Songwriting Tips from the Experts, Part 14

I confess to a certain Ricky Nelson ethos with these blog posts in general and this series in particular. Nelson, a child star who appeared with his parents in the 50’s sitcom Ozzie and Harriet, wrote a smash hit in the early 70’s, “Garden Party,” about the less-than-enthusiastic reception he received playing a gig at NYC’s Madison Square Garden when he tried out his new, countrified fare to a crowd who clamored for his frothy-by-comparison, teen-idol tunes of the late 50’s and early 60’s.  (You can read the interesting story behind the song, with its “American Pie”-like references to rock music history, here.)  The takeaway line from the chorus says, “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”  This series has been fun for me; I hope a few others have benefited from it along the way.

Our final interview from Paul Zollo’s massive Songwriters on Songwriting features John Fogerty, the4cbba38f-2e52-41a9-95c2-5fd780c1711f-XXX_PO_031919Woodstock50Lineup11 driving force behind the prolific Creedence Clearwater Revival (CCR), purveyors of what is sometimes known as Swamp Rock, for its “Born on the Bayou” overtones.  You’ll also hear the progressive verb “choogling” used in reference to the band’s energetic boogie grooves, heard here in such Fogerty-penned classics as “Proud Mary”; “Down on the Corner” (given an interesting symphonic treatment here); and one of my first-ever-purchased 45’s as a pre-teen in the early 70’s, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door,” sung here as part of a hang-in-there-during-COVID video Fogerty recorded last year. 

(As an added treat, I’ll include what I’d consider one of the two best covers in the history of rock, Ike & Tina Turner’s incendiary rendition of “Proud Mary,” shown here, along with other music and some Q & A, from an episode of the iconic 70’s-era soul-music weekly TV show Soul Train.  [Ike was an abusive husband, unfortunately, and Tina eventually left him following years of mistreatment, just a hint of which you can sense here.]    The other best cover?  Jimi Hendrix’s transformation of Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.”  You’re welcome.)

Here are a few lines from the back-and-forth in Zollo’s interview:

Zollo: When you write a song, where do you start?

Fogerty: I’ll sit with a guitar and I’ll be noodling: doing riffs, chord changes, whatever, to get a good rhythm or a good something.  Since I’m such a rock and roll guy, I try to connect a song with a riff, and therefore an arrangement. . . . [T]hat’s what gets me started.  And then I think about the title.  Because when you hear a song on the radio, it must have a good title.  Like “Bad Moon Rising [one of  CCR’s big hits].”  That’s a good title.  And I’ve got a book of titles I’ve been keeping for a long time.

Contemporary worship music (cwm) songwriters, how about keeping a book of Holy-Spirit-inspired titles and then working from that vantage point?

Zollo: What busted you through [writer’s block] for [your most recent] album?

Fogerty: . . . I have to have a valid melodic structure that can hold up over a whole song.  And writing words is the last thing I do in a song.  Because they’re so doggone hard.  I agonize over words.  If I’m going to put all that heartache into it, it better be a decent song.

Songwriting is hard for me.  It’s not like they just come rolling out of my ears or anything.  And the only difference between me and the other guy who is a songwriter is that I cull.  I throw away a lot of stuff.  I throw it away until what is left is good.  I’m willing to do that work.  I don’t keep something until I think it’s great.

This series has touched upon my perception that cwm songwriters would benefit from what Fogerty refers to as “culling,” a process that certainly paid off for him; CCR had 16 songs in Billboard‘s Hot 100, nine of which hit Top 10.  Not that chart success always indicates greatness where songwriting is concerned, but Fogerty’s efforts have stood the test of time.  Will people be singing Chris Tomlin’s songs in 50 years?  (To his credit, I think our grandchildren will sing the best of his oeuvre.)

Zollo: [Your songs have] a timeless quality.  It’s surprising to me how few people know you wrote “Proud Mary.”  I think the reason is because it seems that it has been around forever.  And so many of [your] songs . . . have that quality as well, . . . perfect and timeless.

Fogerty: That is what I go for in writing a new song.  I feel when you write a song, it should all work.  There shouldn’t be a part of it that is awkward, that makes you wonder why [the songwriter] went there.  It should all go logically.  I try to make something that stands up by itself.  And I don’t rest until it’s done.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I received Zollo’s second, equally massive, collection of songwriting interviews for Christmas, and maybe I’ll launch a Part II of this series after I read it.  In the meantime, I hope to show how the essence of the 14 sets of songwriting tips from the past several months manifest themselves in the greatest cwm songwriter ever since we started talking about cwm in the 60’s (and even further back than that, as Lester Ruth argues in his forthcoming history).  Any guesses?

The Lord be with you!



About Warren Anderson

Emmaus Road Worshipers is written by Dr. Warren Anderson, Director of the Demoss Center for Worship in the Performing Arts at Judson University (Elgin, Ill.), where he also directs the Judson University Choir. A Judson alumnus, he has served his alma mater in a number of capacities over the past 30+ years, especially the chapel ministry, which he led for 22 years. From 1982-2016, Dr. Anderson served six different churches--American Baptist (X2), Converge, Evangelical Free Church of America, Roman Catholic, and United Methodist--as a "weekend warrior" worship musician/pastor. He is a former member of the editorial board of Worship Leader magazine. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily the views of Judson University.
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