Creedence Clearwater Revival 50th Anniversary Special, Pt. 4 – WILLY AND THE POOR BOYS (1969)

  • ccr-willy-poor-boys

Well, this article was supposed to be published on December 31 as my 2019 blog finale; unfortunately, due to technical difficulties with my hosting service, there was a slight delay. Ah, well! Here’s to the inaugural post for 2020!

Towards the end of 1969, Creedence Clearwater Revival released Willy and the Poor Boys, the group’s third and final album of the year and the next link in the band’s musical evolutionary chain. A semi-concept album, Willy explores the harder side of life, channeling heavy doses of folk music, and spinning stories about America’s poor and working classes. Perhaps the record is best described as CCR’s answer to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s.
A1. “Down on the Corner”
The record’s opener is a feel-good, toe-tapper about the titular, fictional band performing on a street corner. The song sounds “happier” than any of the Creedence’s previous releases yet feels like a natural progression of the lighter tunes from Green River. The repeating riff and chorus are as infectious as can be, and the song’s rhythm is an unapologetic invitation to clap along or, better yet, “cut a rug.“ Another timeless classic from John Fogerty and company.
#03 – Billboard Hot 100
A2. “It Came Out of the Sky”
“It Came out of the Sky” is a ’50s-style rocker in the vein of Chuck Berry, but unlike CCR’s usual hard-edged and brash callbacks to early rock ’n’ roll, the instrumentation on “Sky” is light and loose, perfectly matching the lyrical content. Those lyrics play like an intelligent, low-budget sci-fi/comedy: A farmer’s life is turned upside down when an unidentified object falls from the sky into his field. Scientists, politicians, religious leaders, and the media all react (or overreact) to the event, and all want a piece of the prize. (Seriously, why isn’t this a movie?) It’s a fun, funny track and one of CCR’s best.
#9 – Southern Senses 10 Best CCR Album Cuts
A3. “Cotton Fields”
A song originally by folk/blues musician Lead Belly, “Cotton Fields” is a simple but effective cover, elevated by John Fogerty’s beautiful, multi-part self-harmonies. Not the best track on the record, but it fits the “poor boy” theme perfectly.
Bonus Selection – Southern Senses 10 Best CCR Album Cuts
A4. “Poorboy Shuffle” 
An instrumental that sees the group assuming the identity of the fictional Willy and the Poor Boys and playing a folk jam, replete with bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford on washtub bass and washboard respectively. The tune is a fun ditty, but it’s made even better by its unique and unexpected segue to the next song. As “Poorboy Shuffle” pans right and fades out, an off-time and off-tempo drum beat fades in left.
A5. “Feelin’ Blue”
“Poorboy Shuffle” is no more, and that surprise drum beat is soon joined by guitars and bass, which together create a loping, head-bobbing blues tune. Although “Feelin’ Blue’s” lyrics are clearly about a plebeian in a bad situation, keeping the album’s theme firmly intact, they are also vague enough to allow for multiple interpretations, helping the track to stand on its own apart from the album. The track is exceptional on every level and stands as yet another lesser known CCR masterpiece.
Bonus Selection – Southern Senses 10 Best CCR Album Cuts
B1. “Fortunate Son”
Side B kicks off with one of the band’s most well-known tunes, the hard-hitting, politically-charged rock anthem, “Fortunate Son.” The lead guitar lick is a typical John Fogerty riff—simple yet iconic—and the music’s urgent ferocity makes for a perfect side opener and also serves as an antithesis to the easy feeling “Down on the Corner.” Unfortunately, it also causes the song to feel misplaced on this release, as the rest of the record’s material leans soft and folk-y. Lyrically, however, “Fortunate Son” couldn’t fit any better, hitting the project’s “plight of the everyman” sensibility with an acerbic assault on the unfair military draft exemptions given to sons of upper class families. 
#03 – Billboard Hot 100
B2. “Don’t Look Now”
As “It Came Out of the Sky” is the band’s softest rock ’n’ roll track, “Don’t Look Now” is their lightest rockabilly tune. The song continues the “low-class lament,” but overall, it’s also the weakest track on the record. However, as in the case of many CCR full-lengths, the worst track on the record is still a fine song.
B3. “The Midnight Special”
J. Fogerty’s blues/rock rendering of “a great ol’ sing-along song” is an album highlight, and as a tune first popularized by the aforementioned Lead Belly, “Midnight Special” serves as both a companion piece and counterpoint to “Cotton Fields.” From the first sonorous strum of the tuned-down-a-step lead guitar, to John’s howling about “trouble with the Man,” to Clifford’s grooving, impactful drumming, to the choral harmonies, to the instrumentation drop on the next to last chorus, to—well, everything! “Midnight Special” may very well be the best album-only cut the band produced.
#1 – Southern Senses 10 Best CCR Album Cuts
B4. “Side o’ the Road”
Reminiscent of the Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Green Onions,” this second instrumental leans blues, a counterpart to “Poorboy Shuffle” much like the “Cotton Fields”/“Midnight Special” pairing. Like “Don’t Look Now,” “Side o’ the Road” isn’t particularly spectacular, but it’s also better than average.
B5. “Effigy”
The affair closes with “Effigy,” one of CCR’s oddest pieces of music. The opening sounds darkly Medieval, but the song soon switches to a country/folkish feel that fits the general vibe of the record—before switching again to a haunting, melancholy chord change. It’s akin to experimental tunes of the ’90s alternative rock movement and, therefore, far ahead of its time. Lyrically, Fogerty symbolically rails against the period’s establishment, successfully carrying through with poor and working class perspectives on American life from the first to last track.
Although there are a few minor criticisms that can be lobbed at the record, Willy and the Poor Boys is by far the most coherent album CCR ever produced and one of the greatest pieces of Americana roots rock in history.
Creedence Clearwater Revival 50th Anniversary Special, Pt. 1 – Green River
Creedence Clearwater Revival 50th Anniversary Special, Pt. 2 – Live at Woodstock
Creedence Clearwater Revival 50th Anniversary Special, Pt. 3 – Born on the Bayou