Proud Mary

You know how certain songs have special, personal meanings? We associate a song with a time, a place, or a person. Sometimes the song takes you straight back in time; in other cases, it simply represents part of one’s life. I can probably find 25-50 short stories about my life in songs. Add to that another couple hundred songs where I can add a fun fact or two. The power of music to bring a memory into focus is sublime.

I was still living with both parents in the summer of 1968, a period in my life where memories are vague at best. John Campbell was a kid in the neighborhood I didn’t spend much time with. He was about my age, and lived on the next block over from our street, 17th Avenue, in the “poor” part of Atherton, where lots were only a half acre. Drive two miles towards the foothills and castles can be found behind high stone walls. Anyway, this kid came back from a summer concert at the (Stanford University) Frost Amphitheater babbling “Oh Susie Q” over and over again. “What song is that?” “Oh, some band…Creeduh Clear…I don’t know, something like that.”

As the fall wore on, we began to hear “Susie Q” by Creedence Clearwater on the radio, and took notice of the new local band with the big-voiced singer. At that point we didn’t purchase the album; maybe we had the 45 with “Susie Q, Part 1” on side A, backed with the indulgent “Susie Q, Part 2” on side B, which did get some play on the home turntable, but not much.

Flash forward a few months to the late winter of 1968-1969. By this time my parents’ relationship had largely disintegrated, though I was too young to understand. As is widely known, there was great openness to experimentation around Palo Alto in the late 1960s. My parents rarely if ever used drugs, but found themselves in complicated love arrangements, and it was all falling apart. There was little affection between the two, but a child has no frame of reference to compare. I thought we were happy.

My father stayed up late, and either went to work all night, or spent his time in the garage working on his model railroad. By that time, he had probably abandoned the HO scale narrow gauge project, and began working on a new, smaller N gauge layout. I always took a keen interest in whatever dad was doing, and though I was only 10, I helped come up with the design concept for the layout. The real joy of model railroading is building the model, and my father must have spent 4-6 years building everything, including all of the throttles and power supplies from scratch. It was his last railroad project; he eventually moved it into the dining room after we moved out, and kept it there for the rest of his life. Model railroads require a fair amount of maintenance to keep operational. Dirty tracks don’t conduct through the wheels very well. But it worked some of the time, and after he died, somebody came to the estate sale and paid $500 for the Sierra Western Railroad, complete with realistic mountains and tunnels and little plastic men in little plastic stations.

My parents both liked pop music in the late 1960s, and took a keen interest in the new songs as much as the kids. “Susie Q” was pretty good, but when Creedence Clearwater Revival released their second single, “Proud Mary”, everything changed. My dad liked it a lot, and anything my dad liked that much must be good. From that point on, the Beatles were dropped as my favorite group, and Creedence Clearwater became my favorite for the next few years. Every time a new Creedence song or album was released, the world stopped.

One night, it must have been around March of 1969, I spent an evening hanging around with my dad as he built stuff for the railroad. Perhaps I had spent a night with him the previous week as well, because I knew that “Proud Mary” was on its way the pop charts, and had been #17 the week before. So on this evening in March, I hung out, watched my dad build stuff, maybe shot a few baskets, and listened to either KFRC or KYA count down the top twenty hits of the week. 1969 is a helluva year for pop music, so I’m sure we heard several songs that make the cut in the iPod collection. The anticipation built as the songs counted down, and to my great delight, Proud Mary was the #1 song of the week. Ah, how sweet the excitement! Me, a jumping up and down 10 year old, whose taste in music is now reinforced by the mighty AM radio.

(Note: Nationwide, “Proud Mary” topped out at #2 on the Billboard Top 40, one of five #2 hits for Creedence, who never had a #1 song.)

I still have a soft spot in my heart for “Proud Mary”, which kicked off a four or five year love affair with the band. Trying to look at the song objectively, I admire the unusual medium tempo, the simple, powerful drumming, and the message of putting one’s life ahead of work. And almost everybody knows the famous refrain:

“If you come down to the river,
Bet you gonna find some people who live,
You don’t have to worry ’cause you have [if you got] no money,
People on the river are happy to give.

Big wheel keep on turnin’,
Proud Mary keep on burnin’,
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river.
Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’ on the river. “

Proud Mary, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band ✭✭✭✭✭
Proud Mary, Ike & Tina Turner ✭✭

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