tried to write, I’m going to write about something I know about. At that time I was doing a lot of Elvis and John Lee Hooker onstage with my drummer. No original songs and I hadn’t really thought about it. But after I heard Bobbie Gentry I sat down and thought … well I know about polk because I had ate a bunch of it and I knew about rainy nights because I spent a lot of rainy nights in Marietta, Georgia. So I was real lucky with my first tries to write something that was not only real and hit pretty close to the bone, but lasted that long. So it was kind of a guide for me then on through life to always try to write what I know about.[This quote needs a citation]
The single, released in 1969 by Monument Records had been out nine months before it finally charted, and had been written off by Monument as a failure. Said White: “They had done given up on it, but we kept getting all these people in Texas coming to the clubs and buying the record. So we would send up to Nashville saying, ‘Send us a thousand more this week.’ They would send us these ‘Do Not Sell’ examples, so we would have to sit down and mark out the ‘Do Not Sell’ and then send them to the record stores. All these stores in South Texas kept calling our house saying, ‘We need more.’ So we just kept hanging on. And finally a guy in L.A. picked it up and got it across. Otherwise, ‘Polk’ could have been lost forever.”[better source needed]
Elvis Presley picked up the song, and it became a staple of his live performances of the early 1970s.[better source needed] He recorded it, and it became the only version of “Polk Salad Annie” to chart in the UK and Ireland.