He's the most prominent bayou howler ever to come out of Berkeley. John Fogerty's swampy odes and backwoods rhythm guitars were the backbone of Creedence Clearwater Revival, an early, rockin' version of Americana. But Fogerty and Creedence were more than just rockers: Fogerty's songs became the voice of a generation as it questioned authority and attempted to make sense of a senseless war.
Like lots of local musicians, Robert Waldrop remembers the impact of those songs. Waldrop, the "Harmonica Bob" half of local blues duo Harmonica Bob and Near Blind James, remembers his brother playing a lot of Creedence just before he went over to Vietnam. "I remember him listening to 'Fortunate Son' over and over."
Robert's brother Richard says he didn't relate to the political stuff when he first heard Creedence. "I just liked the sound, originally. The words didn't mean a whole hell of a lot necessarily. I remember one in particular, 'Lodi,'" the anthem that reads "Rode in on the Greyhound, I'll be walkin'out if I go/ I was just passin' through, must be seven months or more." Richard says, "Took me a long time to figure out what the hell he was talking about."
Robert wondered about the "Lodi" connection, too, until a business trip took him to the Stockton, Calif., area and he decided to visit the nearby town of Lodi, part of an area known locally as the Delta. He and a business traveler ended up at an eating establishment called Al the Wop's. There was no menu, just a sign that said "Steak: Big or small, well or not. No salad."
The clientele sat at picnic tables in a shack that looked like it hadn't been painted since it was built. "The feel was like, you walk into some low-rent bar, take one look around and decide, 'I'd best be easing on out of here.'" Waldrop's assessment of the town's houses didn't change his impression. "We drove around through the Delta area--just like boondocks with a bunch of people living on houseboats on canals and a lot of trailers that looked like they'd seen better days."
But when Richard joined the Army and arrived in Vietnam, neither he nor his brother was concentrating on "Lodi" anymore. Other Fogerty songs like "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Fortunate Son" took on new meaning. "Run Through the Jungle" was also popular with soldiers, but, because of an ankle injury in jump school, Richard was pulled back for a year and received only minimal combat experience as the war was winding down.
"I didn't get shot at every day like a lot of guys did, but that song registered with me. But not as much as "Fortunate Son" and "Who'll Stop the Rain," because it was always raining there, and I just wondered when the shit's ever gonna be over with."
Richard was 19 at the time; he is 54 now. He can still remember listening to the words of "Fortunate Son" for the first time and trying to figure out what they really meant.
"This was mostly a group of affluent young guys who had been pulled out of college or had just graduated from college and hadn't gotten jobs. That just started to make some sense," he remembers of Fogerty's lyrics. "That was the first time the whole political aspect started to hit home."
"Fortunate Son" still reverberated with Richard long after the war: "That one really hit a chord when I came back and was in college thinking back on the whole thing. I just remembered the guys I served with. The ones who were out there getting their asses shot off were not the fortunate sons."
Though Richard agrees that Creedence was an anthem for soldiers, he never thought of Fogerty as being an anti-Vietnam War protestor. Even with songs like "Run Through the Jungle," with Fogerty howling "Two hundred million guns are loaded/ Satan cries, 'Take aim,'" he wasn't pinning blame as much as he was explaining: "His songs simply stated the facts, the way they appeared to be. If you happen to be in that situation, it registers."
But for famed bluegrass mandolinist Tony Williamson, Fogerty's music was an entirely different experience. Fogerty visited Williamson at his rural Siler City shop, Mandolin Central, 10 years ago for what Williamson says is "pretty much what everybody visits me for: for nice old guitars and mandolins."
The mandolin player specializes in vintage Gibsons and Martins from about 1939 and older. Fogerty played every instrument in the shop, says Williamson, then picked out three or four pieces that he wanted to buy that day.
After business was done, Williamson took him for a hike along his half-mile of Rocky River frontage, stopping at the baptizing hole, a wide pond in the river about 120 feet across that a black church once used for baptizing converts.
"I had explained to John what it was, and we sort of transcended back into time in the days when that river on Sunday afternoons was full of very spiritual things, and then he started singing this old hymn," remembers Williamson. "It was a very special moment. One of those things that, when I think about, still gives me shivers on a hot day."
Williamson's wife had fixed supper when they returned to his cabin, a down-home meal with homemade corn muffins and greens out of the garden. Williamson invited Fogerty to supper. "It was one of those times where I think John Fogerty really appreciated just being with regular folks and eating regular food," Williamson says. "But at the end of the meal, my wife jumped up and was cleaning up the dishes up and bringing them over to the sink. And John says, 'Ma'am, may I help you?' And to my absolute mortification, she turns around and hands an apron to the king of rock 'n' roll and says, 'You wash, I'll dry.'"
Fogerty apparently wasn't offended, and he has kept in touch. "He or his manager sent me a copy of an album, and a line in there was evidently dedicated to my cabin," says Williamson of Fogerty's Blue Moon Swamp. "He had also played the mandolin that I sold him on there."
Williamson will see Fogerty when he plays in Raleigh on Saturday. But Waldrop, who lives in New Jersey, won't be going. He hasn't kept up with Fogerty, and he was unaware of his estrangement from CCR's other members and his insistence that everything Creedence came from him. But he does have some advice: "If you get a chance to talk to him, tell him, for me, that he ought to have his band back him up on the damn stage, whether he likes or loves them or no. Shit, just get 'em up there," he opines.
John Fogerty plays Raleigh's Alltel Pavilion with Willie Nelson on Saturday, July 29 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $23.50-$53.50.