Country Joe McDonald: One, two, three, what were we fighting for?

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Good morning Austin:

Here is Country Joe McDonald at Woodstock.

That was the summer of 1969.

(I wasn’t there but I do remember seeing the ad, probably in the Village Voice, thinking it looked pretty cool and briefly trying to figure out if there was any way, at the age of 15, for me to get there.)

Screen Shot 2016-04-25 at 10.16.06 PMBy then, LBJ was out of office.

Three years later, in 1972, McDonald was in San Antonio for a gig with Bill Belmont, his longtime friend/road manager/producer who, like McDonald had served in the Navy.

McDonald recalls:

For some reason, Bill asked where the LBJ Ranch was and we decided that we would go out there, so the two of us drove out on this little tiny, two-lane road and then all of a sudden we saw this gate and this arch thing that said, LBJ Ranch, on it. I couldn’t believe it, and far away there was an airstrip, a tiny airstrip, and then were was nothing but sage brush, nothing, and we were standing in front of this gate. We walked over to this gate and we noticed there was this camera and we got really paranoid and freaked out and we got back in our car and we went back.

So, Country Joe didn’t meet LBJ that night, didn’t get to serenade him with  I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag, or, even more apropos, his LBJ song, Super Bird.

Look up yonder in the sky, now, what is that I pray?
It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a man insane, it’s my President LBJ.
He’s flying high way up in the sky just like Superman,
But I got a little piece of kryptonite,
Yes, I’ll bring him back to land.

Sad come out Lyndon with your hands held high,
Drop your guns, baby, and reach for the sky.
I’ve got you surrounded and you ain’t got a chance.
Gonna send you back to Texas make you work on your ranch,
Yeah, yeah, oh yeah.

But McDonald, 74, is coming to the LBJ Library for the Vietnam War Summit that runs today through Thursday, part of a select group of invitees who will discuss the meaning and the lessons of the war.

He will appear with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary, and Bob Santelli, director of the Grammy Museum on a panel:

One, Two, Three: What Are We Fighting For? – Musical artists discuss how the music of the times helped to offer comfort to our troops in Vietnam while fueling the anti-war movement at home.

Here are the complete lyrics I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag.

Yeah, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.

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.

Well, come on generals, let’s move fast;
Your big chance has come at last.
Gotta go out and get those reds-
The only good commie is the one who’s dead
And you know that peace can only be won
When we’ve blown ‘em all to kingdom come.

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.

Well, come on Wall Street, don’t move slow,
Why man, this is war au-go-go.
There’s plenty good money to be made
By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade,
Just hope and pray that if they drop the bomb,
They drop it on the Viet Cong.

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.

Well, come on mothers throughout the land,
Pack your boys off to Vietnam.
Come on fathers, don’t hesitate,
Send ‘em off before it’s too late.
Be the first one on your block
To have your boy come home in a box.

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.

I wrote about the summit on Sunday, and about Country Joe McDonald coming to the summit in today’s paper.

I talked to McDonald last week and really enjoyed the conversation.

Tom Hayden will be at the summit and may be the most controversial figure on the program, a lightning rod for passions on the war ever since visiting Hanoi – most famously with his future, now ex-wife, Jane Fonda – and expressing an identity with America’s enemy in wartime, back in 1972, the same year McDonald peered briefly into the security camera at the LBJ Ranch.

McDonald, while also an iconic figure of the anti-war movement, said he has never met  or spoken with Hayden.

His life, and relationship to the war, followed a very different trajectory.

Both of Country Joe McDonald’s parents were Communists.

My  mother loved meetings. She was raised by her mother who was a Communist Russian immigrant and one of the first people to drive a truck in Russia and would always drive my mother to Communist Party meetings. So my mother dropped out of high school, this was in D.C., because she was passing out literature and stuff for the Communist Party in the ghetto. My grandmother was a Communist and my father was an anarchist and a Zionist and they fought their whole life over that.

His father, Worden “Mac” McDonald, was the Communist son of a Presbyterian minister from Oklahoma, who had moved to Washington.

He would go to the train station in D.C. and pick up the Communist newspaper on his motorcycle and deliver it to my mother, who was the secretary of the Communist Party in D.C.

Joe was named for Joseph Stalin. (He said Stalin was sometimes known as Country Joe.)

When he was young, the family moved to El Monte. His father worked for Pacific Bell but, after 19 years, a year shy of being vested in the pension plan, he was sacked after he was called before HUAC – the House – Activities Committee.

He became a gardener in Los Angeles Country. We went from middle class to nothing. We never got welfare or anything but we had nothing. I was 12 years old. He sold eggs and chickens in Watts out of a refrigerated panel truck that played Old McDonald Had a Farm, like an ice cream truck.

At 17, in 1959, McDonald enlisted in the Navy – “To travel and have sex, which I think is a pretty standard reason, and I did both.”

Because of his age, he had to have his mother sign papers saying it was OK.

I said. `You got to sign this ,’and she signed it. She didn’t encourage me. She just signed it. Maybe she was trying to get me out of the house. We didn’t have that much money. I was living in the garage.

In 1965, McDonald, pursuing a career in music, moved to Berkeley.

His parents followed and his mother found a welcoming political culture.

She got involved in politics, starting in about 1969, 1970. She served two terms on the city council and also on the rent control board and as city auditor. They loved her and she loved it. She loved going to meetings and talking about politics. She loved politics.

Here is some of a 1977 AP story after her election as auditor.

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And from her 1989 obituary in the New York Times:

Mrs. McDonald, an avowed Marxist, entered Berkeley politics when she moved there in 1967. She began with four-hour vigils each Sunday in front of City Hall in protest against the Vietnam War. In 1975 she was elected City Auditor and served four years; in 1979 she was elected to the City Council. In 1982 she ran unsuccessfully for state controller as the Peace and Freedom Party candidate.

Mrs. McDonald was born in Washington, the child of Russian immigrants. Her mother was a Communist, her father a Zionist and anarchist. She joined the Young Communist League at the age of 12 and had been arrested more than two dozen times by the time she was 18.

It was Country Joe’s appearance at Woodstock, in the flesh, on the album and in the film, that vaulted him into the national consciousness.
Here is how he appeared in the film, with a bouncing ball to follow the lyrics and sing along.
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His performance of Fixin’ to Die was preceded by McDonald’s leading Woodstock Nation in an obscene cheer that captured the spirit of the moment.

Some background from McDonald:

Vanguard Records did not want Country Joe And The Fish to record the “Fixing-to-Die Rag” on the first LP Electric Music for the Mind and Body; but by the time of the second LP they relented. In fact the second Vanguard Records LP was titled I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die. As band leader, I did not feel that the music industry was giving us our deserved credit and strokes for creating great wonderful rock and roll music so I made the executive decision that we would give a cheer for ourselves on the record right before we performed the song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” Each member of the band (Barry Melton, Bruce Barthol, David Cohen, Gary “Chicken” Hirsh and myself) yelled one letter and the remaining member yelled “what’s that spell?” We overdubbed ourselves and workers from the Vanguard Records office answering each yelled command: “gimme an F,” “gimme an I,” “gimme an S,” “gimme an H,” and then “what’s that spell?” yelled many times — the answer being “Fish Fish Fish,” of course.

Time passed and audiences, having heard the record, were prepared to spell F-I-S-H out in front of us performing the “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.” The mood in the country began to sour over the Vietnam War. While playing the Schaefer Beer Festival in New York City, Gary “Chicken” Hirsh got the great idea to change the “FISH” cheer to the “F—” cheer that night for the first time! We did. And the audience loved it. We were kicked off of the Schaefer 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.” Today it is sometimes stated that Country Joe and The Fish played on the Ed Sullivan show. This is because surviving records show our scheduled appearance but in fact we did not appear by their personal request.

The modified F cheer, McDonald said, “really expresses how we felt about he war. It’s America’s anger word, and we were just angry, angry, angry. We’re still angry about the war and still coping with the war. We’re still dying from the war.”

Interestingly, though, McDonald’s growing up Jewish, the son of Communists, and his service in the Navy,  all combined to ingrain in him a skepticism and undermine the kind of idealism that could propel a Tom Hayden to more radical action.

As a Jew,  I knew when the pogroms can come they can find you. In the military, you can’t fight the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  And from my father’s experience with the House Un-American Activities Committee, I knew that if the government wants to come and get you, they can.

Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin decided to sacrifice their lives to try to bring the man down. I just thought,`No, you’re not going to do that, that’s not going to happen. You’re not going to stick it to the man. The man is going to stick it to you.’

McDonald said his approach is more “serpentine,” recalling a scene from the Alan Arkin-Peter Falk comedy, The In-Laws, in which Falk, as some kind of CIA agent, instructs Arkin, a dentist, to avoid a hail of bullets by running in a zig zag – “serpentine, Shell, serpentine!” – pattern.

In 1969 Country Joe and the Fish performed `Fixin’ to Die Rag” on the David Frost Show. Charles Robb and Lynda Bird Johnson, who will be participating in the summit, were on the same show.

“I have about 50 letters that were sent to the David Frost Show complaining that it’s disgusting that these horrible, filthy, degenerate hippies sang their disgusting song about bringing your boy home in a box,” McDonald said.

A sampling of that mail:

December 4, 1969

Dear David Frost,

We both have great respect for your show and watch it daily. We considered it great and high class. However today after Lynda Bird and Charles Robb -how dare you give us that bearded slob who looks like a tate murderer!!!! [All band members were clean-shaven at this time –TW] he sang like an animal in pain!!!!!!! If you omit his kind, be assured your rating will not go down!

Sincerely
Mr. & Mrs. H.H
North Miami Beach, Florida

December 6, 1969

Mr. Frost

I must protest vehemently your presentation of the obnoxious singing group called “Country Joe and the Fish” singing that repugnant song concerning the war in Viet Nam.

The lyrics appalled me especially the line: “be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box.” In behalf of every mother whose son died in Viet Nam I am asking you in all humanity not to present these dirty unwashed people to us again with all their verbal diarrhea spewing from their filthy minds and mouths. I refuse to patronize any of the sponsors if this situation ever occurs again.

M.K.P.
Carbondale, Pennsylvania

December 5, 1969

Gentlemen,

Last night, December 4, 1969, the show was excellent except for the last few minutes. Why-oh-why did the beautiful interview with the Robbs have to be debased by a hoarse voiced, hairy unwashed creature giving forth with what I assumed was supposed to be a song?

I thought it was a most unfortunate finale to one of the otherwise best shows you have ever done.

Sincerely
E.L.A.
Bowie, Maryland

December 4, 1969

Dear David Frost,

We both have great respect for your show and watch it daily. We considered it great and high class. However today after Lynda Bird and Charles Robb -how dare you give us that bearded slob who looks like a tate murderer!!!! [All band members were clean-shaven at this time –TW] he sang like an animal in pain!!!!!!! If you omit his kind, be assured your rating will not go down!

Sincerely
Mr. & Mrs. H.H
North Miami Beach, Florida

December 10, 1969

Dear Sirs:

I would like to register my disgust and horror at the number I’m watching at present on the David Frost Show, Wednesday, December 10th – the combo is called “Country Joe and the Fish” and the song “What Am I Fighting For?” at the dinner hour no less, when children are watching, it is blasphemous, disrespectful and anti-everything decent. I’m not for war but this is too much.

Mr. G. B.
Cleveland, Ohio

Mr. Frost,

I’m really disgusted with you for permitting that disgraceful song to be sung by those unkempt men or are they really women. I’m only 21 but these men embarrass me with their horrible appearance and shocking lyrics.

Yours truly
Mrs. F.C.
Bellerose, New York

But, as I wrote in today’s story:

 

McDonald said he always thought of it as a “work song.”

“It does not say anything negative about veterans, about Vietnam veterans or soldiers or people in the military,” McDonald said. “There were people popping caps in Vietnam and singing it. A guy I met once, he said a friend died in his arms after being shot, and the last words he said were, `Whoopee, we’re all going to die.’”

In the decades since, McDonald has identified more closely with those who fought the war than those who fought against it.

“When I first started working with veterans and writing music, the right-wing vets would always say, `If you haven’t been there you don’t know s—,” and I thought, wow, what a bad attitude,” McDonald said. “You know, I have that attitude now. Civilians, God bless them, they haven’t a clue. I don’t even try to reach them anymore.”

“I’ve never spoken to Tom Hayden in my life. I’ve never been embraced by the anti-war movement, except those who are working with veterans and veterans themselves,” he said.

“I built two Vietnam memorials — one in Berkeley for Berkeleyans who died in Vietnam, and one in San Francisco for San Franciscans who died in Vietnam,” McDonald said.

In 1986, McDonald put out an album, Vietnam Experience

“It’s all songs about the Vietnam War – specifically, not generally or elusively about the subject matter. It’s about the Vietnam experience, during and after the war and always from the point of view of the soldier,” McDonald said.

Here is a list of McDonald’s Vietnam songs

  1. SOLDIER SOLDIER
  2. WHO AM I
  3. FIXING TO DIE RAG
  4. UNTITLED PROTEST
  5. KISS MY ASS
  6. WELCOME HOME
  7. NOTHING MEANS NOTHING
  8. WAR HERO
  9. JOHNNY RAMBO
  10. AGENT ORANGE SONG
  11. THE GIRL NEXT STORE
  12. FOREIGN POLICY BLUES
  13. VIETNAM NEVER AGAIN
  14. VIETNAM VETERAN STILL ALIVE
  15. CARRY ON
  16. MOURNING BLUES
  17. SUPER BIRD
  18. TRICKY DICKY
  19. IN A SUBMARINE
  20. SECRET AGENT
  21. MARIA

Here’s Tricky Dick.

And Agent Orange Song:

“I’m really happy to do this,” McDonald said of participating in the summit. “I have been rehearsing in my mind what I’m going to say because in 45-plus years, I have not had any serious attention about this subject matter and my music, and certainly not from Rolling Stone. Years ago, when I did the Vietnam Experience album, I just got a sentence (in Rolling Stone) – “I don’t know why he is even making this.”

“I’m amazed and shocked by my participation in this event because I never get any discussion from my peers about my music and my songs,” McDonald said. “The industry has ignored me for decades. Now, it’s 45 years and this event has stirred the pot up. I did really try to forget about the Vietnam War. I don’t know what being there with John Kerry and Kissinger and all those generals and admirals will be like. I have no idea what those suits think of me.”

P.S. Here is  McDonald’s song about his old girlfriend, Janis Joplin.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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