PATRIOT MONTH #5: Willy and the Poor Boys, by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1969)

Type of Media: Music Album

When I describe music as “deeply American Southern rock” you may not get the most flattering image in your head. For years Southern music has been represented by guys with big cowboy hats or back-swept manes spouting jingoistic pro-war rhetoric and objectifying women. That wasn’t always the case, though. In the 1960s Southern rock was firmly associated with the hippie movement, combining blues and country music with a populist folk rock ethos. Probably the most well-known band to come out of this genre is Creedence Clearwater Revival, and their album Willy and the Poor Boys is an accessible Southern rock ode to the protestors, poor folks, and prisoners of America.

Kicking off with Down on the Corner, Willy and the Poor Boys starts with a song that’s pure fun and joy. Driven by a steady, strong rhythm guitar accented with a shaker, lead singer John Fogerty sings about a group of busking street musicians brightening everyone’s day in a small town as they play for nickels. The following track, It Came Out of the Sky, is a rockabilly satire about a UFO crashing in the Midwest and the predictable responses that follow (Ronald Reagan blames it on the Communists, Hollywood makes a film about it, and the farmer whose land it crashed on wants to sell it for millions of dollars). 

Of course, this album isn’t just famous for its Americana. It’s also got a few political and social songs, most notably Fortunate Son. In it Fogerty ridicules the ‘fortunate sons’ of America, who put on a big display of American pride but, when wartime comes, use their money and political connections to avoid the draft. Dirty, low-tuned guitars rumble under Fogerty’s howling vocals, invoking a real sense of rebellion. Apart from that, Don’t Look Now (It Ain’t You Or Me) actually jabs at hippie culture, asking the urban drop-outs who’s going to mine coal and plough fields to keep the comforts of 20th century life around. And Effigy, the album’s closing track, paints a picture of an angry mob storming a palace and burning an effigy, dropping not-so-subtle hints that the effigy in question is of Richard Nixon.

Willy and the Poor Boys is a fantastic mix of old and new, taking clear inspiration from folk, country, and blues but giving it a more modern rock sound. This is most evident on the album’s two cover songs, Cotton Fields and Midnight Special, both originally performed by folk legend Lead Belly. On their original tracks, Fogerty’s songwriting quickly gets to the point and leaves before its welcome is worn out. Tracks rarely go over four minutes, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who could get offended by any of the lyrics. It’s music almost anyone can enjoy.

The music’s universal appeal probably explains why Creedence Clearwater Revival, despite being a Southern rock band, isn’t actually from the South. They formed in the East Bay near San Francisco as a reaction to the wave of bad psych rock bands that were infesting the area. The album cover of Willy and the Poor Boys, supposedly showing the titular busking band playing in a small Southern town, is actually the members of Creedence in front of Duck Kee Market in West Oakland. I think that’s amazing. A lot of people think that South Francisco and the American South are culturally incompatible, but Creedence bridged the divide. They fell in love with a part of America different from their own, and used that love to make music to bring people together.

If you're a fan of classic rock or blues and you haven't heard Willy and the Poor Boys, it's an obvious recommendation. For people who don't consider themselves rock fans, you should still at least give Down on the Corner and Fortunate Son a try, especially if you have any cultural ties to the South.