These songs are our songs

Country Joe McDonald's tribute to Woody Guthrie

by Bruce Dancis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

28 March 2008

The former leader of Country Joe and the Fish, Joe McDonald, poses for portrait at his home in Berkeley, California, March 11, 2008. McDonald is now doing a tribute to Woody Guthrie concert, which he is bringing to Sacramento at the end of March. (Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee/MCT) 

It seems like a natural fit: Country Joe McDonald, the radical and irreverent rock star of the 1960s, famous for his bitingly anti-war “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” and the notorious “Fish Cheer,” performing the songs of Woody Guthrie, the radical and irreverent folk musician of the 1930s and `40s, famous for his topical songs about Dust Bowl refugees, labor organizing and the chasm between rich and poor in a land of plenty.

Guthrie’s music had a profound influence on the early 1960s folk music revival, especially on artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Phil Ochs, and continues to influence performers ranging from Bruce Springsteen and U2 to Lila Downs and the Dropkick Murphys. McDonald’s band, Country Joe & The Fish, remains in the popular consciousness as one of the emblematic rock groups of the late `60s counter-culture.

McDonald’s latest project, accordingly, is “A Tribute to Woody Guthrie.” It’s a 90-minute one-man show of Guthrie’s songs—including “This Land Is Your Land,” “Union Maid,” “Roll on Columbia,” and “Pastures of Plenty”—and writings, told and performed in the dry, deadpan manner that links both musicians.

“I grew up with union music and protest music,” says McDonald, 65, during a recent interview in the north Berkeley home that he shares with his wife and two teenage children. He recalls first hearing Guthrie on an album his parents owned, “Songs of the Dust Bowl,” when he was 6 or 7 and growing up in the San Gabriel Valley.

Other connections run deep: Like Guthrie, Country Joe’s father, Worden “Mac” McDonald, grew up in Oklahoma, rode the rails and moved to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Both men held left-wing political views and married Jewish women from the East Coast. And both had sons who became famous musicians in the late `60s (Arlo Guthrie and Country Joe, respectively).

But McDonald also recognizes another affinity between himself and Guthrie: He believes that neither man could, or should, be pigeonholed.

He acknowledges that he’s been “defined” by what he did at Woodstock in 1969—something about that cheer and the “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?” lyric to “Fixin’ To Die Rag”—and is seen as a political type who spreads his views as he travels around the country.

“But I don’t see myself as that,” McDonald says. “Protest is part of it, but I do lots of different kinds of music—spiritual, dance, rock `n’ roll, blues.

“And some of the subjects I’m interested in—like the military family (McDonald spent three years in the U.S. Navy in the early 1960s and has devoted much time to issues involving Vietnam War veterans)—are not fashionable in the progressive community, or the right.”

As for Guthrie, McDonald points out that “he was in the Merchant Marine during the Second World War and was torpedoed three times. And he was drafted into the Army, too. I think he was a loyal, patriotic American.”

In his show, McDonald quotes Guthrie as saying, “I ain’t necessarily a communist, but I have been in the red all my life.” While he “pushes” Guthrie’s radicalism in his show, including singing the often-neglected “No Trespassing” verse in “This Land Is Your Land,” McDonald also notes that Guthrie never gave up his belief in Jesus Christ and his view that “Christ was a man of the people.”

As for his own politics, McDonald says, “I wasn’t infatuated with communism and I wasn’t infatuated with capitalism, but I had an attitude and I liked satire.”

And creatively, McDonald says, “Woody Guthrie was kind of like James Joyce. The guy couldn’t stop writing, he couldn’t stop drawing and he couldn’t stop singing. When he and (pal and fellow folk singer) Cisco Houston got off the Merchant Marine for two days in New York City, they went into Moe Asch’s studio and recorded 135 songs in two days. Every kind of song you could think of. The guy was a machine.”

McDonald actually began performing Guthrie’s music in 1969, when he recorded his first solo album, “Thinking of Woody Guthrie,” in Nashville. It would become the first of many Guthrie tribute albums by various artists.

Then in 1970, McDonald was asked by Marjorie Guthrie, Woody’s widow, and Harold Leventhal, manager of the Guthrie archives, to write music for a Guthrie lyric which had none, and to perform the song at a Hollywood Bowl “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” concert.

“They wanted to push the image the public had of Woody Guthrie,” McDonald says. “Instead of being that protest troubadour and hobo, they wanted him to be (thought of) as a modern writer, which he was.”

McDonald found an erotic lyric by Guthrie entitled “Woman at Home,” which, according to Nora Guthrie, Woody’s daughter and current director of the Guthrie archives, was the first effort “that began opening this other door to Woody.”

In the 1980s, McDonald produced an album by Joady Guthrie, another son of Woody’s, entitled “Spies on Wall Street.”

McDonald’s Guthrie tribute show began in 2001, when the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., hosted a touring Smithsonian Institution exhibit about Guthrie entitled “This Land Is Your Land.” They asked McDonald to perform at the opening.

After some research, McDonald found other unfinished songs and poems about subjects as varied as sex and automobiles; “Woody Sez” newspaper columns from the West Coast communist newspaper the People’s World, and humorous correspondence between Guthrie and friends like folk singer Malvina Reynolds (“Little Boxes”). He put these various elements into his show.

McDonald’s added some very personal parts to his concert, telling stories about his father and reading from his dad’s autobiography, “An Old Guy Who Feels Good.” The show also features a touching story about his father seeing Country Joe & the Fish performing “Fixin’ To Die Rag” in the “Woodstock” movie as well as the Woody Guthrie song his father asked Joe to sing when he lay dying—“So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya.”

Nora Guthrie, who has known McDonald for years and says “Joe is like a brother to us,” says she loves McDonald’s “Tribute,” which she saw in New York a few months ago.

“I think he’s nuts,” she says, with a laugh, “and that’s a good thing in Guthrie language.

“My favorite thing about Joe’s show is his delivery—it’s so dry. It’s very much like Woody’s humor, too,” she says. As an example of the latter, she cited “The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance 1949,” the recently released live-concert album that won the 2008 Grammy Award for best historical album, in which her father spends lots of time talking about the songs he’s performing.

“The show that Joe does is exactly like that—10 minutes to explain a five-minute song—but that’s Woody.”

McDonald acknowledges that “in the show you hear me talking more than I normally talk. The show wears me out, but I enjoy it. And I like the fact that it closes with my father. It kind of brings it home for me and the audience.”

McDonald will soon be releasing a live, two-disc CD of his “Tribute to Woody Guthrie” on his Rag Baby label (available through his Web site, www.countryjoe.com).

He’ll also be taking part on July 1 in an effort in Concord, Calif., to break the Guinness World Record for the most guitarists playing together on a song. (The record, set in Adelaide, Australia, is 1,700.) McDonald will be playing his guitar and leading the group in a rendition of “This Land Is Your Land.”

Woody Guthrie spent the last 13 years of his life in a New Jersey hospital, suffering from a degenerative nerve disorder now known as Huntington’s disease. He died in 1967 at the age of 55.

Country Joe McDonald has no plans to retire anytime soon.

“Eubie Blake, the great pianist who performed into his 90s, talked about the pain of rehearsing and practicing,” McDonald says, “and that’s a reality.

“One enormous part of it for me is that I haven’t hit the lottery, and in certain professions you don’t have a pension plan.

“But I’m lucky to have an occupation that I can continue doing.”

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