Country Joe and the Fish (Contemporary Musicians)
Although Country Joe and the Fish were together only four short years, the band's political stance and eclectic rock left an important legacy. "Largely forgotten as one of the giants of psychedelic rock," wrote Joel Selvin of MusicHound Rock, "Country Joe and the Fish towered over their contemporaries" The band's 1967 debut, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, remains one of the definitive psychedelic albums of the era, while "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" inspired thousands to protest the Vietnam War. The band received equal billing with San Francisco groups like the Grateful Dead, Moby Grape, and Jefferson Airplane in the late 1960s, headlining at the Avalon Ballroom and Fillmore Auditorium. Country Joe and the Fish received their greatest attention and are most remembered for their pivotal performance at Woodstock in 1969 and inclusion in the film, Woodstock. With songs that included references to politics and drugs, the band represented a perfect marriage between the radicals of Berkley and the hippies of San Francisco.
Joe McDonald's parents were Communist workers who named their son after Russian Communist dictator Joseph Stalin. Born in 1942 in Washington, D.C., he grew up in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, California. McDonald learned to play the guitar and joined local folk groups, but later ran away from home and joined the Navy for three years. After his discharge, he moved to Berkley where he played guitar and harmonica in the Berkeley String Quartet and Instant Action Jug Band. "Country Joe and the Fish," noted Bill Belmont on the Well website, "came about as part political device, part necessity, and part entertainment."
At the end of 1965 McDonald gathered Barry Melton, Richard Saunders, and Carl Shrager from the Instant Action Jug Band, then added Bob Steele to form the first version of Country Joe and the Fish. This acoustic lineup cut two tracks, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," an anti-Vietnam song, and "Superbird," a political satire. McDonald and Melton then played for a short time as a folk duo before putting together a second, electric version of the band with Paul Armstrong, Bruce Barthol, David Cohen, and John Francis Gunning. "Bass Strings," from their "white EP," received radio play, and the group's manager, Ed Denson, secured a record deal with Vanguard at the end of 1966.
When Country Joe and the Fish released Electric Music for the Mind and Body in 1967, it quickly became one of the definitive psychedelic rock albums of the era. "The record documented perfectly their unique conglomeration of folk, blues, country and rock," wrote Marianne Ebertowski in the Marshall Cavendish History of Popular Music. "It also gave evidence of their involvement with the San Francisco drug and hippie scene on the one hand and the radical political movement on the other." "Bass Strings" and "Flying High" contained overt references to drug use, while the aforementioned "Superbird" included a barbed attack on President Lyndon Johnson. "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" was left off the album at the request of Vanguard's Maynard Solomon. "An unusual move," wrote Bill Belmont, "by the company that staged the Weavers' reunion concert at Carnegie Hall during the height of the anti-left sentiment in the United States."
Country Joe and the Fish played at the Avalon Ballroom and the Fillmore Auditorium throughout 1967. They performed at "The Human Be-In" at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, made an appearance at the Monterey Pop International Festival, and even visited the United Kingdom where they played at the Round-house in Camden Town. They released their second album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die, seven months after their debut. Many critics viewed the album as overindulgent, or as Richie Unterberger described it in All Music Guide, "the kind of San Francisco psychedelia that Frank Zappa skewered on his classic We're Only in It for the Money." Nonetheless, the title track was a keeper, noted Unterberger, "a classic antiwar satire that became one of the decade's most famous protest songs, and the group's most famous track." While 1968's Together received a warmer critical response, it would be the last album by the group's classic lineup.
By the end of 1968 and the beginning of 1969, Country Joe and the Fish began to dissolve. Barthol left in September of 1968 to avoid the draft and was replaced by Mark Ryan. In January of 1969, Ryan, Hirsch, and Cohen quit. McDonald and Melton put together a new version of the band to record Here We Are Again, but this lineup had fragmented by the time the album was released. Another version of the band was formed in time for an appearance at a summer festival in upstate New York called the "Woodstock Music and Art Fair."
McDonald, with and without the Fish, made his most famous appearance at Woodstock in the summer of 1969. While the festival, and later the film, gave greater exposure to "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," it was the "Fish Cheer" that gave the event notoriety. The "Fish Cheer" that had been included on their second album and in live shows consisted of little more than the band shouting, "Gimmie an a F, gimmie an IWhat does that spell? 'F-l-S-H.'" At the Shaefer Beer Festival in the summer of 1968, drummer Hirsch suggested spelling out an obscene word instead. "And the audience loved it," McDonald wrote in comments included on his official website. "We were kicked off of the Shaffer (sic) Beer Festival for life and also paid to STAY OFF of the Ed Sullivan TV show which had paid us in advance for a future appearance. They said 'keep the money but you will never be on the Ed Sullivan show.'" At Woodstock, there was a lull in the proceedings after Richie Havens' performance, and McDonald agreed to do a solo set. After receiving little response from the audience after 15 or 20 minutes, he began the "Fish Cheer." "Gimmie an F " and an audience of 300,000 came to life. Later, the cheer and "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" became one of the most noted sequences of Michael Wadleigh's film, Woodstock.
In June of 1970 Country Joe and the Fish broke up. McDonald, who had already started his solo career, recorded several albums for Vanguard before reforming the band for a short period in 1977, resulting in the album Reunion. Melton recorded several solo albums in the 1970s before becoming a lawyer in 1982. He became Mendocino County, California, deputy public defender in 1994, and later that same year Country Joe and the Fish reunited once again. These short-lived reunions added little to the band's reputation, however.
Country Joe and the Fish's recordings between 1966 and 1968 remain cornerstones of psychedelic rock. "There were so many exciting, creative things happening at the time," McDonald told Jas Obrecht of Guitar Player. "Everywhere you turned, someone was doing something really original and new as far as music was concerned." Thirty years later, that originality and newness continues to mark the best music of Country Joe and the Fish.
Electric Music for the Mind and Body, Vanguard, 1967.
I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die, Vanguard, 1967.
Together, Vanguard, 1968.
The Collected Country Joe and the Fish, Vanguard, 1987.
Brown, Ashley, editor, The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated History of Popular Music, Marshall Cavendish, 1990.
Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, editors, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
Guitar Player, February 1997, p. 68.
"Country Joe and the Fish," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 6, 2001).
Country Joe and the Fish Official Website, http://www.well.com/~cjfish/bandbio.htm (November 27, 2001).
"That Notorious Cheer," Country Joe's Place, http://www.countryjoe.com/cheer.htm (December 18, 2001).
Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.