This week’s Free Ride* muses on the songbook of John Fogerty, who turns 66 today. Fogerty has the distinction of making all three ranks of Rolling Stone magazine’s lists of greats: great guitarists, great vocalists, and great songwriters. His fellow band mates, including his late brother Tom, in Creedence Clearwater Revival, might have questioned whether greatness ever found its way into his personal life and relationships, given their long track record of disputes and his reputedly arrogant and belligerent behavior toward those closest to him. There’s little doubt that John Fogerty was the gifted one of the bunch, though, and he was able to channel his genius into some of the most memorable songs of the late 60s. Bruce Springsteen aptly described this gift when he gave the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech for Fogerty back in 1993: As a songwriter, only a few did as much in three minutes. He was an Old Testament, shaggy-haired prophet, a fatalist. Funny too. He was severe, he was precise, he said what he had to say and he got out of there.
Those three-minute vignettes of delta and bayou blues spoke volumes about the longing and quest for freedom that was so much a part of the ethos of Vietnam War era America. In the definitive cover of Midnight Special, he gave voice to Miss Rosie, wearing her apron and going to see the governor with the piece of paper in her hand, wanting to free her man. Thirty years later he reminiscently sang of the powerful time of the summer of love, when freedom was in the air, young people everywhere, so many questions if you dare.
Fogerty’s comback album, 1985’s Centerfield, included more of his longstanding critique and anger at the values of power and privilege that we first heard in Fortunate Son. In Mr. Greed, he once again raised those severe and precise prophetic questions:
Mr. Greed, why you got to own everything that you see?
Mr. Greed, why you put a chain on everybody livin’ free?
You’re hungerin’ for his house,
You’re hungerin’ for his wife,
And your appetite will never be denied.
You’re a devil of consumption;
I hope you choke, mr. greed.
How do you get away with robbin’?
Did your mother teach you how?
I hear you got away with murder.
Did you do your mama proud?
On that same album, he recalls all the history that he witnessed coming across the television set of his youth, and concludes with a verse that again proves Springsteen’s observation of his capacity to say a lot in a little space:
The old man rocks among his dreams,
a prisoner of the porch;
“the light,” he says “at the end of the tunnel,
was nothin’ but a burglar’s torch.”
And them that was caught in the cover are all rich and free.
But they chained my mind to an endless tomb
When they took my only son from me.
I know it’s true, oh so true, ’cause I saw it on tv.
Until we fully embody our nation’s idealism as a land of the free, may we continue to hear more of that three-minute Old Testament, shaggy-haired prophet’s words. Whether or not he’s a great person or an ass, he give us some mighty good preaching.