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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 V

 

By the start of the summer of 1969, no one could question Credence’s right to share any stage at any rock ‘n’ roll show in the U.S. The turning point was "Proud Mary" (#2) the first of nine consecutive top ten singles over the next three years, one of the most consistent creative outputs in American music history. "Bad Moon Rising," "Green River," "Travelin’ Band," "Up Around the Bend," and "Lookin’ Out My Back Door" also rose to #2. "Down on the Corner" peaked at #3, "Up Around the Bend" at #4, "Sweet Hitch-Hiker" at #6, and "Have You Ever Seen the Rain" at #8. When you look over the list of Credence hits, what’s striking is the absence of all of the explicitly anti-war songs. "Fortunate Son" did rise to #14 but DJs flipped the record and made "Down on the Corner" the top side. Neither "Run Through the Jungle" nor "Who’ll Stop the Rain" charted on its own. It’s a mark of Fantasy’ limited experience with marketing pop material that no CCR song ever reached #1.

 

Riding the wave of their success, CCR began to appear regularly at the festivals that had featured rockers from Britain and the United States, often alongside some of the blues artists who influenced their sound. At the Denver Pop Festival, for example, Creedence appeared alongside Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, and Big Mama Thorntorn. At the Newport '69 Pop Festival in Northridge, California, they played with Hendrix, Jethro Tull and the Byrds. At the Atlanta Pop Festival the line-up included Joe Cocker, Canned Heat, Johnny Winter and Led Zeppelin. Capping the hectic summer, Creedence was one of the star attractions at Woodstock, although they refused to allow their performance to be incorporated into either the follow-up movie or its soundtrack album.

The surge in CCR’s popularity resulted from Fogerty's success in pinning down the swamp rock sound on their second album, Bayou Country (#7). The first album crediting Fogerty as producer, Bayou Country opens with the feedback from Fogerty's guitar which gradually yields to the signature "Born on the Bayou" riff that made the song a perfect opener for most of the band's live sets; even a quarter century after Creedence broke up, "Born on the Bayou" maintains all of its power as Fogerty demonstrated at the House of Blues.

Bayou Country includes garage rock standards "Good Golly Miss Molly," which Fogerty would rework into "Travelin' Band" a year later, and his own composition "Keep On Chooglin'," a boogie classic that Creedence frequently used to close its live shows. But the core of the album consists of the Southern-sounding cuts that provide an ideal setting for "Proud Mary." You can still hear echoes of the first album’s blues rock in "Graveyard Train" and "Penthouse Pauper," but it’s blues rock Fogerty dreamed up out of the mythic Louisiana he'd found in his Southern musical ancestors.

Like "Born on the Bayou," "Bootleg" could have been recorded by no one else. As he does on "Proud Mary," Fogerty locates the accent that allowed him to cross over the Mason-Dixon line without providing proof of identity There are some specific elements of the accent that place Fogerty in Louisiana, close to New Orleans rather than, say, Memphis or Charleston. It's in the way he puts the Brooklyn twist on the vowels in the line "woiking for the man every night and day," the way he reduces the word "bootleg" to the near-Cajun "boo-ley." No one ever really talked that way, but no one who came under Fogerty’s spell was likely to notice, or mind.

After Bayou Country and "Proud Mary," swamp rock remained a constant part of the musical soundtrack that carried the Sixties into the Seventies. The place was grueling. While the band continued to Tour, Fantasy released four CCR singles in 1969 and three more in 1970. By the time "Someday Never Comes" (#25) brought the band’s run of Top Ten singles to an end in 1972, Fogerty was showing signs of creative burnout. There would be one more Creedence single, a re-release of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," which reached #43 when Fantasy released it in 1976 amidst legal battles which helped drive Fogerty out of the music business intermittently throughout the Seventies and the Eighties.

But between Bayou Country and the last CCR studio album, Mardi Gras, Fogerty was responsible for a string of albums that stand beside the classics of American rock ‘n’ roll. Two of them -Green River (1969) and Cosmo’s Factory (1970) peaked at #3 and Pendulum reached #5. Even Mardi Gras, clearly the group’s weakest work, in large part because Fogerty divided song-writing and production duties with Cook and Clifford, made #12.

In a recent issue honoring the most important albums of the rock and roll era, Rolling Stone chose Willy and the Poor Boys to represent Creedence.

"I'm flattered that Rolling Stone would do that," said Fogerty. "But my personal favorite is Green River. I like where that music is, the sound of it, the cover, everything. It’s the style, the sound of the song 'Green River.’"

"It’s a little more a Sun record," Fogerty continues, referring to the Memphis studio where Sam Phillips brought together blues (Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton), country (Johnny Cash) and rockabilly (Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis) musicians in the early fifties, providing a perfect setting for the emergence of Elvis Presley’s rock 'n’ roll. "It’s a little more rockabilly. 'Cross- Tie Walker,’ 'Bad Moon Rising,' that's kind of more my center. Green River was close to the sound you may notice on Blue Moon Swamp."

As long as you're not making a top 200 list, there's no particular reason to choose between Green River and Willy and the Poorboys, which were released just three months apart in the fall and winter of 1969. On Green River, Fogerty perfects the "spooky" sound that summons up the bayou shadows as a metaphor for what's going down in Richard Nixon's America, where it was getting harder to tell the difference between paranoia and common sense. Sounding like something out of the Old Testament prophets, Fogerty's poetic images tap a power similar to that of Robert Johnson’s classic Delta Blues. When Creedence sang about that bad moon rising, it meant one thing to the grunts in the Mekong Delta, something else to the crowd at the Denver Pop Festival, which had been tear-gassed three times prior to CCR’s closing set. No one listening to "Sinister Purpose" or "Commotion" in 1970 had any trouble at all coming up with a point of reference.

At once angrier and more exuberant than Green River, Willy and the Poorboys includes two of Fogerty’s most explicit political statements. "Fortunate Son" calls down a righteous wrath on the heads on the folk who "wave the flag to prove they’re red, white and blue" while sending the poor off to die in a war no one even pretends to believe in: "and when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief’/they point the cannon at you;" "some folks inherit star-spangled eyes, then they send you off to war." The chorus makes it clear where Fogerty stands: "It ain’t me/ it ain’t me/ I ain’t no senator’s son, no/ It ain’t me/ It ain’t me/ I ain’t no fortunate one." As he said in 1969, "I see things through lower class eyes. If you sit around and think about all that money, you can never write a song about where you came from."

Equally clear about the political dynamics of a time when too many people were making promises "you don’t have to keep," "Don’t Look Now" lays down a country-tinged variation on the straight ahead rock ‘n’ roll of "Fortunate Son." Where Fogerty rips into "Fortunate Son" with Little Richard-style screams, he delivers the crucial lines of "Don’t Look Now" in something closer to a whisper: "Don’t look now, someones’s done your starving/ don’t look now, someone’s done your prayin’ too."

Fogerty ends the crucial three-song sequence that defines Willy and the Poorboys' social vision with "The Midnight Special," bringing back the exuberant sound of "Down on the Corner," which opens the album. Creedence’s adaptation of Leadbelly’s song which, along with "Cotton Fields" gives the album a strong African-American presence, contrasts an almost cheerful syncopated rhythm -CCR shows definite sings of having figured out "that little shuffle"- with a lyric line that raises images of incarceration, police violence, and death; in the black Southern tradition, the "midnight special" could refer to a train heading north to freedom or to the suicide that some preferred to life in the fields. Mix in swamp rock classic "Feelin’ Blue," the haunting "Effigy" and "It Came Out of the Sky," one of the classic of rock 'n' roll science fiction, and it’s clear that Willy and the Poorboys deserve whatever honors anyone cares to pass its way.

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