If a song is instantly recognizable from the very first guitar chord, it usually means that it's a rock and roll classic. And Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" most certainly fits into this category.
The song starts out with Doug Clifford's simple, understated drum line, which almost resembles the sound of a military drummer boy. But this drumbeat propels the song forward. Then comes the guitar intro, setting things up perfectly for John Fogerty's angry, impassioned vocals.
Through the full two minutes and 20 seconds of "Fortunate Son," John Fogerty shows a complete unwillingness to enunciate his words. His vocals are raspy and strangled. Apparently, he sounds like this because he strained his vocals while recording "Down on the Corner," which was the first A-side single from Willy and the Poor Boys. That's right, "Fortunate Son" was only a B-side.
Even if Fogerty's voice is strained on this recording, though, it's hard to imagine hearing the song any other way. Fogerty's vocals have an impassioned, defiant quality that really fits in with the message he tries to put forward. What's interesting about the guitar part in this song is that following the strong, twangy, high-pitched intro, the guitar mostly takes a back seat, allowing Fogerty's vocals to come to the fore.
The guitar part is distorted and played in aggressive lower notes, providing a contrast to the vocal melody. Only during the breakdown in the middle of the track does the guitar reassume center stage, returning to the high-pitched, twangy sound from the intro. The guitar breakdown itself sounds just as angry and defiant as Fogerty's vocals. If you ever wondered what a pissed off guitar sounded like, just listen to this breakdown.
"Yeeeaah!" yells Fogerty as his vocals come back in, reassuming the spotlight. Fogerty sings one more verse, then continues to wail, "It ain't me, it ain't me…" And just like that, the song ends. This is a concise and powerful protest anthem, as tight a song as you'll ever hear.
Creedence Clearwater Revival's calling card has got to be their Southern-influenced "swamp rock" sound. The band was heavily influenced by Southern blues, and the sound they perfected was rooted in this American musical tradition.
But there's one weird thing about this story: Creedence Clearwater Revival wasn't from the South. They actually hailed from El Cerrito, an East Bay suburb of San Francisco in Northern California, just a couple thousand miles from the swamps of Louisiana. John Fogerty may have written "Born on the Bayou," but he was actually born in Berkeley.
Questions of authenticity aside, Creedence certainly did transport themselves—musically anyways, if not physically—to the Southland. Creedence's sound was a far cry from the psychedelic rock that dominated most of the San Francisco music scene in the late 1960s.
Let's just say that John Fogerty and the boys weren't known for wearing any flowers in their hair. While many bands of this era were busy playing long, improvisational jams, Creedence kept their song structures tight, drawing on classic rock and blues influences.
"Fortunate Son" is extremely simple in the songwriting department; it's Fogerty's impassioned vocal delivery, more than any kind of intricate poetic structure, that carries the song. There's no real rhyme structure in "Fortunate Son." The only rhyming couplets come with "son" and "one." Nothing too complicated.
In a move sure to bother uptight grammarians and unlikely to be noticed much by anyone else, Fogerty also makes extensive use of the double negative. In a couple cases, he even pulls out the rarely seen triple negative: "I ain't no fortunate one, no." But in the end, does this really matter? Rules are meant to be broken…at least when it comes to writing rock anthems.
The simple structure in "Fortunate Son" leaves plenty of space for Fogerty to show off his strengths as a songwriter, which lie principally in his ability to evoke strong feelings through strong imagery. Take one of the more arresting lines in the song, for example:
And when the band plays hail to the chief
Ooh they point the cannon at you, lord
What a powerful image: A military band plays "Hail to the Chief" for President Nixon until Fogerty suddenly turns the ceremonial cannons straight at you. What is supposed to be a patriotic sign of respect for the Commander in Chief suddenly becomes far more antagonistic, bringing to mind images of warfare. Fogerty also makes great use of simile with the line "star spangled eyes," creating a memorable image of somebody completely blinded by patriotism.