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GOLDMINE

JOHN FOGERTY

by Craig Werner

Originally published in GOLDMINE #443, July 18, 1997
Webpublished here by author's permission


Part VII & Final

 

Blue Moon Swamp takes the new John Fogerty back to the mythic American South the old John Fogerty helped define, the South where the music resonates with truths that the history books hide. Like Cosmo’s Factory, Blue Moon Swamp maps the corners of the landscape Fogerty’s explored and gives you an idea of where he may want to go. The two songs that open the CD -"Southern Streamline" and "Hot Rod Heart"- establish movement as the image that holds the album together. There's no question that the sounds on the album evoke a rural past: the country pedal steel guitar on "Southern Streamline"; the gospel harmonies on "A Hundred and Ten in the Shade"; the honky-tonk twang of "Bring It Down to Jellyroll"; and the hayride rockabilly on "Blue Moon Nights," which sounds like a song recovered from Elvis’s Sun Sessions.

Some of Fogerty’s new lyrics contain images that resonate in ways that recall "Bad Moon Rising" or "Who’ll Stop the Rain."; "Walking in a Hurricane," for example, could be about Bill Clinton’s America as well as a volatile love affair; "A Hundred An Ten in the Shade" ain’t just about the thermometer. But the spiritual center of Blue Moon Swamp lies in a sense of the past that walks the borderline between myth and nostalgia. Nowhere is it clearer than on "Swamp River Days," where Fogerty revisits both his childhood and the early days of CCR's career. He traces the song to his family's summer vacation in Northern California, remembering "a blazing-hot summer romance with Susie when we were both four years old." But when Fogerty sings "Sweet Susie, do you think about me/ that was good as it’s ever gonna be/ give me those swamp river days again." he’s obviously thinking about Creedence’s breakthrough single, which came out back when people still thought music was going to change the world. Fogerty admits, "It’s a mythic state of mind."

Fogerty’s Southern pilgrimages flooded him with new thoughts on the tangled web of history, myth and his own complicated life. He describes leaving Memphis in explicit mythic terms: "Lula and Robinsonville are just a little South of Memphis. They're the first true Delta towns and it’s strong with Robert Johnson and Charlie Patton, their presence and history and lore. It’s like learning about Canaan or learning about Galilee. Just the names, you go, ‘yeah and then he went down to Lula."

An important moment in Fogerty’s quest took place at Robert Johnson’s grave.Meditating on Johnson's troubled life and history, Fogerty experienced an epiphany that helped him come to terms with some of his anger towards those he felt had betrayed him. As he told Dave DiMartino, Fogerty realized that "There’s this guy buried there and maybe some guy named Morris Stealum of Cheatem, Beatem & Whatever owns his songs in some building in Manhattan. (But) it’s Robert Johnson who owns those songs: he’s the spiritual owner of those songs. Muddy Waters owns his songs; Howlin’ Wolf owns his songs. And someday somebody is gonna be standing where I’m buried, and they won’t know about Saul Zaentz -screw him. What they'll know is if they thought the life’s work was valuable or not. Standing among all those giants, I went, ‘That’s the deal here. It’s time to jump back into your own stream.’"

No question about it: Blue Moon Swamp flows out of the same headwaters as Fogerty’s earlier work. But it also raises a new set of questions, intertwined with his own thoughts about American music and the American South.As Marsh points out, despite Fogerty’s determination to avoid preaching, Blue Moon Swamp presents a "sermon on pastoralism and authenticity." Fogerty realizes that whatever authenticity means, it's under constant pressure from a changing present.

"I haven’t been back in a few years," he says, but a friend was telling me about what Lula’s like today. Mississippi legalized gambling and they set it up right there on the river, just south of Memphis. So you fly in and boom! It’s like Atlantic City. I got there just in time because if that’s what I’d seen it would have all been different. So for some reason I was called and allowed to be there before all that hit."

The changes in the South go deeper, Fogerty observes, touching the musical traditions that fathered the creative spirit.

"Young black kids today, even down South, like the music of their day, of their time. They like rap because that’s what's going on in black music. R&B is sort of an old-fashioned music, blues is a relic. So what could be weirder to a young kid than to see some white guy playing blues. That's gotta be like the weirdest thing. ‘Oh, so you stealin’ my Granddaddy’s music here at the mall.’ It’s a real strange concept." Fogerty pauses and says slowly, "It's almost beyond being black or white anymore. It's really more a vintage thing."

That’s just one of the questions that makes the album Blue Moon Swamp’s engagements with the Southern myth more suggestive than definitive. The other one concerns power. Fogerty is fully aware that the the burden of Southern history remains very real in the lives of black Mississippians.

"It's a different place, he observes "You see many more black people in Mississippi than most places I've been. They're the majority, but they’re not in control of the power."

Reflecting on an often-noted and little understood aspect of American racial experience, Fogerty identifies the seeming contradiction between political context and personal experience in the South.

"But in Mississippi, I always felt I could walk safely anywhere I wanted to. Now maybe if I went down around over the levee where no one could see, maybe that would be a bad place to go in the middle of the night. But as far as walking into an all-black club, people always treated me with great respect as a stranger, trying to make me welcome."

Almost immediately, Fogerty balances that perception with the observation that there were some places he chose not to go.

"There are juke joints out away with names like Mad Dog Disco. Their aspirations are to something grand, but it’s painted in hand-writing. It’s all dripping and funky. One of them had a picture of Michael Jackson hand painted. So the picture in the patron’s mind would be something grand, but you’re looking at this thing in stark fluorescent light going ‘Oh, that’s god-awful looking.’" Fogerty pauses. "I thought I’d better not go in there and disrupt what was going on."

Fogerty’s meditations on his Mississippi experiences belong to an unending song -part celebration, part lament- about what authenticity means in an America where a California boy can make a South of his own. Like the songs sung by Elvis and Muddy Waters when they set out on their different roads towards the same place -and you can add Mahalia Jackson and Buddy Holly, Bruce Springsteen and Sam Cooke to the list of travelers- the song Fogerty is singing reverberates with unanswered questions: About who we are ,where we can walk, and the sound of our voices, together and alone.

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