The legacy of John Fogerty can’t be overstated when it comes to American roots music. His songs, both solo and with Creedence Clearwater Revival, sum up most of what’s great about music, from blues to Bakersfield, from country to gospel, all recast in a rock context. Yet the singer-songwriter-guitarist had never set foot in the swamps before recording classics like “Born on the Bayou,” and “Bad Moon Rising.” OffBeat spoke with Fogerty about inspiration, imagination, great songwriting, and his upcoming appearance at the 50th Jazz Fest.
The first Jazz Fest happened on April 22, 1970,which is right around the time you and CCR released “Up Around the Bend,” and “Run Through the Jungle.” How does it feel to be thriving after a 50-year career?
Well, I don’t usually sit around and think of it quite that way. If it does cross my kind, it leaves me kind of humble. Scared actually! 50? Oh no! [Laughs]
Well, still! You’re a survivor.
Years ago, the older you got the less opportunities you had. When I was a little kid, I woulda been scared of the thought. I mean, you’re talking right around 1970, and around that time young people were saying, “Don’t trust anyone over 30!”
Ever since “Susie Q,” right from the beginning, there was a heavy influence of Louisiana music in what Creedence did.
You know, I was just thinking to myself the other day that at any point in my whole life you could stop me in my tracks just by telling me, “Somebody’s calling from New Orleans.” There’s this kind of mystical aura about the place.
Was it just the music?
Maybe. Fats Domino was a big influence on me… probably before I even realized it or fully understood who he was. I knew about Fats, Huey “Piano” Smith, Bobby Marchan.
And when I was eight or nine years old, my mom sat me down with some records and led me down the path of Dixieland! Kid Ory, Buddy Bolden, Louis Armstrong… Louis I always thought of like the Jimi Hendrix of Dixieland, he just brought notes out of his instrument that weren’t even supposed to be there.
Swamps play an important role as atmosphere in your classic music. What do you think is the connection between the bayou and Berkeley, California?
Since I was a songwriter, and that’s how I thought of myself, I just immersed myself in that. I’d watch movies and TV and see the swamps, the bayous, the gators, the inflections in the accent, the language… It all seemed very colorful to me. So I just invented sort of a mythical stylized version of Louisiana for myself in my head, picking it up from books or movies or records.
But you’d never been to the area at that point?
The thing is, you don’t have to be accurate. Not that accurate. The place in my head was very comfortable, very Southern, and as a result my very first really good song was “Proud Mary,” which was just me going to that place.
I was a young musician in 1968 and I’d had a hit with a cover of “Susie Q,” and suddenly I had the spotlight on me, so I became somebody else. Whatever that place was inside me was what I was most sure of, and that was “Proud Mary.”
You know, I read a Stephen Foster bio that said he was from Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh! And all his songs were about the South. And he was the first real American songwriter. I only found that out about 10 or 15 years ago.
Jazz Fest is a sort of celebration of Louisiana roots music of all kinds at this point. Do you see the reaction to modern country music and consider yourself sort of the godfather of Americana?
It was only a few years ago that I started to hear the “Godfather of Americana” talk. I’ve always just fixated on songwriters: Irving Berlin, Hoagy Carmichael…
Most rock legends don’t drop those names.
Well, a lot of people don’t even try to experience it, even though it’s right there under their noses. It’s like living next to the Statue of Liberty. You never go in. But my mom was always steering me toward these things.
Here’s the thing about me, Robert. I always tried to not make choices when other people seemed to.
As a kid, I was a big fan of folk music, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives. I’d go to the Berkeley Folk Festival around 1958, ’59, ’60. And I loved the Kingston Trio. But when they had a hit with “Tom Dooley,” the folk community turned their back on them, called them sellouts. I still thought all of it was good! I never necessarily bought into the politics of older people.
I did a cover on my last album of a John Prine song called “Paradise,” but the version I first heard was by John Denver. I don’t necessarily judge. I just gravitate toward things.
When did you finally make it to New Orleans?
While Creedence was on tour, probably ’70, ’71, something around there. I felt like a spectator! I was just standing out there on the street taking it all in.
And now you’re playing in the bayou. Sort of.
Well, I’ve played the Jazz Fest before, but a lot of my best memories are of myself walking around the Fest as an attendee when I wasn’t playing—walking around by myself, just taking it all in. I mean, I’m very honored to be part of this 50th Anniversary show. But as to how many times have I actually played the Fest? You’d have to call Quint. [laughs]
Sunday, May 5
Gentilly Stage, 5:40 p.m.