Okay, so first I was going to assemble an ABC of exotic words or references – exotic for me, as a non-native European – in the Creedence repertoire. Stuff like the ‘Mars tax’ in It Came Out of the Sky (an episode involving Spiro T. Agnew, 39th VP of the United States) and the ‘chasing down the hoodoo’ line in Born on the Bayou. But as soon as I opened the lid on the latter, I realized I was knee-deep in the alligator-filled swamps of Louisiana.
Let’s go south.
“Born on the Bayou
Born on the Baaaaah-you”
The opening track of ‘Bayou Country’ is probably the song that links CCR to the American South the most. With Fogerty’s biting raspy drawl, its edgy, ripply guitar sound and references to New Orleans and the infamous bayou, Born on the Bayou feels like a genuine return to Fogerty’s birthplace. But, as any CCR fan will tell you, John and his elder brother Tom were born and raised in Berkeley, California. Fogerty has said Born on the Bayou is about a ‘mythical childhood’.
But what exactly is a bayou? According to National Geographic:
“A bayou is a slow-moving creek or a swampy section of a river or a lake. They are usually found in flat areas where water collects in pools. Bayous are often associated with the southeastern part of the United States.”
Interestingly, movies played a big part in Fogerty’s love for the South. In 1997, he told Rick Clark (as quoted in ‘Bad Moon Rising: The Unauthorized History of Creedence Clearwater Revival‘):
“I gravitated towards movies that were Southern in nature. The movie The Defiant Ones was very Southern. Another old movie that was a favorite of mine was called Swamp Fever [should be Swamp Water, ed.], believe it or not. I think I hooked into all of that stuff because of the music first.”
Gospel music, that is. The South seems to have made a strong impact on the young Fogerty. “An imaginative South”, Thomas M. Kitts writes, “Formed from reading but mostly music and films like Swamp Water [Jean Renoir, 1941, ed.], one of his favorites, with its […] images of swamps, quicksand, moonshiners, alligators, snakes, human skulls and crucifixes.”
Come to think of it, a great way to ‘feel’ the bayou is by watching Jim Jarmush’ black-and-white cult classic ‘Down by Law’, starring Tom Waits, Roberto Benigni and John Lurie as cellmates and later escapees in the swamps of Louisiana. Great stuff.
“Chasin’ down a hoodoo there”
Right, what is hoodoo? It sounds like voodoo, but it’s not quite the same. Voodoo (or Vodou) is a religion while hoodoo can be labeled folk magic. In the Rick Clark interview, Fogerty explains:
“Hoodoo is a magical, mystical, spiritual, non-defined apparition, like a ghost or a shadow, not necessarily evil, but certainly other-worldly. I was getting some of that imagery from Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters.”
Generally, hoodoo is a series of magical beliefs and practices among people of West-African descent in the Southern States.
In 1950, bluesman Muddy Waters released a single called Lousiana Blues on Chess. He wrote: “I’m goin’ down in New Orleans, hmm // Get me a mojo hand.” Very similar, but even more famous was Got My Mojo Workin’: “Going down to Louisiana to get me a mojo hand”. A mojo hand is a lucky charm for hoodoo believers, a little cloth bag filled with roots, herbs and minerals – also know as gris-gis (which happens to be the name of Dr. John’s debut album).
In his excellent article ‘The hoodoo roots of blues music’, Dr. Snake names Hoochie-Choochie Man by Wille Dixon as one of the best-known hoodoo songs. In the first verse, a soothsayer tells a future mother: “You got a boy child comin’ // Gonna be a son-of-a-gun.” The term ‘son-of-a-gun’ made me pause for a moment, because Fogerty added the words ‘of a gun’, which is not on the studio track, in the Fortunate Son on the ‘Live in Europe’ album: “I’m no military son of a gun.”
He maybe also have picked it up from Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (see below) or from Happy Son of a Gun by Buck Owens’ Buckaroos. And look who made an appearance on Looking Out My Back Door: “Dinosaur Victrola list’nin’ to Buck Owens // Doo, doo, doo, lookin’ out my back door.”
There’s a long line of hoodoo-inspired music. From ‘Hoodoo Man Blues’ by the Junior Wells Chicago Blues Band (1965) all the way to the final album by Louisiana-born swamp rocker Tony Joe White, which was simply called ‘Hoodoo’ (2013). Those are just two of the most obvious ones. Also, a lot of the colourful blues names are rooted in hoodoo culture: Muddy Waters, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Howlin’ Wolf and of course Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, the man who gave the world I Put a Spell on You.
Hoodoo surely did get a hold on John Fogerty. It was even going to be the title of his third solo album, which remains unreleased. At a certain point in 1976, all was set to release the album on Asylum.
Fogerty’s record would have been in the company of Asylum label mates who released classic albums that year: Joni Mitchell’s ‘Hejira’, Jackson Browne’s ‘The Pretender’, Tom Waits’ ‘Small Change’, Warren Zevon’s self-titled debut album and the worldwide smash ‘Hotel California’ by The Eagles. But when Fogerty submitted the record, Asylum rejected it.
“After a few hours of dejection, Fogerty felt relieved”, Thomas Kitts wrote in his collection of essays ‘Finding Fogerty: Interdisciplinary Readings of John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival’. Fogerty himself didn’t like ‘Hoodoo’ at all, saying:
“A lot of that album was just gibberish. I even put a Scottish drum corps instrumental track on there because I couldn’t think of anything else to do.”
One of the album tracks was called Hoodoo Man, a song that some fans genuinely seem to like. Though the album is still in the vaults, it’s widely available through bootlegs. But for Fogerty, it seems like bad luck had struck. He went into hibernation and would only return in 1985 with ‘Centerfield’, a full decade after he cemented his solo career with the album that bears his name.
“Wish I was back on the Bayou.
Rollin’ with some Cajun queen”
The word Cajun is another sign that points to Louisiana. Now what is Cajun, other than a way to prepare chicken? Cajuns are people from French ancestry whose forefathers originally settled in Canada in the 1600s. But when the British came to power in Canada in the 18th Century, the so-called Acadians refused to be subjected.
They were considered a threat and forced into exile – an event known as Le Grand Dérangement. Some people ended up in Louisiana, which already had a French/Catholic community. The Cajuns then went on to develop a unique lifestyle in the swampy countryside.
Anyway, when Fogerty sang he was rolling with some Cajun queen. He was talking about a local beauty. But what does it all mean? In ‘John Fogerty: An American Son’, Kitts writes:
“All the song’s images concern a desire to return to not just his [the protagonist’s, ed.] youth but also an unconventional life, one freer, less conformist than the one he seems to be living”
Describing the Americanization of the Cajuns, Shane K. Bernard approaches this from a different cultural perspective: “Some hippies regarded the Cajun way of life, even if stereotyped, as an appealing alternative to mainstream America. They saw it as a return to nature and simpler times.” And that’s where CCR appears:
“One of the most popular rock bands of the period, Creedence Clearwater Revival, reflected the anti-establishment interest in south Louisiana culture. The group actively fostered a “Cajun” image, even though its members hailed from counterculture’s epicenter, San Francisco.”
But it was and remained an image:
“The group’s Cajun image promoted its members as rustic good old boys […] But as its bass player later confessed, “We wouldn’t have known a ‘Cajun vibe’ if it has stopped to talk to us. None of us had ever been to Louisiana or the bayou in our lives.”
A well-known Cajun song is Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (On The Bayou), a hit in 1952. In its first verse, the protagonist sets off in his ‘pirogue’ (a small canoe-like boat for fishing) to meet his own Cajun queen Yvonne. He also briefly opens the door to Cajun cuisine: jambalaya and a crawfish pie on a fillet gumbo. Guess who covered the song on his first solo record.
“Wishin’ I were a fast freight train,
Just a chooglin’ on down to New Orleans”
A-ha, there it is, chooglin’. Contrary to what you might think, it’s not some Southern slang. Fogerty made the word up. What is chooglin’? The answer to that question is on the opposite side of the ‘Bayou Country’ album, in the lyrics of Keep on Chooglin: “You got to ball and have a good time // And that’s what I call chooglin’.”
The word really ties the first and the last song of ‘Bayou Country’, and thus the entire album, together. Born on the Bayou and Keep on Chooglin are mighty bookends.