Country Joe McDonald :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

49 years ago, on the second day of the Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Country Joe McDonald took to the stage to kill some time while Santana readied their set. While McDonald and his band the Fish are often associated with psychedelic rock, a named rattled in conjunction with the Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix, or the Jefferson Airplane, McDonald was cut from a folk cloth. And on stage that day in upstate New York, his acoustic version of “The ‘Fish’ Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” became something of a folk standard, traded between counterculture heads and Vietnam soldiers and vets alike.

Early in 2018, Craft Recordings released a deluxe box set edition of the Fish’s The Wave of Electrical Sound, featuring mono and stereo versions of their first two albums, I-Feel-Like-I-Am-Fixin’-To-Die and Electric Music for the Mind and Body, along with an unreleased protest film, and a slew of archival materials. The set captures Joe’s charged spirit, and we sat down with him to discuss his recordings, Woodstock, and the politically harried times that surrounded him, along with his artistic connections to Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, and everyone’s favorite anti-hippie John Fahey.

Aquarium Drunkard: Hey Joe! I’m going to keep it pretty loose. I’ve got a handful of questions for you, but I’d rather just kind of see where you take it. I don’t want to hit you over the head and make you answer a bunch of questions you’ve already been asked before.

Country Joe McDonald: Well if I don’t like it, I won’t answer it. [Laughs]

AD:  Can you tell me a little bit about where the “Fish Chant,” which evolved into “The Fuck Chant,” came from? Obviously, it has that old high school gymnasium/pep rally flare to it, but what influenced you guys to write that song?

Country Joe McDonald: I wrote the song in 1965. We recorded it in somebody’s living room…we were, at that time, what you’d call a skiffle band or jug band. It was acoustic instruments. We made a little EP. It had that song on it. I think we made 100 or something like that. We invented the name Country Joe and the Fish for the label on that little record.

In 1967, we got signed to a New York record label called Vanguard Records. We were recording “Vietnam Song” for the second album and I got the idea to put a cheer in front of it spelling out the word “fish.” In high school I had been in a high school band…and we used to play at sporting events, and we would spell out the name of the mascot the name of the Knights. We put [the cheer] right in front of “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” Then the album came out, and we started performing “The Fish Cheer” and singing “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” at our concerts. The song never really got special attention or anything. It was just another song in our repertoire. In ’68…we were hired by the Schaefer Beer company to play at Central Park in New York City for their Schaefer Music festival in the summer of ’68. The drummer got an idea to change “The Fish Cheer” to “The Fuck Cheer” because it was a four-letter word beginning with an F. People liked it. They really liked saying “fuck.” [Laughs]

AD: Do you ever wish you were more recognized for a different song from your catalog?

Country Joe McDonald: Well, I’m very happy that happened. The band was disintegrating at the time, and [playing solo at Woodstock] gave me an identity and an ability to perform as a solo performer, which I did for years, and to put some other bands together and make other albums. I had a solo contract with Vanguard at the time of the Woodstock festival, and so I had started making some albums on my own. It enabled me to have a solo career.

And it became an important song in regards to the Vietnam war. It was appreciated and sung by people who were resisting the war, civilians who didn’t want to go into the war and were protesting the war, and also by soldiers who were fighting the war. I don’t regret anything…but I tend to be noted for that and appreciated as a political songwriter, I’ve always been identified as a political songwriter, whereas only, I guess maybe 10% or less of my material is sociopolitical.

AD: Did you consider yourself a political songwriter at the time?

Country Joe McDonald: Well, that’s kind of sad. Because of the politics, the nature of “Fixin’-to-Die Rag” is so obvious and direct that it was problematic for radio play and stuff like that.

AD: You were directly calling out the Vietnam War.

Country Joe McDonald: I think almost all of the other so-called protest songs of the era concerning the war are really touchy-feely. They’re easy to digest. But with the words “have your boy come home in a box” made it really controversial. It was probably the introduction of punk…I was walking on a lot of things, actually. [Laughs] I’m a little bit older, but the ’60s generation was essentially teenagers who really didn’t give a damn about the status quo. We were just going to do our own thing and, you know, “Fuck the rest of the world” because we realized collectively that they were out to kill us actually, physically kill us and metaphorically speaking to kill us, to kill our ideas, to kill our concepts, and to send us out to be killed.

AD: Your song “Superbird,” which was about LBJ, was banned. With “Fixin’-to-Die” and “The Fuck Cheer,” you guys maybe got on the wrong side of the government, but with the case of “Superbird,” do you feel like that really affected the group when that was banned from play on the radio? Or did you feel so strongly you didn’t care?

Country Joe McDonald: Oh, we didn’t care. It was the beginning of Marvel Comics and that comic book hero, ironic humor, so [the idea] was to turn to turn the president into a comic book character. We just did it and thought it was funny. And it was funny. Funny/serious, because he was trying to kill us, too.

AD: You employed pretty dark humor and satire. I connect that to the Fugs with Ed Sanders. I felt like the two of you guys had a very similar taste in lyrical, tongue-in-cheek/reality situations. I was reading your first concert was with the Fugs and Allen Ginsberg?

Country Joe McDonald: [Laughs] That was funny. I don’t exactly how it got set up, because we were still a jug band at that particular time. Literally, folk-rock because we had one electric instrument, but we had a washtub bass. I think our manager was somehow in contact with Ed Sanders from the Fugs. I don’t know how Ginsberg got slotted on, but we performed in a biology lab on University of California, Berkeley. We performed, and Ginsberg performed, and I remember that The Fugs guitar player took LSD. He was so stoned that he didn’t realize his guitar was unplugged–

AD: [Laughs]

Country Joe McDonald: –and you couldn’t even hear him playing at the time.

AD: At that time, did you feel like you were a San Francisco band, being across the bay in Berkeley? Or did you kind of feel like you had a connection to what was going on over on the East Coast with The Fugs and Velvet Underground? Something a little bit darker, that wasn’t as hippie-dippy?

Country Joe McDonald: No, we were definitely outsiders. We were outside the San Francisco groups and the East Coast, too. And in Southern California, the Doors, Frank Zappa…although we did play some venues in Southern California, we were never included in that [either]. We were also too radical for San Francisco because the Grateful Dead wanted nothing to do with politics. We were definitely alone. We didn’t have a genre. We weren’t really even a part of the Berkeley political scene. We were just us.

AD: What are your thoughts on the Summer of Love in ’67?

Country Joe McDonald: I think the Summer of Love thing was manufactured by the media or something, because I don’t remember us thinking, “Wow, this is the Summer of Love.” [But] I was just thrilled to be a part of this new counterculture and new tribe because I had never really felt comfortable in the other tribes that I was a part of growing up and in the Navy. My parents were actually Jewish Communists. I never felt a part of it, but I was really thrilled and happy to be a hippie.

AD: I came across a reference that John Fahey influenced “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” He’s always been a guy who’s been viewed on the outskirts of the hippie world.

Country Joe McDonald: Yeah, the guy who became our manager, Ed Denson, owned Takoma Records with John Fahey. Fahey would move through our lives when he’d come in and play at the Jabberwock coffeehouse, which really was tiny and held maybe 70 people. So I saw John Fahey, and I had the album Death Chants, Breakdowns & Military Waltzes.  I liked that particular sound and the song “Section 43” definitely was influenced by him. He was the first guy, really, to establish the genre of the American guitar instrumental. I really liked his music, and it influenced me toward writing for that song; I wrote it on the guitar and the harmonica, and then when the band went electric, it just occurred to me that maybe the band could play that as a band.

AD: The recent boxset, The Wave of Electrical Sound does a beautiful job reproducing your original zine and board game, but the most interesting piece in there was the How We Stopped The War movie, which I had never heard of or seen before. What was the story behind that film being created?

Country Joe McDonald: Well the director of the film, David Peoples, became a scriptwriter, and he’s the guy who wrote the script for The Unforgiven, the Clint Eastwood movie. That won an Oscar. Some considered it one of the greatest Western movies ever made. So he lives in Berkeley and used to work with KQED, a public television station. He had never made a movie before, and somehow got involved with our manager to make this black-and-white movie about us in the 1967 march to Kezar Stadium to stop the war in Vietnam.

AD: So it was meant to be shown on TV?

Country Joe McDonald: Yeah. Our poster artist Tom Weller did the titles and everything, but after it was finished, some kind of argument developed between who was going to pay for the production of the movie, and as a result…it never saw air. When the opportunity came in this box set, and I really insisted and was very aggressive about the fact that we need to work out a deal with David Peoples, and somehow get this fucking thing out so it can be seen.

AD: Janis Joplin was your girlfriend at one point. You wrote a song for her, and you wrote for Grace Slick prior to her being in Jefferson Airplane. What was your approach to writing those two songs about two very iconic women of that era?

Country Joe McDonald: I remember seeing Grace with The Great Society. She had this great voice, but she didn’t have material that was as good as her voice was. That was just the idea that I came away from the concert with. I wrote this song “Grace” which is really, really abstract. It’s more of a tone poem, semi-classical. But I’m really kind of a shy guy, particularly back then, and I never told her that I wrote the song for her to sing. And the “Janis” song, when I broke up with her, she said, “Before we get too far apart, could you write a song for me?” And I realize, in hindsight, that she wanted me to write a song that she could sing. But I wound up writing a song about us. [Laughs] Peter Albin from Big Brother [and the Holding Company] told me that they actually tried to rehearse it and do it a couple times, but of course, it didn’t make any sense. It wasn’t in her style. If I had clearly understood that she wanted me to write a song for her to sing, I would’ve written something in a completely different style,

AD: It’s been almost 50 years since Woodstock. Does the commodification of the hippie movement bother you?

Country Joe McDonald: Well I think that the morality of the era, the peace and love thing, is alive and well. It went all over the world. But capitalism is alive and well, also and that’s what most of the world functions by… profit motives. So that’s the good and the bad, but that’s the reason why we have the old guys. We can listen to Robert Johnson and all that old jazz because they made records of it and sold them…the Carter Family and whatever, so that’s just the way the world works.

But the hippie thing? There are hippies all over the goddamn world, they’re still in America, and the peace and love thing is still a goal that many, many millions of us are working towards. It’s inclusive, not exclusive, which is a unique thing. Anybody could become a hippie, whereas now we’re in exclusive … my group opposed to your group … so that’s just the way the world works, and I’m just happy that I survived it. [Laughs] words/d norsen

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