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There’s something about Proud Mary

John Hinderaker to the contrary notwithstanding, I have long held that there’s something about “Proud Mary.” Ike and Tina Turner may have ruined the song for many, as they did for John. Marc Myers helps us return to the song with fresh ears in his wonderful Anatomy of a Song column in the Wall Street Journal a few weeks back.

Myers checked in with John Fogerty, the composer of the song. Myers notes that when Fogerty wrote “Proud Mary” 45 years ago, “he had never cleaned a lot of plates in Memphis or hitched a ride on a riverboat queen. But he was on to something with those lyrics.” The lyrics paint an America idyll that traces its roots to Huckleberry Finn. In the heyday of the hippie ethos and radical chic, Fogerty ingeniously crafted a downriver idyll of freedom and benevolence at the heart of America. Great line: “But I never saw the good side of a city till I hitched I ride on a riverboat queen.”

Creedence Clearwater Revival was Forgety’s band. CCR was a blue-collar, Bay-area band anchored by Fogerty and his brother Tom. They paid their dues touring for nine years in various incarnations of the band that became Creedence before “Proud Mary” hit paydirt for them in January 1969. (“Proud Mary” was backed with “Born on the Bayou,” another great rootsy song sounding like it had been retrieved from an archive somewhere in the Louisiana swampland.)

So much for the lyrics of “Proud Mary,” but what about the music? Here Myers struck gold. Fogerty told Myers:

Back in the fall of 1967—before the release of our first Credence album—I bought a small notebook and began keeping a list of song-title ideas. My first entry was “Proud Mary.” I didn’t really know what those two words meant but I liked how they sounded together.

At the time, I was living in an apartment in Albany, Calif., near San Francisco, with my wife at the time and our newborn son. I was still in the Army Reserve and was concerned about being sent to Vietnam. One day in the early summer of ’68, I saw an oversize envelope on the steps of our apartment building. It was my honorable discharge. In the blink of an eye, I was a civilian again. I did a handstand and flipped a few times on the small lawn out front.

Then I went inside, picked up my Rickenbacker guitar and began playing a song intro I had been working on. The chord riff was based on the opening to Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony,” which I had first heard on TV growing up. I didn’t like how Beethoven had composed it. I preferred hitting the first chord hard for emphasis, not the fourth.

When I added rhythm to the chords, the song had the motion of a boat. I had always loved Mark Twain’s writing and the music of Stephen Foster, so I wrote lyrics about a riverboat. The line “rollin’ on the river” was influenced by a movie I once saw about two riverboats racing. I finished most of it in two hours. Then I opened my notebook for a song title. There was “Proud Mary.”

“Proud Mary” opened the door for the remarkable string of beautifully crafted hit singles Creedence then reeled off, all written by Fogerty: “Bad Moon Rising” b/w “Lodi,” “Green River” b/w “Commotion,” “Down on the Corner” b/w “Fortunate Son,” “Travelin’ Band” b/w “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Up Around the Bend” b/w “Run Through the Jungle,” “Lookin’ Out My Back Door” b/w “Long As I Can See the Light,” “Have You Ever Seen the Rain” b/w “Hey Tonight,” and “Sweet Hitchhiker.” At the end of the road, appropriately enough, was “Someday Never Comes.” Somebody forgot to tell these guys you weren’t supposed to put hits on both sides of a single, but Fogerty simply wasn’t writing disposable songs.

The striking thing about this string of hits is the spirit that infuses them. The songs are filled with metaphorical expressions of foreboding and populist, chip-on-the shoulder bitterness punctuated by the occasional idyll, but with hardly a girl in sight. That’s a tough act to pull off in pop music; I can’t think of a body of work quite like it. I identify with Fogerty’s foreboding, his resentments, his daydreams — foremost among them “Proud Mary.” Thanks to Myers for giving us a chance to hear the song afresh.

PAUL ADDS: I don’t entirely disagree with John’s assessment of the Ike and Tina Turner version of Proud Mary. But there’s just one thing. You see, they never, ever did nothing nice and easy. They always did it nice and rough.

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