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Some folks are born made to wave the flag
In the very first line of the song, John Fogerty makes it clear that the difference between the fortunate and the unfortunate sons has everything to do with birth.
Fogerty makes a link here between patriotism and a person's social standing. According to this line, the fortunate sons, born into privilege, are the most vocal of patriots. They are the flag wavers and the ones who find it easy to outwardly express their pride in being American. They are so patriotic that they actually seem "red, white and blue," Fogerty yells in the very next line.
But as Creedence makes clear by the end of the song, these fortunate sons are not the men who have to back up their flag-waving by putting their lives on the line in the Vietnam War.
And when the band plays 'Hail to the Chief'
"Hail to the Chief" is the song traditionally played to honor the President of the United States (sometimes referred to as the Commander in Chief).
"Hail to the Chief" is a marching song usually performed by the U.S. Marine Corps Band at official public functions as a show of respect for the President.
At the time that "Fortunate Son" was written, in 1969, the band would have been playing "Hail to the Chief" for Richard Nixon.
They point the cannon at you
Here Fogerty changes the setting, tone, and mood of the entire song, simply by switching into the second person: now those cannons are pointed at you.
Lyrically, John Fogerty is doing something pretty interesting here. In the previous line, he mentioned "Hail to the Chief," which is played as a sign of respect (or a salute) to the President of the United States. This line brings to mind the 21-gun cannon salute, which is often used at official state functions as yet another sign of respect for the president.
The cannons begin firing during the four ruffles and flourishes that precede "Hail to the Chief." The 21-gun salute is also fired at military funerals. Though cannons, an instrument of warfare, are used in the ritual, it is by no means meant to be antagonistic. Rather, the cannon salute is fired as a sign of respect.
But in this line of the song, Fogerty adroitly changes the tone and the setting. Rather than being fired in salute, the cannon is being pointed "at you." The war is being brought home to the public in this line, bringing to mind the Armed Forces draft in place during the Vietnam War. The speaker in the song is no longer at an official state function; he is in the trenches, at war.
I ain't no senator's son
John Fogerty sure is not going to get an A for grammar here with his use of a double negative.
But that's not really the point. This is rock and roll after all. Rock is all about breaking the rules, and in "Fortunate Son," Creedence Clearwater Revival doesn't only break the rules of grammar again and again, but they defy American political authority.
In this line, Fogerty calls out the American political establishment, claiming that the sons of the elite were not the ones serving and dying in Vietnam. The sons of U.S. Senators who were of draft age were most likely enrolled in premier American universities, allowing them to avoid the draft.
According to Fogerty, "you got the impression that these people got preferential treatment, and the whole idea of being born wealthy or being born powerful seemed to really be coming to the fore in the late-sixties confrontation of cultures. I was mad at the specter of the ordinary kid who had to serve in the army in a war that he was very much against. Yet the sons of the well-to-do and the powerful didn't have to worry about those things." (Source)
Some folks are born silver spoon in hand
This is yet another attack on inherited privilege.
"Born with a silver spoon in his mouth" is an old English idiom that refers, a bit pejoratively, to people born into a wealthy family, where they can expect to enjoy a lifetime of unearned privilege.
Creedence Clearwater Revival was a band with strong working-class roots. All four members of the band were born in El Cerrito, a humble suburb in Northern California's East Bay. This blue-collar mentality comes through in many Creedence songs; the workingman's resentment of those born into a life of easy luxury comest through loud and clear in this line.
But when the taxman comes to the door
Lord, the house looks like a rummage sale
Strong imagery here: The taxman comes to the millionaire's door only to find the house decrepit and full of secondhand items.
Fogerty is using this image to argue that the families of privilege in America display no sense of duty. They are unwilling to make any personal or financial sacrifices for their country. Instead, he seems to say, they only take and take.
Some folks inherit star spangled eyes
Is easy patriotism, too, something that the "fortunate sons" inherit along with their silver spoons and draft deferments.
Fogerty not only throws out a nice simile here, but he also argues that it is the "senators' sons" and the "fortunate sons" who inherit a type of certain type of thoughtless patriotism.
The image of "star spangled eyes" brings to mind the idea of a blind patriotism. In the context of the late-1960s, this could mean that the sons of privilege in America don't have to question their faith in American foreign policy in Vietnam, because they will never have to suffer the consequences; they will never be the ones sent to fight and die there.
They send you down to war
Two members of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty and Doug Clifford, were drafted into military service in 1966.
What is interesting here is that both members of Creedence were able to avoid serving in Vietnam. John Fogerty was able to enlist in the Army Reserve rather than having to serve in the regular army. Meanwhile, Doug Clifford served in the Coast Guard Reserve. In some ways, you could say that these two were, well, fortunate. They never had to fight in Vietnam.
In some ways, then, it's a little ironic that they wrote this impassioned song about how sons of privilege were able to avoid serving in Vietnam, when they themselves avoided active duty. While it may detract a little from the song, they were nonetheless drafted and had to serve time in the military. Fogerty's major targets in this song are the fortunate sons who were able to avoid getting drafted altogether because of their wealth and influence.
And when you ask them, how much should we give?
Ooh, they only answer more! More! More!
President Lyndon Johnson was most responsible for escalating the American role in the war in Vietnam. He committed the military to a ground war in South Vietnam and air bombing in the North, requiring a greater U.S. troop commitment.
American military personnel in South Vietnam peaked in 1969, the same year that "Fortunate Son" was written. Troop personnel totaled 184,300 in 1965, rose to 385,300 a year later, and peaked in April of 1969, with 534,400 Americans serving in country.
This number would then gradually fall as President Nixon began trying to implement his strategy of "Vietnamization," seeking to transfer the bulk of the fighting responsibilities to the South Vietnamese forces.