During the pre-internet years of popular culture, pretending to be somebody else was a whole lot easier. There were no Wikipedia articles to reference, no biographical information easily pulled from social media pages, and no past discretions that could be easily pointed to. Identities were malleable, and if you played your part well, no one would be the wiser. That’s how an entire generation came to believe that John Fogerty and his band Creedence Clearwater Revival were the most authentic southern rock band of all time.
Of course, that wasn’t the truth. CCR originated from the decidedly non-southern city of El Cerrito, California, just outside of San Francisco. Fogerty had been to the south, but his experiences were largely confined to what went on inside of military bases. By the time he had returned to California, Fogerty had yet to actually see some of the famous southern imagery that he would soon set to music. He had nothing but imagination and a desire to stand out among the scores of musicians in the San Francisco scene.
Then, a breakthrough came all at once in the form of a new song, ‘Born on the Bayou’. “I would sit in my little apartment – which was very sparse – and stare at the wall. That’s how I wrote. I would stare at it all night,” Fogerty recalled to Uncut in 2012. “There was nothing hanging on the wall, because I didn’t have any money for paintings. It was just a beige wall. It was a blank slate, a blank canvas. But it was also exciting. I could go anywhere and do anything because I was a writer. I was conjuring that place deep in my soul that was me.”
“And it’s the middle of the night, I’m looking at my blank wall and basically going into another dimension — whatever you do when you’re kind of meditating — and that whole sound, that ringing, the way my amp sounded was takin’ me in there, and right at that moment, I don’t know if I’d written it first on a piece of paper, but it collided in my brain with the phrase, born on the bayou,” Fogerty explains. “And I pulled everything I knew about it, which wasn’t much because I didn’t live there. It was all through media. I loved an old movie called Swamp Fever…every other bit of southern bayou information that had entered my imagination from the time I was born, it all sort of collided in that meditation about that song. And I knew that that sound and that story went together. I can’t tell you why.”
Suddenly, the rich (and slightly stereotypical) southern imagery started flowing, with wholesome American touchstones like the Fourth of July mixing with more nefarious and mysterious forces like hoodoo magic. Without any first-hand experience, Fogerty managed to almost single-handedly invent southern rock while staring at his wall and culling any images that he could pull from his mind.
“‘Born on the Bayou’ was vaguely like ‘Porterville,’ about a mythical childhood and a heat-filled time, the Fourth of July,” Fogerty said in 1970. “I put it in the swamp where, of course, I had never lived…’Chasing down a hoodoo.’ Hoodoo is a magical, mystical, spiritual, non-defined apparition, like a ghost or a shadow, not necessarily evil, but certainly other-worldly. I was getting some of that imagery from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.”
Around the same time, Fogerty had also penned an ode to washing dishes and pumping gas down south in ‘Proud Mary’, although the central river imagery, just like in the later song ‘Green River’, was pulled from the Putah Creek near Sacramento instead of from any southern swamps. Still, Fogerty acknowledged to Rolling Stone in 1993 that ‘Born on the Bayou’ was “almost the Gordian knot or the key to what happened later. As I was writing it, it occurred to me that there was more power than just this one song. If there was a way to tie it all together on one album, kind of cross-fertilize, cross-relate the songs, you would have a much more interesting and maybe more powerful image. So that’s what happened. ‘Born on the Bayou’ sort of relates to ‘Proud Mary.’ It certainly relates to ‘Keep on Chooglin’ and ‘Graveyard Train.'”
What remains baffling is that, despite their sound being strongly associated with the south, Creedence rarely made specific references to the swamps and bayous of the area. In fact, songs like ‘Lodi’ specifically reference the band’s California home. The stories in songs like ‘Down on the Corner’ and ‘Lookin’ Out My Back Door’ certainly seemed like they were taking place in a southern area, but there aren’t any specific landmarks to tie them down to being south of the border.
Fogerty also consciously diversified his songwriting to take on a political edge, most notably on the tracks ‘Fortunate Son’, ‘Run Through the Jungle’, and ‘Who’ll Stop the Rain’. In fact, it wouldn’t be until CCR officially disbanded and Fogerty began his solo career that the singer would more consciously adopt the swamp rock persona that has become his signature. Fogerty certainly made some obvious ties to the south during his time in CCR, but a revisit of his most famous material shows that the numbers of specific references to the south are conspicuously few and far between.