Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys

Creedence Clearwater Revival – Willy and the Poor Boys
Released November, 1969

Ah, I love me some Creedence. They’ve always been on the stereo, ever since I was a little kid. For me, it’s almost a dead heat between “Willy and the Poor Boys” and “Cosmo’s Factory” for CCR’s best album. Luckily, “Cosmo’s Factory” came out one year after Willy, in 1970, sparing us the awful decision! The sounds of Creedence Clearwater Revival are timeless. They’re one of those bands that will still be being played on the radio fifty years in the future. It’s already at 43 years!

‘Fortunate Son’ is a great example of that timelessness. Although it was written in 1969 (and in about 20 minutes!), the lyrics are still relevant today, and I guess will be, as long as the world has a war going on… When asked what inspired the song by Rolling Stone, Fogarty said, “Julie Nixon was hanging around with David Eisenhower, and you just had the feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war. In 1969, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and like eighty percent of them were in favour of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble.” ‘Fortunate Son’ is often misinterpreted as a patriotic song, but it’s pretty clearly the opposite of that! It was also a very successful B-Side to the ‘Down on the Corner’ single, reaching #14 on the United States charts.

The opening track, ‘Down on the Corner’, made it to #3 on the Hot 100 chart in ’69. It tells the story of a fictional band, “Willy and The Poor Boys” who were what we’d call now Buskers, playing for nickels and just “trying to bring you up”. It features some quite unintelligible lyrics that have caused a lot of confusion over the years. I swear I heard “you don’t need a pinhead, just to hang around”, rather than “you don’t need a penny”… It also speaks of a “gut bass”. As a bassist, this piqued my interest. For anyone else interested, this is a gut bass. Stu Cook is actually credited as playing a gut bass on the track ‘Poorboy Shuffle’.

‘Poorboy Shuffle’ is a track that is in keeping with the concept of “Willy and the Poor Boys” (although it’s not a concept album as such) but it feels kind of out of place. It’s just an instrumental track played in the style of a traditional “jug band”, using the gut bass, washboard, and harmonica. It’s almost like an intermission in the album. ‘Poorboy Shuffle’ does transition directly in to ‘Feelin’ Blue’, which follows a similar musical direction to ‘Born on the Bayou’, or ‘Heard it Through the Grapevine’. I think now, if I had to explain CCR to someone who’d never heard them, I’d play ‘Feelin’ Blue’ and ‘Fortunate Son’. It just epitomises the Creedence sound. Along the lines of ‘Fortunate Son’, ‘It Came Out of the Sky’ is another anti-establishment song. An object falls out of the sky from space and the lyrics outline the overreaction from the government, saying that Ronald Reagan assumed it was a communist plot, and Spiro Agnew decided he’d use it as a ploy to raise the “Mars Tax”, a reference to the then vice president wanting to send a mission to Mars, but was told there wasn’t enough money for a mission that huge.

‘Midnight Special’ is a traditional song that originated from Southern prisoners. It seems a lot of albums we look at for afyccim have arrangements of traditional songs… I’m unfamiliar with any other versions of this song, but even though it’s earliest recording was in 1926, it could easily be thought of as a Creedence original. Their arrangement is spot on, and it fits their style perfectly. It’s probably worth noting here, that Creedence, while deeply identifying with the south of America, and singing a lot about southern themes, were actually from Northern California… ‘Effigy’ was a revelation for me from this album. It wasn’t a track I had ever heard before, but it immediately had an impact on me. It’s a chilling, sombre kind of song, that is clearly sending a message of public unrest, in a time when a lot of the American people were protesting against war, specifically Vietnam. I do not understand what it’s about, but I do understand music, and it is a ripping song.

Creedence Clearwater Revival will always be a favourite of mine, and “Willy and the Poor Boys” will be staying on my iPod. An evergreen classic. And now, as is my want, I will leave you with an interesting fact: “Willy and the Poor Boys” peaked at #1 in France. Anyone else have trouble visualising that? No? Just me then…

My earliest memory of Creedence Clearwater Revival is from my primary school days in the 90’s. Every year there was a cultural festival where kids of all ages would perform skits and combined choral performances. And our grade 3 teacher Mr Collins would get together with a teacher from another school providing musical entertainment between the performances. Mr Collins would always play ‘Down on the Corner’ and man, the kids loved it! I just remember us all clapping and singing along with the ‘doo doo doo doo doo doo doo’ bits cos that was the only bit we knew. There’s so much about ‘Willy and the Poor Boys’ that I love. It’s got this rusticity to it that is achieved by the use of non-traditional percussion such as cow bells and washboards, giving it a really home-made sound. The production seems to be minimalist and non-fussy. It’s tinged with elements of folk, rock and even country, and to me, is the ultimate driving album, because it has a complete synergy to it and this feeling of forward-motion. My favourite track aside from ‘Down on the Corner’, is ‘Fortunate Son’. To me, it really is a classic protest song about sticking the middle finger to ‘the man’; I can see why it was so popular around the time of the Vietnam War, and earned its place on the Forrest Gump soundtrack in 1994. Overall, I like this album because it relates to happy memories from my life, such as my Dad singing the harmonies of ‘Cottonfields’ in the car, and that’s the unique thing about music, it really does create links between the moments in our lives. I challenge you to listen to this album without tapping your feet, it’s near on impossible.

This album has everything that you’d expect from Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s mostly upbeat and rarely strays from the I-IV-V chord formula or the double guitar, bass and drums instrumentation. There’s not a minor chord to be heard until the last track ‘Effigy’, a song about the futility of violent spectacle in public protests. After listening to this record a few times you can almost sing along to every word, some songs are that catchy. It contains three of their most popular songs, ‘Down On The Corner’, ‘Fortunate Son’ and their cover of American folk tune ‘The Midnight Special’, but even the album tracks are good. The chugging ‘Feelin’ Blue’ has a great groove that finds John Fogerty in fine voice. I like the way he sings ‘soyten’ instead of certain and how he articulates “Now, I’m no ‘shinner’ and I ain’t no ‘shaint’,”. ‘It Came Out Of The Sky’ is another highlight for
me, making a song about a suspected UFO sighting sound quite fun and cheerful, with the welcome addition of a piano. They do a wonderful cover of ‘Cotton Fields’ as well. The two instrumentals, ‘Poorboy Shuffle’ and ‘Side o’ The Road’, don’t do anything for me, the latter sounding like a poor man’s ‘Green Onions’ sans organ. Or should that be poor boy? ‘Fortunate Son’ is one of my favourite CCR songs, and is my pick off the album. It has a fierceness that most of their other music lacks, and one of the few protest songs that doesn’t sound horribly dated. I don’t need to listen to ‘Down on the Corner’ or ‘Midnight Special’ ever again, as they have reached overkill limits in my brain, but that’s not this album’s fault. All in all, it’s a perfect record to play during your Sunday afternoon BBQ.

It’s kind of crazy to think that CCR released 3 albums in 1969 and managed to keep the quality high for the majority of songs. They were obviously one of those bands where everyone clicked and created magic when they came together. CCR’s singer was John Fogerty, and well, he was a bit of a narcissistic bastard. Don’t get me wrong, he made CCR what they were but he was also responsible for their eventual demise. For years after the band split, he refused to play any CCR songs as it was too painful to revisit the songs from his past. He must’ve either had a lot of therapy or just really needed the money because he now happily plays them on tour. “Willy and the Poor Boys” is a great album. The music is well entrenched in the folklore of America and is swamp rock at its best. I defy anyone to listen to it and not like it. Well more than a few songs at least. I pity the person who doesn’t find their foot tapping along to the song ‘Down on the Corner’. If I saw a group of guys on a corner playing a washboard, a gut bass, a kalamazoo and a kazoo collectively I’d surely throw a nickel down. Other favourite tracks include the rollicking bluesy track ‘Feelin’ Blue’ and the instantly recognisable ‘Fortunate Son’. I grew up listening to this stuff and ‘Down on the Corner’ is one of the first songs I learnt on guitar. I thought this album was a bloody cracker. My only complaint is that the two instrumental tracks tend to feel a little superfluous. Otherwise, it is solid both musically and lyrically and is an album I’m sure I will be revisiting again and again. Preferably on the verandah on a Sunday arvo with a beer in hand watching the sun go down.

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