Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bards of the Working Class
Fifty years ago, one of the greatest rock bands in history overwhelmed the American music scene. They released three hit albums in a single year. They toured incessantly. They left an indelible mark on rock music. Their songs are still featured on the radio, in commercials, and in movies. And they weren’t British. I write of Creedence Clearwater Revival, who, though they didn’t write “We’re an American Band” (that honor goes to Grand Funk Railroad), exhibited the most important qualities of the quintessential American rock group. Indeed, in many respects, the band, also known as Creedence or CCR, represents the kind of hard-working, blue-collar music that should serve as a soundtrack for main street conservatism.
CCR’s meteoric rise was anything but expected—indeed, it took 10 years for them to enjoy commercial success. Younger Fogerty brother John, Doug Clifford, and Stu Cook met in 1959 while attending high school in El Cerrito, California. They formed a band called The Blue Velvets and began playing with elder Fogerty brother Tom. In 1964, they signed with Fantasy Records, though the group was derailed when John and Doug received draft notices in 1966. The two enlisted in the Reserves to avoid conscription. When they were discharged in 1968, they renamed the band Creedence Clearwater Revival, the “revival” being the members’ commitment to each other and to an older-school type of rock and roll. Their first eponymous album had a couple of minor hits, both covers: “Suzie Q” and “I Put a Spell on You.”
1969 would be the band’s breakout year. CCR’s three albums that year that all went platinum: Bayou Country, Green River, and Willie and the Poor Boys. The albums included such well-known radio staples as “Proud Mary,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Down on the Corner,” and “Fortunate Son,” the last still a favorite of any film sequence regarding the Vietnam War. There isn’t a weak song on any of these records, all of which offer a distinctly Southern, working-class feel, despite the band’s California origins. CCR toured constantly, hitting the Atlanta Pop Festival in July and Woodstock in August, though they didn’t appear in the popular Woodstock film or soundtrack. In November, they performed on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Their success continued into 1970 with the release of Cosmo’s Factory, a number one record. It featured “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend,” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” among other greats. Pendulum, also released in that year, offered another top 10 hit in “Have You Ever Seen The Rain?” Unfortunately, tensions between the Fogerty brothers reached a tipping point, and Tom departed at the end of 1970. CCR’s final album, Mardi Gras, released in 1972, peaked at number 12, but was a critical failure. A Rolling Stone reviewer called it “the worst album I have ever heard from a major rock band.” In October, the band broke up and never formally reunited. They never will—Tom died in 1990. John Fogerty had success as a solo artist, particularly with the chart-topper Centerfield in 1985.
Much of CCR’s popularity can be attributed to their mastery of short rock-and-rollers with catchy lyrics: “Rollin, rollin’, rollin on a river,” or “It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate son.” More deeply, however, their “roots rock” leaned heavily on the inspiration of Little Richard, Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry, updating these influences for a late 1960s and early 1970s audience. This served as an important contrast to the dominant streams of popular rock music of the time. CCR was neither psychedelic nor heavy. There are no paeans to “free love” in their musical corpus. Some of their songs have political overtones (“Fortunate Son,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain”) or the weight of Vietnam (“Run Though the Jungle”), but the lyrics contain no calls for revolution. Rather, one hears about the plights of working joes trying to make it. In “Ramble Tamble,” Fogerty croons:
There’s garbage on the sidewalk,
Highways in the backyard,
Police on the corner,
Mortgage on the car,
Mortgage on the car.
Move, Down the road, I go.
Other songs mourn going on welfare and getting drafted for Vietnam (“Wrote a Song for Everyone”), working in a chain gang (“Midnight Special”), and government incompetence and corruption (“Who’ll Stop the Rain”). Indeed, one wonders if the hippies who bought so many of CCR’s records were paying close attention to John Fogerty’s lyrics, which sometimes seemed an indictment of a thankless, godless ’60s youth culture. In “Don’t Look now,” he sings:
Who will make the shoes for your feet?
Who will make the clothes that you wear?
Who’ll take the promise that you don’t have to keep?
Don’t look now, it ain’t you or me
Don’t look now, someone’s done your starvin’
Don’t look now, someone’s done your prayin’ too.
Asked about the song, Fogerty lamented, “We’re all so ethnic now, with our long hair and shit. But, when it comes to doing the real crap that civilization needs to keep it going…who’s going to be the garbage collector? None of us will. Most of us will say, ‘That’s beneath me, I ain’t gonna do that job.’”
Perhaps CCR’s spiritual potency can also be attributed to how their music honors particular American places. Songs like “Born on the Bayou” and “Cotton Fields” memorialize Southern life and culture. Even “Lodi,” a song about a man who gets stuck in the small agricultural city in California’s Central Valley, is an acknowledgment of the difficulties and loneliness of small-town life. Americans who appreciate CCR sense that the band’s songs were written for them.
CCR sought to conserve what was best about the original rock-and-roll sound, while directing it at the social and cultural upheaval of their time. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame describes Creedence as both “progressive and anachronistic…. An unapologetic throwback to the golden era of rock and roll…. Their approach was basic and uncompromising, holding true to the band members’ working-class origins…. Creedence Clearwater Revival became the standard bearers and foremost celebrants of homegrown American music.” In a political climate where technocratic, global elites are contrasted with flyover country deplorables who cling to guns and religion, CCR’s music offers traditionalist Americans a soundtrack for our commitment to preserving a distinctly American way of life. As CCR sings, “keep on chooglin.”
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.