Folks were out one night
To put me up a fence,
And you can guess that
I've been runnin' ever since
Read full Lyrics
It's highly unlikely that you're going to hear "Porterville" on your local classic rock station any time soon. You won't find the song on The Best of Creedence Clearwater Revival.
You won't find it on Chronicle 1
A good many of your friends who appreciate CCR probably couldn't name the tune offhand. And yet, despite its relative lack of popular notoriety, "Porterville" is one of the most important songs in CCR's catalog. It represented a key turning point in their musical evolution. It was that obscure tune, in fact, that transformed a group known as the Golliwogs into the great band that we know today.
Yokut Indian Cemetery, Tule River Reservation near Porterville, California, c 1900
Okay, first off - yes, I said the Golliwogs. That was the moniker that John and Tom Fogerty, Stu Cook, and Doug Clifford went by from 1964–1967, after being known as the Blue Velvets from 1959–1964 (yes, these boys most certainly paid their dues). The Golliwog name was adopted under the guidance of their manager, Max Weiss, who was trying to help the band fit in with the British Invasion that was overrunning American pop culture at the time. Golliwogs were staples of English culture. Many have said they were also more than a little bit racist, as well, but we'll get into that more in a bit.
Golliwogs was not simply a name for the band. No, it was a full blown identity, complete with matching flannel pants, groovy vests, and curly white wigs. One can assume that there were at least a couple acid-brained fans at that time who thought the Golliwog name was really bitchen, but the band members themselves disagreed. John Fogerty recalled that they "didn't like it at all. For four years after that, we were laughed at. You know, we were ashamed to say the name even!" They took the name not out of love, but out of the misguided idea that it would increase their commercial appeal.
Really, though, the band was fortunate in some ways that they only had to deal with some mild embarrassment over the name. The term Golliwog has taken on a racist connotation today, and any band of white guys trying to use that name today would surely be consumed by a Twitterstorm the likes of which has never been seen before.
Originally, the Golliwog was a character that appeared in an 1895 book by Florence Kate Upton. It quickly became an adored childhood symbol in the United Kingdom, being featured on jars of James Robertson & Sons jam and being sold by the thousands in the form of children's toys. The Golliwog was so popular that the term became standard blame for blacks in England, and it might have been where the derisive word "wog" originated from.
In recent years, the formerly beloved Golliwog has become increasingly unfavorable. The problem is that it very clearly harks to blackface iconography. All sorts of controversies have arisen in relation to it. Luckily for Creedence Clearwater Revival, the controversy surrounding Golliwogs was still a few years off while they were using the name. The band had no racist intentions with taking that moniker. While they were in many ways a counterpoint to the psychedelic counterculture scene of the 1960s, CCR always supported most of the social causes championed by the radical left, including civil rights. In the current social climate, though, people are often quick to defame before looking too deep into anything, and we can assume with a degree of certainty that the band would have been harpooned if they'd formed under the name Golliwogs in the 2000s.
In 1967, "Porterville" became the A-side of the final single released by the Golliwogs. It did not fare well on the charts. The song was then re-released in 1968 as the A-side of the first-ever single by Creedence Clearwater Revival. It still didn't do very well on the charts but, as Hank Bodowitz observes in his most excellent tome, Bad Moon Rising: The Unofficial History of Creedence Clearwater Revival
, the song marked a watershed for the quartet. And as John Fogerty stated, "I resolved at that point [the writing of "Porterville"] not to be mediocre. I resolved at that point to write real songs."
Fogerty wrote the song while serving on active duty in the Army. He recalls, "I went into the Army in early '67, and they got you marching all day out on an asphalt parade field about a mile square. And during all that marching, I would get delirious, and my mind would start playing little stories. They all seemed to be sort of swampy and Southern, in the woods and with snakes; Br'er Rabbit, Mark Twain, a great old movie with Dana Andrews and Walter Brennan called Swamp Water.
So I ended up writing the song "Porterville" while I'm stomping around in the sun. It's semi-autobiographical; I touch on my father, but it's a flight of fantasy, too. And I knew when I was doing it, 'Man, I'm on to something here.' Everything changed after that. I gave up trying to write sappy love songs about stuff I didn't know anything about, and I started inventing stories."
How or why the city of Porterville became the stage of events for the song is unclear. Considering the fact that Fogerty is a lifelong California boy, we can safely assume the Porterville being discussed is Porterville, California, and not one of the four other towns by that name in the United States. The city is gateway to Sequoia National Forest. It takes its name from an entrepreneur named Royal Porter Putnam who arrived there in 1860. It was also the site of the approximately six-week-long Tule River Indian War of 1856, an event as tragic as any in Native American history.
Listening to "Porterville" now, it's easy to see the birth of the unforgettable sound that was, and is, Creedence Clearwater Revival. The song itself sounds like the young man in its lyrics—desperate, angry, and dangerously disenfranchised. It has a raw edge to it, as if just barely restraining itself from flipping over the poker table and starting a violent rampage. Yet, despite the hair trigger, it's still danceable.
No matter what, rock and roll fans owe a debt to "Porterville." The song was pivotal in the development of a truly great and distinctly American band. It's also a pretty damn good little tune in its own right…even if it was originally released by a band named the Golliwogs.
~ Jeff Suwak
May 22, 2017
Browse all Songplaces