It’s great to have you writing new and topical material. When did you start writing “Weeping In the Promised Land,” and what motivated you?
I keep a little song book that I started in 1967. I wrote this title in that book somewhere between 25-30 years ago. It was compelling. I understood that it had a lot of meaning, but I didn’t know specifically where it would go. I wrote a song using that title maybe two years ago and actually recorded it with some musicians; it was not this song, it was a different song, and it wasn’t focused in its intent like this. It was kind of generic, I would say, therefore I was dissatisfied with it. I thought the title was better than the song, so I shelved it.
With all the events we’ve been going through for almost a year, it really started to sink in around maybe June and July…. I knew I wanted to make some new music — the idea that, “gee John, it’s time, why don’t you make an album?” And we all know — well, half of us do — the really dreadful, dangerous and certainly maddening thing we’re in, and we’ve all watched different elements play out and it just confounds you. We all want to rise up and put it behind us even if we don’t know how to quite say that.
Around July, I started seriously working on it as a song. To give you a short version, I wrote and rewrote and rewrote. A lot of times things would just seem too obvious to me as a songwriter. “That’s not interesting, everyone knows that” — just an easy or cheap shot. So I went for weeks driving myself crazy. Finally I had the idea of “water in the well” and that really struck me because it’s so essential to a small community or tribe, and I was certainly thinking in Biblical terms, like how the song ended up. The idea that the water in the well has been poisoned with lies — once I had that as a reference point with obvious cultural ties to the present that would be well understood, that was my beginning, where the song took off. I must say it was by far the most difficult song I’ve ever written. But I also think it’s one of the best. It really made me fight for it. I would write some drivel line and go, “Oh jeez, that’s awful.” I’d be disgusted and impatient with myself.
I thought your lyrics referencing police brutality, Black Lives Matter and George Floyd [“Out in the street/ On your neck with a knee/ The people are cryin’/ Your words ‘I can’t breathe’ and the white judge say been no crime here”] managed to touch on those issues with gravitas but without being too obvious.
Also, in the sense that I’m a white man living in America. One of my first heroes was Pete Seeger and a lot of those ideals are in me. I love Pete and what he made his life stand for. I feel like some of that rubbed off on me and was in my being and lyrics way, way back with Creedence even. But certainly, the sense that as a child of the ’60s, some of that had been lost. And here we are again. The pandemic is one thing – that’s bad enough and tragic enough – and that it gets played with so much. I’ve seen enough monster movies in my life — it’s like half the people in the town aren’t even seeing the monster. It’s like one of those where the little kid is trying to warn people: “No no no! They’re from outer space, really!” That’s half of it.
And the other half is the Civil Rights issue: How poorly we treat out minorities, particularly the Black community. The way that that issue took off certainly because of the murder of George Floyd. God bless the young generation because they showed the way. The rest of us have all been giving lip service for the last 50 [years]…. I mean, the flame went down to an ember after all these years, sadly. But these kids were very energized and outraged, saying “this is wrong” and got out in the streets and put themselves in harm’s way. That’s something people my age certainly recognize. For me, it was a sense of “this has gone on too long. Enough is enough.” It keeps happening over and over and then they’re covering it up. I mean, my God, the one in Ohio where the guy is coming out of the garage with his cell phone and he gets murdered and the cop doesn’t even do anything.
And certainly – which is why I prefaced this by saying I’m a white person in this country – you recognize that the Black community has been asking for help for 400 years and they’re just not getting it. But they can’t do it alone because the white people hold all the power and all the strings and all the keys to the doors. And therein lies what Martin Luther King meant when he said, “the silence of our friends.” If you don’t speak up, everything just stays the same. And that’s a whole lot of stuff, and I tried to get a lot of that in this song, the idea of impatience – it’s been too long, we need to act, we need to do something, without actually saying that. It’s more like “here it is, you can’t avoid this anymore.”
I also like the line “children of God he turns into stone.” It’s a succinct way of talking about a lot of people who you would think as Christians would abhor what’s going on but instead are supporting it.
Yes. It’s very confounding, isn’t it? Back in the ’60s, us young people, when we didn’t agree with something, we shouted very loudly. Part of that was because we felt powerless. There was a draft and all the rest. And that’s the mindset of my song “Fortunate Son” – there’s a lot of shouting there [laughs]. But I’m a lot older and especially seeing how powerful and how rabid the fans of President Trump are, I look at it as the people who are not understanding and are perhaps misguided. I don’t want to shout at them, I want to win them over. I don’t want to push them away by saying “you’re crazy, you’re stupid, you’re ugly.” That’s not gonna do it. You need to say, “look, I have a point of view here you may not have thought of. How ’bout lookin’ at this way? At least give me a minute or two.” I thought that was important to include because that’s really what it’s gonna take in the end. We need to be inclusive as a country. We can’t have separation the way we have for, lo, these centuries. We have to be inclusive of everyone because that’s the only way we become a great America.
A lot of this song deals with the heartbreak and maddening issues of 2020, but is there anything from last year or right now that gives you hope?
I think mainly the sheer numbers of young people. And I’ve had older people say, “Well, what about the rest of us? We’re working hard too.” And I know that. But somehow, when the ’70s opened and the yuppies came along, it seemed a lot of the rabble rousers of the ’60s got briefcases and corporate jobs. That’s the way I would cynically put it. And then they got very quiet, because you’re afraid to rock the boat because you might get in trouble. It’s understandable, but not very brave. The young people being so clearly driven… it’s clear that it’s a big boost to the idea of passing legislation. I realize you cannot legislate people’s hearts, but it blows my mind that religion and faith in God wasn’t enough for some people to see that being racially prejudiced and biased in the way the legal system works is just wrong. It’s wrong in the presence of God. It takes some doing to convince some folks.
You’ve made music over the last decade, of course, but we haven’t had an album of originals since your wonderful Revival in 2007. Does this mean you’re working on a full-length of new songs?
Oh yes indeed. It’s hard to describe what that urge is: It’s almost like there’s a distant shore and you kinda remember what that will feel like — meaning when the song is complete — but you’re not seeing every day what that is. But you’ll know it when you get to the promised land. Doing this really did help me personally…. You get older and seem to attract barnacles on your hull. You can’t help it! Things aren’t as bright and clear as they were when you were 20. And this song, for me, scraped off a lot of those barnacles. It forced me to react. Because the potential of the song – I really understood, “this could be a really great song John, give it a real melody with good turns, as good as what Tin Pan Alley might do in the craft of writing a song.” And I had no idea the song would end up recorded as simply as it is, but I’m awfully proud of that. It tended to make me better, more like I used to be. And that’s a very good standard and, dare I say, a high standard I need to be at.
You have a substantial catalog, so there must be a sense that you have to live up to the classics when writing. Do you think the album will come out this year?
Certainly this year. I’ve got a couple of things to do, but I have a studio here in my house and before we started to talk I was stealing and hour and a half or so. I’m very turned on about the prospect of writing new songs. There’s some anxiety connected to it. But I guess that’s what I have to do. I’m not gonna be able to write “Hanky Panky” and get away with it.
Finally, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Chronicle, Vol. 1 hit 500 weeks on the Billboard 200 in December. It’s just one of nine albums to ever do that. What is it about those songs that makes them so enduring?
I really did agonize over each and every one of the Creedence songs, particular the ones that I felt were going to be singles. I know it’s a little pompous and preposterous and perhaps even arrogant to think that, okay, so you did that and that’s why they lasted 500 weeks. You could do that and have them fall right into oblivion [laughs]. That’s the Greek tragedy of life – we never really know how it’s gonna go after you fling it out there into space. But I do feel like because it’s an ethic I had and lived under, that had something to do with it. I also tried to compress things so that there was no dead weight, so that every word meant something. I worked it over as best I could, anyway. I feel at least as a mindset or school of thought, that has something to do with the longevity.
I think you guys have a claim to being probably the best American singles band. It’s an incredible run.
If that’s true, I’m very proud of that. I grew up in the top 40 rock n’ roll era and that’s something I aspired to. I never felt the shame that some of my hippie brethren felt about, “oh my goodness, we don’t want to have a hit single.” I mean, the Beatles had hit singles and Elvis did and Bob Dylan for crying out loud. I thought it was something very honorable to aspire to.