by Craig Werner
Originally published in GOLDMINE #443, July 18, 1997
Webpublished here by author's permission
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
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, thats 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
"I grew up with the blues," he says, reemphasizing the role
radio played in his musical education. "Its 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 its 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."
Fogertys 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 Id 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 doesnt 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 whos just a hot picker. Thats 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, thats for sure."
"Thats why I always say Im not a blues man and
Im 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 cant come back in again. You are just not
accepted. I dont I really want to buy a blues record by some middle class white guy
from Iowa. I have strong feelings about this. Its just not the blues anymore. It's
fine if he calls it something else, but he shouldnt say, anymore than I would, it's
the blues. Because its 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
"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 shouldnt imitate him. Thats 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 shouldnt try to clone myself into something else. I dont want that."
Fogertys insistence on something like authenticity - the idea
that you sing what youre 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." Its a safe bet that the black listeners whose response took Ike and Tina
Turners 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 Tinas incendiary performance. From the
opening guitar riffs through CCRs unforgettable harmonies on "rollin on
the river," Fogertys 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 Fogertys 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." Fogertys 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 Stovalls Plantation.
But theres another way of thinking about the blues that helps
explain why, for example, CCRs "Wholl 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 ones 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, Ellisons 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 Dylans "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."