We spoke with blues singer Janiva Magness about her new Blue Elan album containing a dozen covers of John Fogerty compositions, including seven Creedence Clearwater Revival classics and five John Fogerty solo songs, plus her new memoir Weeds Like Us.
By Warren Kurtz
CREEDENCE CLEARWATER REVIVAL is the only rock band other than The Beatles to have a greater than fifty percent rate of flip sides in the Top 100. All these songs were written by CCR’s John Fogerty. The quartet’s seven charting flip sides are “Lodi,” “Commotion,” “Fortunate Son,” “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” “Run Through the Jungle,” “Long as I Can See the Light,” and “Hey Tonight.” Since its early 1969 release, the flip side “Born on the Bayou” has also become a very popular CCR song that was overshadowed at the time by its A side “Proud Mary.” Blues singer Janiva Magness selected two of these flip sides, “Lodi” and “Fortunate Son,” for her new Blue Elan album Change in the Weather, along with five other CCR songs and five John Fogerty solo songs.
GOLDMINE:The first time I heard your voice was when we were doing a promotion for the Blue Elan album Peaceful Easy Feeling: The Songs of Jack Tempchin. I had an advance copy and I asked Jack, “Who is singing with you on some of these Glenn Frey songs including the flip side “Soul Seachin’” and the bonus track “I Found Somebody?” He told me about you. Oh, my goodness! I love what you brought to those songs.
JANIVA MAGNESS: Thank you. I certainly knew of Jack Tempchin but I didn’t get to know him personally until we were labelmates. What an extremely humble, talented, and gifted artist. He is a very sweet and unassuming kind of guy. When he was recording that album, he said he wanted to do some blues oriented versions of a few of his songs and asked me, “Would that be something you would be interested in doing as I would love to have you sing on my record with me?” I replied, “Yes,” and I was thrilled!
GM:On your new Blue Elan album, I knew the CCR songs from the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I wasn’t as familiar with the John Fogerty songs from more recent decades, so thank you for those song introductions. How did you go about the song selection process?
JM: We were looking for songs that resonated with me. John Fogerty is such an incredible writer, so you really aren’t going to find any bad songs. If you took an entire wall and listed every song that John Fogerty ever wrote and then blindfolded yourself and threw a dart, you would hit a great song.
GM:That is so true and so many to pick from. A good example of that is that none of the songs you selected are duplicated on the new Live at Woodstock album from their August 1969 performance at the festival. Two months after that event, the group’s next single was released, “Down on the Corner,” which charted in late October, followed by its flip side charting in the next month, “Fortunate Son.” I was so pleased that you chose that song and created a powerful new great version of it with Dave Darling as a producer, making it very exciting, along with the guitars, piano and especially the drums and your vocal commanding delivery.
JM: Cool. I’m glad you like it. It is a great song to begin with, so approaching it as an artist, covering someone else’s song, especially something as widely known as “Fortunate Son,” you want to bring something new to it and I think having a woman sing it is part of that, especially in today’s climate, and have it sound legitimate, that I mean the words that I am singing. Dave Darling and Zachary Ross are on guitars, Gary Davenport is on bass, Alan Oscar is on piano, and Steve Wilson is on drums. They play throughout the entire album.
Creedence Clearwater Revival
Flip side: Fortunate Son
A side: Down on the Corner
Top 100 debut: 1969
Peak Position No. 3
GM:“Fortunate Son” was one of 26 songs that John just performed at the 50th anniversary of Woodstock at Bethel Woods, New York on August 18. He didn’t do anything from the final CCR album Mardi Gras, when they were down to being a trio in their final days. He discounts that album, but I enjoy it, so I was touched that you included CCR’s final Top 40 single from Mardi Gras, the often overlooked “Someday Never Comes.”
JM: My view on “Someday Never Comes” may have been different than what John was focused on. I think there is a lot to be said for shoehorning people into a narrow margin when growing up to become adults, exemplified with the lines, “You better learn it fast. You better learn it young.” There is a certain amount of social pressure on how young boys have to grow up and be men. Was it different then than it is today and if so, how much different? How much better or how much worse is it? There is an old philosophy or behavior that a parent is not going to explain anything to a child and that you will learn it when you are older. My parents said that stuff. There is a pain, disappointment, possibly rage and anger that a person comes to when there is no answer. There are certain things that are never going to make sense. To me, the most obvious thing with the CCR version is war. You are going to understand when you are older why we went to Vietnam and did what we did. And you know what, actually, no, we certainly don’t agree with that decision. For me, I was thinking about my brothers, all three who are now gone, and how they were told that.
Photo by Paul Moore, courtesy, Blue Elan Records
GM:I know you and I have sizable album collections, so I am happy that you picked a CCR album cut. It took me a little while to get into CCR. I listened to their cover of “Suzy Q” on the radio in 1968. Very early the following year “Proud Mary” debuted, but it didn’t have the excitement for me that Ike & Tina Turner would bring to it later, so it was their third album, Green River, later that year that I bought first. By then “Bad Moon Rising” and “Lodi,” which you now sing as a duet with Sam Morrow, were on the radio and then late that summer I was camping and not only did I enjoy the single “Green River” but also its flip side, “Commotion” on our transitor radio. That album had all of those radio songs plus the one you chose that ends the album’s first side, “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” and you have created a nice soulful version for your new album.
JM: Thank you. I love that tune. I have a very deep personal connection to the storyline. I believe it has to do with John’s personal experience with Woodstock and relating to that. He wanted to be able to connect with as many people as he could. In an artist’s career, if you are given the grace to become successful and have the opportunity to perform in front of lots of people, you want to connect. I think the song is about wanting to connect but not being able to have an individual conversation. It is a double-edged sword heard in the line, “I wrote a song for everyone, but I couldn’t even talk to you.”
GM:John Fogerty continues to perform in front of lots of people as a solo artist. His nineteen song set from Colorado’s Red Rocks ampitheater will be out in November, which includes sixteen songs that CCR recorded and his solo singles from his ‘80s Centerfield album, “The Old Man Down the Road,” “Rock and Roll Girls,” and its baseball flip side “Centerfield.” You went beyond those hits to more recent years with the five solo songs you selected. My favorite, with your smooth, beautiful voice is “Déjà vu (All Over Again).”
JM: Thank you. There is sadness with war and other issues, wondering are we really here again? Did we not learn from the mistakes of the past? We as a nation and we as the human race are in this place again. So much is focused on separation and so much fear is prevalent. The climate in this country does feel like the late ‘60s into the early ‘70s again and I feel an even stronger sense of urgency and maybe that is because of my age.
GM:You do a couple of songs from the Blue Moon Swamp album. “Blueboy” is a lot of fun.
JM: The second that Dave and I heard this, I said, “I’ve got to do this song.” It is straight up about blues and being in a backwoods juke-joint. There just aren’t that many of them left anymore. I have certainly performed in places like that. The venues with the most pure performances might be in the most unexpected places, you know, a juke-joint shack in the middle of nowhere where there is not a whole lot of commercialism and you get the experience of performing and hopefully pleasing an audience and if you want to go to the wee hours, you just keep on playing. Even though the sheriff will tell you that is is getting late, as in the song. I can check off been there, done that, too, with the sheriff standing in front of me, telling me to stop playing, and the crowd behind the sheriff screaming, “No!”
GM:You talk about being in backwoods places. I was in rural Louisiana a couple of years ago and saw a cottonfield for the first time and thought it was beautiful, but I am sure that is hard and backbreaking work as you sing about in “A Hundred and Ten in the Shade.” You really take us there with your bluesy delivery.
JM: Thank you. That song is another one that felt so right for me and didn’t feel like a huge stretch. I have spent a fair amount of time touring in the south. My father was from the south. I have a lot of family in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. They have the experience of brutal work. That cotton is real pretty until you try to pick it by hand. You may as well be trying to pull thorns off of a rose bush. I am glad that you feel that I painted the picture well.
GM:On your website you have a tab labeled as foster care, something you experienced after both of your parents passed away when you were young.
JS: I am a spokesperson and an alumni of foster care. It is a very important cause to me and I have a foster care tab on my website with a lot of information. I do a fair amount of public speaking to step forward to meet the need and inspire and encourage youth who are still in the system. A lot of what I say and hear now are things that would have been helpful to me when I was in the system growing up. This doesn’t have to be the defining moment or end of the story for anyone.
With B.B. King, 2009, photo by Merete Elde, courtesy of Janiva Magness
GM:In your new memoir, foster care, committing to music after seeing Otis Rush perform at Union Bar in a Minneapolis blizzard, being encouraged to pursue music after singing along to a Roberta Flack record, and so many aspects of your life are shared. My mouth dropped when, after one of your concerts, a person came up and said that he wanted to jam with you and it was one my musical heroes that I never have read about before, violinist Sid Page from Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks. You also had one of your musical heroes, B.B. King, present you the Entertainer of the Year award at the Blues Music Award show. On your website I see both concerts and book signings coming up. Congratulations on both the album and the book.
JS: Thank you and Goldmine. The album and book seem to be well received so I am relieved and grateful. My Weeds Like Us memoir is available on my website and at Amazon. There is a suggested play list in the back of the book to go with each chapter.
Warren Kurtz is a Contributing Editor at Goldmine. “Warren’s Fabulous Flip Sides” can be heard most Saturday mornings, in the 9 a.m. hour, Eastern time, as part of “Moments to Remember” at wvcr.com or iHeart Radio – search WVCR.