John Fogerty shared the story behind his song “Train of Fools,” and a moment of songwriting glory, in a 2014 Acoustic Guitar interview with me at his home in Los Angeles. He had just released the album Wrote a Song for Everyone, on which he revisited older songs with an array of pop, rock, and country stars, and also recorded a couple of new songs—including “Train of Fools.” https://youtu.be/AfiQq_qjEhk The story was prompted by a question about whether he was aware of the songwriters behind the music he grew up with in the ’50s and ’60s.
The StoryI had read a little bit about other songwriters. I certainly admired the craft of songwriting. I had learned especially, mostly from my mom, about people who were earlier than my day, meaning Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen and Hoagy Carmichael, and Stephen Foster actually. This is probably a well-known tale from me now, but for some reason when I was about three and a half in preschool, my mom gave me a record and explained to me that was Stephen Foster, and he was the songwriter—one side was “Oh! Susannah” and the other was “Camptown Races,” doo-dah, doo-dah. I mean that’s remarkable to be telling a kid about a songwriter. I don’t know if she had an intent, but she gave me the record, which I loved. Of course I thought Stephen Foster was on the record. Then as rock ’n’ roll and the folk tradition came along, I went to the library a couple of times and got books about songwriters. It was in one of those books that I saw this instruction—I always thought it was from Johnny Mercer but it’s probably someone else. Anyway, [the 1="idea" ] was when you’re working on a song and it’s not right, it’s just not resolved, a bell will ring in your head. The little bell is telling you that you need to fix this—you can’t leave it that way. But if you ignore the bell, pretty soon it won’t ring for you anymore. If you’re going to be lazy—“Oh yeah, that’s good enough”—well, then, you’re never going to develop. I think the act of searching for the right thing is what improves you as a writer—the very act of digging and then the knowledge of the reward.
Working on a new song, there’s a point where nothing is there and then, as most of us say, the gift is given to you—the exact right description, the right choice of words that describes what it was you were trying to give a picture of to the audience. When that happens, there’s not a soul anywhere around. I’m all alone except for God.But I have to say, that moment when you know you got it right is more rewarding and more happy and maybe even more spooky than any of the other parts of music—being in front of 10,000 people getting a standing ovation or somebody giving you a gold record or whatever. I had it happen again on the song “Train of Fools,” on the album [Wrote a Song for Everyone]. Actually, when I got the idea [for 1="“Train" 2="of" 3="Fools”" ], first I wrote another song. It was still called “Train of Fools,” and it was kind of fat Elvis, [sings] “hoo-a hoo-a train of fools.” I was under the gun to make a song in the next 24 hours, because in 48 hours I was going to be in the studio with my band. I finished this dreadful thing, but it wasn’t good enough. So I backed up, and miraculously I was able to do it with the same song [title]. Usually that’s so tainted you’ve got to put it away for a while. But what is this train of fools? I knew it was a really solid concept. And so I started coming up with the idea of these characters and their backgrounds. It was kind of a morality play, I guess. The way I described it later, long after the record was made, it was almost like an episode of Twilight Zone. I could just hear Rod Serling, “Here’s the gambler and here’s the loser and here’s the pretty maiden who’s deceitful.” Anyway, the song was basically done, and I actually went into the studio and recorded it with the band, but I just felt that the song was incomplete. It had a narrative, it took you on a little description of the journey, but it didn’t have a conclusion. And so I said, it’s got to be more. Even though the song was already recorded, I was willing to throw it out. So I was working on “Train of Fools” and there was the line, “One will be addicted / Chained to the devil’s cross / That one’s going to die before he’s old.” That was really where the song ended, and it went into the chorus. I started thinking in terms of a child. I finally got the lines, “This one is a victim / A lost and broken child / Soon enough he’ll be a man to hate.” I thought, all right, pretty good. And then I had to have rhyming words that filled in. I had the idea that people stand around, they’re holier than thou, they think they can do no wrong, and so the [next] line was, “Those that point their finger / Will also share the blame.” Pretty good. Then—this is probably over a period of a few days—there was this little space and suddenly the line was, “Those that point their finger / Will also share the blame / No one leaves this train to judgment day.” I went, what? That was a gift. It surprised me. It’s one of those moments, you’re all alone, and you go, “God, that’s so good.” I mean, who am I going to tell? Even my wife, who loves my music, doesn’t quite struggle with me over words. I can’t go in and [shout], “Judgment day! Judgment day!” She’ll be stirring the spaghetti and she’ll go, “Right, John, judgment day.” I was literally alone, but it’s like the whole Olympic stadium had gone, “Rah!” The writer knows it. The writer is almost basking in it. Now I take no credit—I give all the credit to the Almighty, whoever or whatever he or she is. That’s when you know someone’s saying, “OK, you worked really hard, my son: here.” I don’t know how to say it . . . It was just beyond what I expected to do. —John Fogerty