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Clocking in at just over two minutes in length, Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" is a rock and roll tour de force. Doug "Cosmo" Clifford kicks the song off with just a simple drum line, followed closely by John Fogerty with what may be one of the most understated yet powerful guitar lines in the history of rock music. It has a heavy twang that resonates in your ears for days.
This intro sets the stage perfectly for Fogerty's raspy, unrestrained vocals. The vocal melody kicks in with a kind of power and verve that leaves you feeling like all hell has broken loose for the next two minutes. Maybe in this sense, the song itself is an apt metaphor for America's role in the Vietnam War. What seemed at first like a simple and straightforward project soon degenerated into noisy chaos.
"Fortunate Son" represents what you might call a great, big grumble from below—a perfect anthem for the ever-growing share of Americans in the late 1960s who were coming to see the war in Vietnam as a terrible mistake. Creedence Clearwater Revival, even more than other antiwar musicians of the era, were able to give voice especially to the class-based grievances let loose by the Vietnam War. "Fortunate Son" was an anti-Vietnam War protest song, sure. But it was also a Springsteenesque working-class anthem—just one that happened to be written well before Bruce Springsteen himself broke onto the scene. And "Fortunate Son" was every bit as poignant a protest song as anything written by Bob Dylan—only this song, unlike most of Dylan's stuff, is a tune you can rock out and dance to.
Even decades after its release, "Fortunate Son" remains a song that makes you want to pump your fist. This is punk rock before punk rock was even invented as a musical genre. (Now that's pretty punk rock.)
Like Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," Creedence's "Fortunate Son" has often been misheard as a simple, un-ironic, patriotic anthem. Just as many fans hear Springsteen's spar-spangled chorus and totally miss the bitterness of the words in "Born in the U.S.A.," here many tune out after the opening lines:
Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh, they're red, white and blue.
Many then miss the strong anti-establishment message that follows. Both artists also work in a style drenched in Americana, making it easy to assume that the lyrics contain messages that are patriotic or even jingoistic in viewpoint.
But oh no, folks. Don't get it twisted. "Fortunate Son" is 100% a protest song (although Creedence frontman John Fogerty would argue, of course, that there's nothing unpatriotic about protest). "Fortunate Son" is a strong, impassioned statement against the Vietnam War and the political establishment in late-1960s America.
The entire song is built upon the idea that there is as unbridgeable divide that splits the fortunate sons and the unfortunate sons in America. For the fortunate sons, "born with silver spoon in hand," life is good. Protected by class privilege and a discriminatory military draft system that favored the wealthy and well educated, they will never have to serve a tour of duty in Vietnam. They have the luxury of seeing the war as nothing more than an abstract idea, something they hear about on the news. They're free to support the war without having to face the consequences.
But for the unfortunate sons of America, who have no inherited wealth or privilege to protect them, the draft is likely to send them off to the jungles of Vietnam to fight and maybe die in a seemingly pointless war against an intractable enemy. Fogerty's lyrics argue that it is the fathers of the fortunate sons—"senators," "millionaires"—who got America entangled in Vietnam, but it is the sons of the powerless—disproportionately poor, black, and brown—who have to pay the ultimate price.
When asked what inspired him to write "Fortunate Son" during an interview with Rolling Stone in 1970, Fogerty explained that "Julie Nixon [then-President Nixon's daughter] was hanging around with David Eisenhower [former-President Eisenhower's grandson], and you just had this feeling that none of these people were going to be involved with the war." (Source)
Ironically, Fogerty's assumption here was actually wrong: David Eisenhower would volunteer for military service in 1970, serving a total of three years as an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserve; far more time than Fogerty himself spent in the Army Reserve after being drafted a few years earlier. But Fogerty's assumptions, even if wrong, reveal the class tensions coming to the fore at the time. Fogerty went on to tell Rolling Stone that, "in 1969, the majority of the country thought morale was great among the troops, and like 80% of them were in favor of the war. But to some of us who were watching closely, we just knew we were headed for trouble." (Source)
And indeed, we were.
In the first years of American intervention in Vietnam, the vast majority of the American people supported the war effort. But as the war dragged on and on without seeming to move toward victory, and as the number of American ground troops grew and grew—from a few thousand in the early 1960s to nearly 200,000 in 1965 to a peak of more than half a million in 1968—the American public increasingly came to question U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
While some antiwar sentiment existed pretty much from the outset of the war, it really came to a head around the time that Creedence Clearwater Revival recorded "Fortunate Son" in November of 1969. Prior to the Tet Offensive of 1968, the antiwar movement was primarily composed of college students, hippies, and pacifists, part of a broader youth-based movement aimed at reforming traditional American social norms and values. But between 1968 and 1969, this disaffection with the Vietnam War expanded to include many middle-class moderates. On October 15th, 1969, two million Americans participated in a nationwide protest known as the Moratorium. During this period, over half a million young men defied the Selective Service draft, some of them burning their draft cards in large protest demonstrations.
President Nixon (elected in 1968) attempted to portray the antiwar protestors as mere "rabble in the street." Hoping to find political advantage in class divisions in America, Nixon called critics of the war unpatriotic elitists. His Vice President, Spiro Agnew, attacked antiwar protesters as "effete, impudent snobs" who "mock the common man's pride in his work, his family and his country." Nixon insisted in a speech delivered on November 3rd, 1969 that there existed a "great silent majority" of Americans who supported the war.
Then came "Fortunate Son," released the very same month that Nixon delivered his "Great Silent Majority" speech. Creedence Clearwater Revival, a band with an unimpeachable blue-collar background and perspective, called into question Nixon's notion that the antiwar movement was composed only of bums, burnouts, and campus elitists.
The song was incredibly critical of the Selective Service System, which produced a military that was disproportionately composed of minorities and the poor. These unfortunate sons lacked the resources to obtain educational or medical deferments, which were quite common among more affluent draftees. "Fortunate Son" poked holes in Nixon's rhetoric claiming that a "great silent majority" in America wholeheartedly supported the war. Instead, there may have been more of a "great angry majority." And "Fortunate Son" was their anthem.