Behind the Song Lyrics: “The Old Man Down the Road” by John Fogerty

John Fogerty (Photo: Paul Butterfield)

Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

Embroiled in legal battles over an earlier contract, which forced him to relinquish the rights to his Creedence Clearwater Revival songs and keep recording new music, John Fogerty was stuck in a darker place for more than a decade after the band parted ways in 1972, and released some of the built-up frustrations on his third solo album Centerfield. 

Released in 1985, Centerfield chipped away at the underlying tensions with the single “The Old Man Down the Road,” depicting in its lyrics the uglier ends of the music industry that Fogerty was experiencing firsthand. “It tells the story about a man standing in your way with a suitcase covered in rattlesnake hide, eyes as black as coal,” said Fogerty of the meaning of the song lyrics.

He take the thunder from the mountain
He take a lightning from the sky
He bring a strong man to his begging knee
He make the young girl’s mama cry Y

You got to hidey-hide
You got to jump and run
You got to hidey-hidey-hide
The old man is down the road

He got the voices speakin’ riddles
He got the eye as black as coal
He got a suitcase covered with rattlesnake hide
And he stands right in the road

You got to hidey-hide
You got to jump up run away
You got to hidey-hidey-hide
The old man is down the road

He make the river call your lover
He make the barking of the hound
Put a shadow ‘cross the window
When the old man comes around

Additional tracks “Zanz Kant Danz” and “Mr. Greed” were also seen as directed toward Saul Zaentz, who now owned the publishing rights to the Creedence Clearwater Revival songs. Feeling broken by the music industry and not recording for nearly a decade, Fogerty even refused to play many of his CCR tracks on his 1986 tour. 

“I’m too honest,” said Fogerty in an interview. “I couldn’t sing ‘Proud Mary’ in front of people and try to feel as happy as that song is.” 

“The Old Man Down the Road,” which reached No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 10 and spent three weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Rock Tracks chart upon release, was the first big hit for Fogerty as a solo artist and depicted a more Faustian devil, a metaphor for the contract he had signed, all strewn around more moody swampier blues-rock.

At one point, Zaentz even sued Fogerty for $140 million, claiming “The Old Man Down The Road” sounded too similar to the  1970 Creedence song “Run Through The Jungle.”

“Apparently, the bass player of my old band went down to Fantasy Records with a copy of my new album ‘Centerfield’ and played Saul Zaentz a few of the cuts,” said Fogerty. “Anyway, Stu [Cook] played some of the cuts from my new album and he said, ‘John is ripping off Creedence. You should sue him,’ so Saul did.”

This bizarre lawsuit marked the first time an artist was sued for plagiarizing themselves. The case went to a jury and was eventually dismissed in Fogerty’s favor, though ongoing appeals kept the case open until 1993.

Written by Fogerty in Albany, New York on a Washburn Falcon guitar, the song was initially called “Somewhere Down the Road,” one of many working titles the artist had scribbled in his notebook. 

Even the song’s video directed by Mick Haggerty, who worked on many Hall & Oates videos at the time, brought more Fogerty to a newer generation on MTV, and attention to the lyrics with its imagery of an electrical cord plugged into an amp, making its way to a limousine, a swamp, and other spaces before reaching its final destination, Fogerty’s guitar.

Driving from El Cerrito to Berkeley, when Fogerty heard “The Old Man Down the Road” on the radio for the first time, he felt some vindication.

“I was overjoyed,” he said. ’Take that you old man… This was a triumph over evil!”

Photo by Paul Butterfield

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