If you mention the name Country Joe & the Fish to Americans born in 1955 or earlier, chances are that they'll know the band you're talking about, at least to the degree that they know their most widely played and quoted song, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." The problem is, that particular song captured only the smallest sliver of who Country Joe & the Fish were or what they were about. One of the original and most popular of the San Francisco Bay Area psychedelic bands, they were also probably the most enigmatic, in terms of who they actually were, and had the longest and strangest gestation into becoming a rock band. And Joe McDonald may have written the most in-your-face antiwar, anti-military song to come out of the 1960s, but he was also one of the very few musicians on the San Francisco scene who'd served in uniform.
Born on January 1, 1942, to a very leftist-oriented family, Joe McDonald was named in honor of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (In the context of World War II, Stalin was regarded by many on the left -- and even some apolitical observers -- in the United States and elsewhere as heroic, for being Hitler and Nazi Germany's greatest nemesis, at a time when the governments of England, France, and the United States were given to waffling and dithering over what to do about German militarism; the millions of deaths within the Soviet Union for which Stalin is now blamed were not yet known.) McDonald was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, where he grew up surrounded by all manner of political activity, in support of labor unions and other leftist and progressive causes. He was also exposed to a massive amount of music, ranging from R&B to Dixieland jazz. Between the El Monte Legion Stadium and the Lighthouse Club at Hermosa Beach, McDonald got a wide musical education -- his own early gigs were as a trombonist in jazz outfits and a guitarist in folk groups. He spent most of the early '60s serving a hitch in the United States Navy, in which he enlisted at age 18.
On returning to civilian life in 1964, McDonald resumed playing music and cut his first album, in collaboration with Blair Hardman in 1964, entitled The Goodbye Blues, and also started editing a radical magazine called Et Tu. Soon after, McDonald headed for Berkeley, CA -- his official purpose was to attend college, but he quickly became a part of the city's burgeoning folk music scene, which took up half of his time. He mostly worked solo, playing songs by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie, interspersed with a slowly growing body of his own compositions. The other half was devoted to politics -- the city's politics, especially the campus of the University of California, was already liberal, but as the 1960s progressed, the left began exerting an ever louder voice on the campus, through the Free Speech Movement and other protest campaigns, initially to get Reserve Officer Training Corps recruiters barred from the campus and later to open up the university's speech and political environment; Vietnam wasn't yet a central issue, but issues such as civil rights, the economic embargo of Cuba, the working condition of migrant farm laborers, the American role in decades of repressive politics of the Dominican Republic, and a Kennedy-era foreign policy initiative called Food for Peace were all on the agenda at various times.
McDonald was a natural fit, and after some solo performances he formed his two groups: one -- more precisely organized -- called the Berkeley String Quartet in conjunction with Bob Cooper on 12-string, Tom Lightjheiser on bass, and Carl Shrager playing washboard and doubling on guitar; and the other, the Instant Action Jug Band. The latter, by its very nature, had a floating membership of as many as a dozen musicians, not all of whom would necessarily appear at every gig -- they were sort of like musical minutemen of the left, intended to show up on a moment's notice at whatever rally or street demonstration might be announced or spring up, on or off the campus. The jug band's ranks included Barry Melton, a prodigiously talented Brooklyn-born, Los Angeles-raised guitarist and singer who, in his mid-teens, had already amassed some serious performing credits at venues such as The Ash Grove before his family moved to Berkeley.
Out of their contact and the Instant Action Jug Band grew Country Joe & the Fish, initially as a recording alias. Among McDonald's other activities in 1965, he was publishing a radical journal called Rag Baby. Accounts vary on the matter of how the music side of Rag Baby came about -- some say that at some point, McDonald found himself with more music than articles on hand and decided to put out a "talking issue" of the magazine; other accounts say that he saw the need for the music to help support the journal and the cause, and thought they could sell copies of their records at demonstrations. Assuming the latter is true, it would make Country Joe & the Fish among the very first -- if not the first -- music act to use self-produced records to promote themselves directly. He'd already cut an album independently and knew a little bit about getting records made and pressed, and the result was the Rag Baby EP, with four songs, two by Country Joe & the Fish and two by a singer named Peter Krug, which saw the light of day in October of 1965. That lineup for Country Joe & the Fish, in addition to McDonald on harmonica, acoustic guitar, and vocals, included Melton on vocals and electric guitar, plus Shrager on washboard and kazoo, Bill Steele on washtub bass, and Mike Beardslee on vocals.
Country Joe & the Fish was a compromise name, proposed by ED Denson, an early member and the group's manager -- he quoted Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong about a revolutionary resembling "the fish who swim in the sea of the people"; there was also some thought given to the name "Country Mao & the Fish." Instead, they used "Country Joe" as a reference to McDonald, who was their singer and, as much as there was any organization to it at all, the organizer of the group, and also a reference to Joseph Stalin -- "Country Joe" was a nickname for the Soviet dictator. Ultimately, the name proved a stroke of genius, at once funny to the totally uninformed and provocative to those few who picked up the references, and also a goof on the typical, pop-oriented band names in an era filled with acts like Paul Revere & the Raiders, Barry & the Remains, Mouse & the Traps, et al. It was such a good choice on so many levels, that it was almost subversive, and what's more, subversive on levels that all of those parents who worried over rock & roll never even dreamt of. And given McDonald's and Melton's politics, the name was even better than general analysis would lead one to believe -- in 1965, barely a decade after the peak of the McCarthy era and the Red Scare, and with California already the home of the John Birch Society (a right-wing organization whose founding credo included the notion that President [and former General of the Army] Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist stooge), the meanings that went into the group's name were readily recognizable to any rightist ideologue.
The membership floated for a few months, and the sound was mostly folk and jug band-based, as they built up an audience with performances at coffeehouses such as the Jabberwock, and also later played shows at the Avalon Ballroom and the original Fillmore Auditorium. They evolved in this period into a rock group, playing electric instruments and, more to the point, real instruments. A second self-produced EP followed in June of 1966 -- by this time, McDonald and Melton were both playing electric guitars, Bruce Barthol, a 16-year-old friend of Melton's from high school, was in the lineup playing an electric bass; New York-born, formally trained David Cohen had joined on electric guitar and keyboards; Paul Armstrong, an alumnus of the Instant Action Jug Band, was there played guitar, bass, tambourine, and maracas; and jazzman John Francis Gunning had joined on drums. The record was good enough to get the group gigs in San Francisco, at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium, and it was reviewed in Billboard magazine and even played on the radio as far away as New York City -- it seems to have circulated as far as London. Five months after its release, the group signed a contract with Vanguard Records, a New York-based record label (headquartered on 23rd Street), which had previously been known primarily for its releases of pre-Baroque and Baroque-era classical music and folk recordings.
Run by Maynard and Seymour Solomon, the company had stuck its neck out before by signing the reunited folk group the Weavers, who'd been blacklisted into premature retirement, but Country Joe & the Fish presented new problems -- apart from being an electric band with a louder sound than anything they'd previously recorded, they had a repertoire of daring, challenging sounds that made them a potential West Coast answer to the Blues Project, perhaps even rivals to the Doors, the electric quartet just signed by Vanguard's indie label competitor Elektra Records. But they also had this political side, which Vanguard had faced before with artists such as the Weavers and Joan Baez (who was already becoming a lightning rod for the right with her anti-Vietnam and pro-civil rights activities). The difference was that Country Joe & the Fish weren't remotely respectful in their political songs; they mixed rock & roll's youthful, rebellious attitude with an awareness level at least equivalent of a poli-sci M.A., and the mix was bracing but also a little frightening in the context of the times. Lyndon Johnson was still a popular president in most of the country outside of the Deep South, and in early 1967 the only public figures who'd paid any price over the Vietnam War were a handful of Democrats who'd been defeated for opposing it.
Maynard Solomon heard the results of their recording sessions, held at Sierra Sound in Berkeley under the direction of Sam Charters, and he let "Super Bird" -- a savage swipe at Lyndon Johnson -- onto the group's debut album, but insisted that "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" be left off, despite its popularity at the group's live shows. Electric Music for the Mind and Body was released in February of 1967, and it was embraced as a work of genius by those who heard it, a bold, powerful mix of blues, jazz, classical, folk, and rock elements, all with a mesmerizing psychedelic glow; listening to it was as close to a psychedelic, hallucinogenic experience as one could get through music in 1967, and if one moved in closer on the songs and the playing, one got to luxuriate in Cohen's prodigious organ work, Melton's, Cohen's, and MacDonald's alternately lyrical and slashing guitars, McDonald's pleasing light folk tenor, and the fluid rhythm section of Barthol and new drummer Gary "Chicken" Hirsh. The only thing it didn't have was a hit single to get the band some exposure on AM radio -- "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine" was issued as a 45 but peaked at number 98 nationally, though it got enough airplay on college stations so that, coupled with the play received by the non-single tracks "Section 43" and "Masked Marauder," and excellent word of mouth about the LP, Electric Music for the Mind and Body managed to make the Top 40 and stay there. It still holds up even today, alongside Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow and After Bathing at Baxter's (which owed a lot to Electric Music), and Blood, Sweat & Tears' Child Is Father to the Man as one of the enduring landmark albums of that year.
Vanguard, emboldened by the reaction to the first album (and relieved that "Super Bird" hadn't gotten it banned), had the group go back into the studio in the summer of 1967. This time out, the label let the band lead with its left, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" leading off the new album and serving as the title song, when it was released in September of 1967. The sky didn't fall in and, indeed, the album sold well for over a year, charting in the Top 40 and becoming a staple of many collections -- one of the underappreciated bonus features, which showed how much the label was getting in on the spirit of the fun, was the inclusion in the early pressings of "the Fish Game," a highly satirical insert (which, in the 1980s and 1990s, would turn a five-dollar used copy of the LP into a $40 item). If the rest of the music wasn't quite as accomplished or bold as the content of the earlier album, it was more accessible, offering McDonald more of a chance to show off his singing voice (which rivaled the Jefferson Airplane's Marty Balin), and together the two LPs represented the group's artistic and commercial peak. The group was soon touring nationally, and it was among the first acts to become known for its use of a light show at its concerts. An appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967 (and in the subsequent movie, doing "Section 43") utilizing the light show only enhanced the band's reputation musically.
And soon, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" took on a life of its own. The band had first recorded it before they were on Vanguard, as a folk number, and the version on the Vanguard album showed the most elaborate production yet. In the summer of 1968, the band was appearing in New York City at the Shaefer Summer Music Festival, sponsored by the beer company, at the Wollman Skating Rink in Central Park. By that time, the mood of the country had darkened considerably from 1967 -- the Democrats were split between pro- and antiwar factions, while the Republicans were capitalizing on the forces of reaction among white voters in the South, in the first national election since the passage of the landmark civil rights and voting rights legislation of the mid-'60s. And everybody seemed to either hate -- or were just plain suspicious of -- the motives of college students of the activist variety, who were a big chunk of Country Joe & the Fish's audience. Amid a lot of head-shaking and hand-wringing, many over-forties, even those with sons who could be drafted, seemed to wish that the majority of those "kids" would just act like willing cannon fodder and shut up. And the troop commitments stayed in the six-figure range, while three- and four-star generals whose lives and careers were inextricably tied to the military set goals and strategies that politicians endorsed and accepted and continued to bankroll in their budgets.
In a moment that could be filed under "It Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time" (and it was), at that particular Shaefer concert, the group was planning on doing "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" when drummer Chicken Hirsh suggested that the opening, high school-style cheer ("Gimme an 'F,' gimme an 'I'") be changed to something a lot more...expressive. The cheer became an expletive, the crowd in those relatively innocent but darkening times devoured it, and the new cheer stuck -- the song, as originally recorded, got onto AM radio once again in its wake, and suddenly 12- and 13-year-olds (like this writer at the time) from places like Whitestone, Queens (Archie Bunker territory in New York City), 3,500 miles from Berkeley, who'd never even heard of the venues in Manhattan where the band had played, knew who Country Joe & the Fish were. The word spread as though by jungle telegraph, and the LP and the song were passed around like some secret code and pleasure that only people under 26 (the upper limit of draft age) could understand and appreciate, openly on school buses and in secret on private-school campuses (like the one this writer attended) behind the backs of the administration.
To understand just what a deep, angry brand of black humor McDonald and company had tapped into, one had to be there -- if you saw senior classmates registering for the draft, or older brothers or cousins or friends, or your neighbors' sons, or your school-bus driver (or his son), or whoever get called up, you were keenly aware of the war. And if you were male and 14 or 15 or older, you also knew that you'd be registering soon enough, and as the war had already lasted three years and there was no progress, it was hard to see why it wouldn't still be going on three years hence from 1968 -- and it was. Lyndon Johnson, who'd seemed too popular for "respectable" people to attack over the war in late 1966, had announced 18 months later that he was leaving office, in near-disgrace politically; but too many voters glad to see him go still felt the war was worth fighting (by somebody else -- male citizens 18 through 20 years old, though fully draftable, still couldn't vote) if it could be won (again, with someone else's blood).
At some point, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" became a prism through which one could analyze the times and the mood of the country and its audience, by the way it was presented. Something similar had happened with another figure associated with the American left, Paul Robeson, and his performances of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II song "Ol' Man River" from Showboat. Although he wasn't the first man to play the role of Joe (the character who sang the song) in the musical, the song became inextricably associated with him, on-stage and later on record. As originally written and performed, the song had the opening line "Niggers all work on the Mississippi," in keeping with the vernacular that a black laborer in a border state in the post-Civil War era might well have used; across the decades, however, Robeson altered the words in that line, and other elements of the song, taking a peculiar possession of it and turning it, in his hands, into a mirror of the particular time in which he performed it -- so soon it was "Darkies all work on the Mississippi" for the movie, and later still it was "colored folks," and by the 1950s he'd altered the words enough to turn it into an anthem of liberation. Similarly, McDonald and company, in the changes in words, setting, and tone of their antiwar song, mirrored the times and sensibilities of their audience, and a change of intent by the performers. By the time of Woodstock, with McDonald appearing solo, the producers had no qualms about recording the uncensored version of "the Fish Cheer," much less McDonald (there by himself, awaiting the arrival of the band) singing it in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
By that time, however, the best days of the band were over. In the fall of 1967, someone managed to convince McDonald that he was the real "star" of the group. Amid the ensuing turmoil, the Fish split up. It didn't last long, and they were eventually reassembled into a whole band, but the hiatus cost them dearly -- their third album, Together, was a product of the interruption, with MacDonald almost invisible on most of the album and Melton and Hirsh the dominant personalities and performers. They still managed to tour Europe and saw more demand for their performances across the United States as well, and the continued controversy over and worsening prosecution of the Vietnam War helped keep their popularity high, and the growing underground enthusiasm for "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" sustained them.
Alas, the lineup began coming apart at that point -- Bruce Barthol was dismissed in mid-1968, and Chicken Hirsh was gone by the end of the year. The next album, Here We Are Again, released in the spring of 1969, was the debut of the new lineup of the group which, apart from the Airplane's Jack Casady sitting in on bass, had David Getz, late of Big Brother & the Holding Company, on drums. David Cohen's exit led to an all-star jam (including Jerry Garcia and Steve Miller) credited to the band at the Fillmore West, which was recorded and subsequently released as a Country Joe & the Fish live album. The lineup stabilized around McDonald, Melton, Getz, and Peter S. Albin of Big Brother for six months in 1969. MacDonald reassembled the band for its appearance at Woodstock, and the final lineup of Melton, Mark Kapner on keyboards, Doug Metzner on bass, and Greg Dewey on drums was the one that took advantage of the momentum coming off of that performance.
In the spring following the festival, McDonald embarked on a solo career, returning to his roots with an album of Woody Guthrie songs, and followed it up a year later with the electric blues album Hold On It's Coming. He remained committed to bringing the Vietnam War to an end, participating in demonstrations and appearing on-stage with The F.T.A. (F*ck the Army) Show, a satirical anti-military revue, which yielded a movie of the same name and eventually earned a place on President Richard M. Nixon's notorious "enemies list." Melton continued in music into the 1970s, but later joined the legal profession.
Over the decades since, McDonald has cut numerous solo albums and performed extensively, as well as revived Rag Baby. He has periodically reunited with Melton -- whose presence is essential for the official use of the "Country Joe & the Fish" name -- and Cohen, Barthol, and Hirsh, most recently in the wake of the war in Iraq. He's become almost a mythic figure in agitprop music since the early '80s, when he resumed his peace-activist work -- like some Tom Joad-like character, wherever the American government seems hell-bent on turning troops loose to kill people, he's there with his music, trying to answer the call to arms with something else. There are at least two extant best-of compilations devoted to the band, and in 1994 the Rag Baby EPs were reissued on compact disc. ~ Bruce Eder
© 2014 Rovi Corporation.