I heard “Born On The Bayou” somewhere recently and found myself wondering, Why is John Fogerty so mad about being born on the bayou? There is something in the first verse about watching out for The Man, which could be a cause of indignation, but mostly the song is about running around in the woods with his dog; he’s not mad about anything, necessarily, he’s just singing like John Fogerty.
Raw anger is a very unpleasant thing to face. To put it in a song that anyone would want to hear, it has to be stylized—yet it can’t be predominantly seductive, or melodic, or witty, or in any way slick if it’s to keep its angry edge. (To hold its audience, hip hop must continually mitigate its anger with pleasing qualities . . . but not too much.)
On the other hand, the sound of anger does have a summoning power of its own, especially when it can be interpreted as a distress call. When it comes from a young person, we do hear it as a distress call. On The Ethical Ear, Austin Dacey posted recently on research demonstrating the arousing effect of vocalized “dysphonation,” i.e. distortion. Think of the rock singer or electric lead guitarist as a squalling baby.
In “Fortunate Son,” Fogerty is yelling much the same as in “Born On The Bayou.” He doesn’t take on a new persona for the Vietnam War protest number. But his abrasive blast is so perfectly suited to the subject matter here that it seems his meaning was always protest, and this meaning can be aimed at any of the outrages that come after the first one of being born, on the bayou or wherever.
The refrain “It ain’t me!” is a sensational hook of misdirection. The sophisticated baby is now grabbing our attention by yelling that it’s other than others.