Country Joe McDonald gets all Guthried up

by Marijke Rowland

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

5 February 2008

Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock. Photo by
Jim Marshall. 
Photo: Tom Weller

Photo: Tom Weller

Country Joe McDonald forever will be etched into the pop-culture pantheon for his populist and profane “Fish Cheer” and “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-To-Die Rag” performance at Woodstock some 39 years ago.

Don’t know the rag by title? You’ll surely recognize the lyrics, which in part go:

And it’s one, two, three,

What are we fighting for ?

Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,

Next stop is Vietnam.

And it’s five, six, seven,

Open up the pearly gates,

Well there ain’t no time to wonder why,

Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.

Today, the 66-year-old singer/songwriter is leading a different kind of cheer, that for the life and work of folk icon Woody Guthrie.

The former frontman of Country Joe and the Fish has been touring the country with his Guthrie tribute since last year. The show was inspired by a one-time performance he did in 2001 for the National Steinbeck Museum and Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit “This Land is Your Land.” The show is a combination of Guthrie’s songs, writings, letters and life story.

McDonald spoke from his Berkeley home.

How did you first become interested in Woody Guthrie, the man and his music?
I grew up with Woody Guthrie in my house. My parents had him on 78 records when I was a little boy. My father was born in Oklahoma, like Woody Guthrie, and was a Dust Bowl refugee and a cowboy, like Woody Guthrie. I just took Woody Guthrie music for granted.

Your professional interest in him actually dates back to 1969, when you recorded “Thinking of Woody Guthrie” with Country Joe and the Fish. At the time, did you think you would continue to perform his work some 40 years later?
We were in Nashville to record a country western album and decided it would be fun to record a Woody Guthrie tribute album, the first tribute (to Guthrie) ever recorded. It was kind of a natural thing for me to do because of my reputation as a political songwriter. But I had no idea I’d still be doing it 40 years later.

How have people responded to the show?
Oh, they like it a lot. It’s the only thing I’m doing this year. I’m surprised. I was told that it would be a nice thing, a combination of Woody Guthrie and me. It was something I did for a one-off show and I never anticipated that I’d still be doing it. It is quite a different thing for me to do theatrical spoken word and sing about somebody else’s life and music. It’s completely different than anything I’ve ever done.

Some 40 years ago, you were also part of another significant cultural experiment at Woodstock. What do you think when you remember that experience, and how does it feel to still be linked to it so many years later?
It was cosmic. I wasn’t supposed to do that. (“Fish Cheer” and “Feel-Like-I’m- Fixing-To-Die Rag” were performed during an impromptu acoustic set by McDonald without the Fish. On his Web site, he writes: “They found a guitar ... and tied a rope on it ... and pushed me on stage. The rest is history.”) I was just filling in time because they didn’t have another performer to put on stage. It was really serendipity, another event in my life I didn’t really plan at all and has dominated my image and my life forever. I was glad to bring that political and social moment to the festival and the film. It’s a mixed bag (being remembered for it). People certainly know that about me. It hasn’t been good too much for making commercial music because it pigeonholed me as a certain kind of performer. But it kept the image of the Vietnam era alive.

You’ve been an anti-war, environmental activist and veterans advocate for decades now. Do you feel the political climate is right now for artists who want to raise those issues?
My parents were radical socialists and involved in the union and peace movement when I was growing up. That’s something I just took for granted. When I started writing protest songs in the `60s, it was a really natural thing for me to do. It was an odd moment in cultural history for social and political content to make their way into popular music. Traditionally, commercial music is about love, and has been for centuries. We’re back in normal now where commercial music is about love, with exception of some rap music.

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