It seems impossible to miss the message of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969 hit “Fortunate Son.” “Some folks are born, made to wave the flag,” John Fogerty sings during its opening salvo against the class divides in the Vietnam War era. “Ooh, they’re red, white and blue / And when the band plays ‘Hail to the Chief’ / Ooh, they point the cannon at you.”
It’s a defining single of the protest rock era, aimed right at silver-spoon hypocrites who claim patriotism to shield their privilege.
So why on earth does President Trump, perhaps the most fortunate of sons in American political life (who got a deferment from Vietnam service because of alleged bone spurs), keep playing it at rallies in the closing days of the presidential campaign?
“He’s in his helicopter, hovering over a big crowd. It’s like a scene out of all the Vietnam War movies, and maybe he sees that scene in his head, even if it’s completely cuckoo,“ Fogerty, 75, told The Times on the Friday afternoon before election day.
It’s a fair theory: Trump has played “Fortunate Son” as he exits his aircraft to take the stage at rallies. Maybe to him it evokes a mashup of scenes from “Forrest Gump” and “Apocalypse Now,” movies that used Creedence’s music style as shorthand for the era.
Fogerty sent cease-and-desist letters to the Trump campaign and even joined TikTok for the sole purpose of roasting the president for playing it.
“The fact that Mr. Trump also fans the flames of hatred, racism, and fear while rewriting ancient history, is even more reason to be troubled by his use of my song,” he said in the letter. But Fogerty still can’t quite believe it when he sees it.
“I’m surprised there isn’t a guy next to him in uniform sitting like Robert Duvall saying, ‘I love the smell of napalm in morning’,” Fogerty joked, quoting the most famous line from “Apocalypse.” “The song is decrying the kind of person he is. He’s absolutely that person I wrote the song about.”
As the most tense and consequential election in recent history lurches to a close (one way or another), one of Fogerty’s best-loved songs is again a flashpoint for political hypocrisy — just not quite in the way that he intended decades ago. But a new album with his ad hoc family band is keeping his spirits up during the COVID-19 pandemic, as he awaits Tuesday’s results with a mix of hope, jitters and a sense that the present is rhyming with history yet again.
“I could have written that song right now,“ Fogerty said of “Fortunate Son.” “But when Mr. Trump does this over and over, stands there and tells you a baldfaced lie about what he said yesterday, he’s hoping we forget its original intent. He’s using what I have — my record, my song, my voice — and I don’t want people to think I endorse that awful white supremacy that’s so tone-deaf to our American ideals.”
Like other musicians this year, Fogerty’s frequent live gigs have been sidelined because of COVID-19. But a YouTube series he started with his youngest kids — Shane, 28; Tyler, 27; Kelsy, 18 — at the behest of his wife/manager, Julie, proved to be such a bonding experience during the pandemic that they cut a whole album, “Fogerty’s Factory,” revisiting Creedence and Fogerty solo cuts together.
Shane and Tyler have played them before as members in his touring band, but these homespun jam sessions were a bright spot in a difficult time for an artist with five decades on the road.
“Right after lockdown, when the country was still in shock, Julie came to me and said, ‘You should make a video of “Have You Ever Seen The Rain” and post it.’ I was puzzled: Why would the world need another video of me singing that?,” he said. “But I see it now.”
Maybe no living songwriter has more miles under their belt playing songs so specifically aimed at politicians who stoke division to keep power. A combination of COVID-19, climate change and racial justice movements have galvanized a new protest culture that, to Fogerty, both echoes and surpasses the late-1960s and ’70s activism that helped cement his band in history.
“In the ’60s, it was pretty dang tense,” he said. “There was a war that young people hated. I used to shake my head and ask, ‘Where are the songwriters, why isn’t anyone writing about this?’ Now it’s a very tense time again. We need music from artists that reminds us that all is not OK, because the Black community here has certainly known that for 400 years, and you’ve got to be culturally and ethically blind to not be aware of that.”
Fogerty distinctly remembers his first time voting — in the 1966 California governor’s race, in which future President Ronald Reagan beat the incumbent Democrat, Pat Brown, in a landslide. Even then he saw the contrasts between the cheery, morning-in-America aesthetic of the conservative culture Reagan represented and the discontent that he felt at home, and that was soon reflected in Creedence’s music.
This election season, he’s already voted, and not for the guy playing his songs against his will. “I made sure the [ballot] drop box was the right kind,” he said. “We didn’t want to take a chance of it going through the mail.”
He still has high hopes that if enough Americans do the same, Trump may not have many rallies left to play “Fortunate Son.”
“It’s a remarkable thing about humans — even though you’re tired, sad and overwhelmed by how awful you’re feeling, you somehow get some sleep and think about it; you try other angles,” he said. “You have to believe you’re going to get through it.”