There’s something about Proud Mary

I found an excuse to refer to John Fogerty and his Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Proud Mary” a couple weeks ago in connection with the headline on a New York Post column by Mac Owens. I referred to the song as “great,” which was too much for John Hinderaker. He entered a brief dissent:

Familiar, yes. Beloved by bands who play at wedding receptions, yes. Less annoying in CCR’s original version than in Tina Turner’s cover, true. But “great”? Uh-uh.

The issue raised here is important, but of course there’s no arguing with taste. Ike and Tina Turner may in fact have ruined the song, or at least made it so familiar in an atrocious version that it’s difficult to hear with fresh ears. I only wanted to add a few notes on the subject before leaving it.

Creedence Clearwater was a blue-collar Bay area band anchored by brothers Tom and John Fogerty. 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.) In the heyday of the hippie ethos and radical chic, Fogerty ingeniously formulated a downriver idyll of freedom and benevolence at the heart of America.

The song of course struck a chord with its allusion to Huckleberry Finn. Here is part of one paragraph of Huck Finn from chapter 7 that virtually encapsulates the book as well as the spirit of “Proud Mary”:

I got out amongst the driftwood, and then laid down in the bottom of the canoe and let her float. I laid there, and had a good rest and a smoke out of my pipe, looking away into the sky; not a cloud in it. The sky looks ever so deep when you lay down on your back in the moonshine; I never knowed it before. And how far a body can hear on the water such nights! I heard people talking at the ferry landing. I heard what they said, too — every word of it. One man said it was getting towards the long days and the short nights now. T’other one said this warn’t one of the short ones, he reckoned — and then they laughed, and he said it over again, and they laughed again; then they waked up another fellow and told him, and laughed, but he didn’t laugh; he ripped out something brisk, and said let him alone. The first fellow said he ‘lowed to tell it to his old woman — she would think it was pretty good; but he said that warn’t nothing to some things he had said in his time. I heard one man say it was nearly three o’clock, and he hoped daylight wouldn’t wait more than about a week longer. After that the talk got further and further away, and I couldn’t make out the words any more; but I could hear the mumble, and now and then a laugh, too, but it seemed a long ways off.

A bad joke heard at a distance, repeated over and over, then simply the sound of muffled laughter, while Huck floats down the middle of the river lying on his back with daybreak approaching…it doesn’t get any better than that.

“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 Hitchiker.” At the end of the road, appropriately enough, was “Someday Never Comes.”

The striking thing about this string of hits is how dominated they are by 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 find myself sympathetic to Fogerty’s foreboding, his resentments, his daydreams — foremost among them, “Proud Mary.