There’s a lot of protesting going on these days, but that’s nothing new, in this country or anywhere else. Where there’s been dissent there’s been music, and the Vietnam War era helped give birth to a lot of what is today’s classic American rock and folk, because a good protest song never dies.
In a recent issue of American Songwriter, Senior Editor Paul Zollo, in his article “Writing Protest Songs,” talks about writers like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan whose protest music helped define the times they lived in. A man who was a few years younger than Dylan, but who would become an icon of the same era, John Fogerty turned to his guitar when he had an axe to grind as the writer of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1970 hit “Fortunate Son.”
A person hearing “Fortunate Son” for the first time in 2020, especially someone who wasn’t around in the days when young men were being drafted to go to war, might have to ponder the lyric for a minute to get the full meaning. But in 1970, when songs like Country Joe McDonald’s “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die-Rag” and Bob Seger’s “2 + 2 = ?” criticized the government for sending young soldiers to their deaths, everyone immediately understood what “Fortunate Son” was about.
Fogerty told Rolling Stone magazine in 1993 about the people who helped inspire the hook that ends each verse – It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no millionaire’s son, no, no/It ain’t me, it ain’t me, I ain’t no fortunate one, no. “It was written, of course, during the Nixon era, and well, let’s say I was very nonsupportive of Mr. Nixon,” Fogerty said. “There just seemed to be this trickle down to the offspring of people like him. I remember you would hear about [daughter] Tricia Nixon and [her husband] David Eisenhower … You got the impression that these people got preferential treatment, and the whole idea of being born wealthy or being born powerful seemed to really be coming to the fore in the late-Sixties confrontation of cultures.”
With a simple but iconic guitar lick and a typical Fogerty scorching vocal, “Fortunate Son” had a simple structure of three verses and no chorus or a real guitar solo. It was memorable mostly for that repeated hook that was pounded into listeners’ heads on its way to becoming part of our social consciousness. Fogerty said it came to him quickly.
“To my mind, if I’m writing a song, it probably means there’s going to be some work to it,” he recounted in his 2015 biography, Fortunate Son. “‘Fortunate Son’ was written in twenty minutes, but darn few are like that. And I’d probably been thinking about everything that was in that song for three or four years. I didn’t know it would start, ‘Some folks are born…’ – that came from nowhere. But the thought process had been going on for a long time.”
In a testament to its power to bridge generations, Wyclef Jean, Cat Power, Dropkick Murphys and others have covered the song, and Fogerty himself re-cut it in a performance with the Foo Fighters for his 2013 album Wrote a Song for Everyone. It also appeared on the soundtrack of the Tom Hanks Vietnam War-era classic film Forrest Gump.