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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  II

As it has for white rock 'n' rollers from Keith Richards to Lowell George, black music provided Fogerty with an alternative to the sanitized music that dominated the pop charts.

"The blues came to me on the R&B radio out of San Francisco and I really did appreciate the fire on those records," he recalls. "But when you're a kid you're not researching in the library or going through the bins at the record store."

There's a smile in Fogerty's face as he describes his distinctly limited access to musical variety when he was growing up.

"If there was a record store anywhere near where I lived, which there wasn't, they did not have any Muddy Waters, that’s for sure. The only records for miles around were in the furniture store, which was a very common connection because the record player was a piece of furniture so they sold the records to go with the furniture. In the fifties the furniture store in El Cerrito was selling Patti Page and Tony Bennett, that sort of thing. I doubt there were more than fifty different titles. I never bought any R&B records in that store. I bought Elvis Presley and I remember seeing a Hank Williams with Strings album. I saw that and said 'What???' I really stayed away from that one," Fogerty concludes with a laugh.

Not that Fogerty was totally isolated from the deeper roots of American music.

"I grew up with the blues," he says, reemphasizing the role radio played in his musical education. "It’s not like I was from Tibet or Mars. But I was doing it from afar. I was listening to Muddy Waters but I barely knew anything about his real life. I knew he had a great band."

Fogerty remembers feeling a deep sense of dissatisfaction with the way the blues were presented by critics such as Ralph J. Gleason, who was later to write the liner notes for the first Creedence album. Parodying the dry voice of an academic lecturer, Fogerty intones, "The blues came up the Mississippi and landed in Chicago. My my my." He switches back to his regular speaking voice: "There'd be all these paragraphs showing off his college education. But it’s so much more awesome to realize this guy who's barely literate comes up to Chicago and plugs in. I mean any rock and roller can appreciate that, wow, when everybody else was sitting on their porches playing on their acoustic guitars, he organized it and plugged it in. We call it a blues band, but that was a rock 'a' roll band. It was loud."

Fogerty’s quest for a deeper understanding of his musical influences and ancestors led him to the Mississippi Delta In l990.

"As far as I know it was the first time I’d ever been in the state of Mississippi, certainly in the Delta," Fogerty reflects. "The state line is only a few miles South of Memphis, so I might have been there by accident when I went to see Memphis bass player Duck Dunn and he took me somewhere, but it was the first time I knew I was in Mississippi. That's kind of strange. I'd been in Tennessee a lot, I'd been in Louisiana a lot. So it was just sort of a gap in my knowledge."

Almost reverent in his attitude toward both country and blues musicians, Fogerty is careful to emphasize that he doesn’t consider his music part of any musical tradition other than straight rock 'n' roll. The distinctions he makes between rock, country and the blues involve both technique and attitude.

Fogerty marvels at the virtuosity of the country pickers who inspired his 1973 album, The Blue Ridge Rangers: "I have so much reverence for the people who play really good, like a Jerry Douglass or a James Burton or there's a guy in Nashville now, Brett Mason who’s just a hot picker. That’s something else you tend to see more in country music than in rock and roll or even the blues. In country, people are just flat out pickers on their instrument. They're just amazing players," Fogerty continues. "When rock and roll guys become amazing players, it's almost like they're not rock and roll anymore. They become too high falutin.' 'Cause rock and roll folks kind of have an attitude and a sound with some dirt in it."

While Fogerty recognizes "dirt" as a shared element of rock and the blues, he points to some crucial differences in the blues tradition.

"The blues has a definite attitude about how you play, at least to my mind. Once you get too citified and become scientific like a college professor then it's not rooted anymore, that’s for sure."

"That’s why I always say I’m not a blues man and I’m not pretending to be a blues man." Fogerty continues. "I have such reverence for the music. Blues are disciplined, they are regimented so you have to stay in that format. If you go outside, you can’t come back in again. You are just not accepted. I don’t I really want to buy a blues record by some middle class white guy from Iowa. I have strong feelings about this. It’s just not the blues anymore. It's fine if he calls it something else, but he shouldn’t say, anymore than I would, it's the blues. Because it’s not."

Describing his attempt to find the right version of a song for inclusion on Blue Moon Swamp, Fogerty makes a similar point about the country tradition.

"There's a song on the album called 'Rambunctious Boy' and I had an arrangement prior to this one that's not on the record. I came to the realization one day that it was really just too flat and country. And I remember it was bothering me and I was saying, why is this bugging me? Ii was because it wasn't honest. And I finally said, well, I love Buck Owens and I think everybody knows that. I name Buck Owens in one of my songs ('Lookin' Out My Back Door'), but l'm not Buck Owens. He does what he does, that's his job. I shouldn’t imitate him. That’s me not doing my job. So I changed the arrangement and made it more like a rock 'n' roll approach. I love Buck Owens' music, but I shouldn’t try to clone myself into something else. I don’t want that."

Fogerty’s insistence on something like authenticity - the idea that you sing what you’re born to - seems strange coming from the man who opened the distinctly blusey "Wrote a Song for Everyone" with: "Met myself a-comin’ county welfare line/ I was feelin’ strung out, hung out on the line." It’s a safe bet that the black listeners whose response took Ike and Tina Turner’s remake of "Proud Mary" to #5 on the R&B in 1971 -it rose to #4 pop- heard more than a touch of the blues in Tina’s incendiary performance. From the opening guitar riffs through CCR’s unforgettable harmonies on "rollin’ on the river," Fogerty’s original flows down from Memphis through the heart of a mythic South that would have been equally familiar to Howlin’ Wolf and Hank Williams.

The key to understanding Fogerty’s relationship to the blues lies in distinguishing between the blues as a musical form -usually 12 bars with an AAB lyrical pattern- and the blues as what black intellectuals have called a "cultural impulse." Fogerty’s right when he insists on the dangers of uprooting the blues from the soil of the rural black South. Even when they traveled up the Mississippi to Chicago, where Muddy Waters and Elmore James plugged in their guitars and laid down the fundamentals of rock ‘n’ roll, the Delta blues spoke directly out of the historical experience of slaves and segregation. A white middle class kid from Iowa, or El Cerrito, California, is venturing onto risky grounds if he presents himself as the voice of Stovall’s Plantation.

But there’s another way of thinking about the blues that helps explain why, for example, CCR’s "Who’ll Stop the Rain" and "Run Through the Jungle" can legitimately be called the best blues songs written about Vietnam. Black novelist Ralph Ellison, best known for the classic Invisible Man, defines the blues as "an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near- comic lyricism."

Later in the same essay Ellison redefines the blues as "an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically." Without confusing the issue of who has the right to sing about the inside meaning of blackness in the Jim Crow South, Ellison’s definition testifies to the fact that we all have our brutal experiences to deal with and that the blues speak to our dilemmas, not just as a specific music but as a way of confronting the human condition. The idea of the blues impulse helps us hear the shared conversation between Bob Dylan’s "Desolation Row" and Bessie Smith's "Downhearted Blues"; Springsten's "Backstreets" and Howlin' Wolf's "Killin’ Floor"; Fogerty's "Run Through the Jungle" and Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on My Trail."

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