Friday, September 24, 2010

Country Joe MacDonald: The "Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag" Story

One of the more outlandish performances that was so memorable from Woodstock was County Joe & The Fish doing their outrageous version of "The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die-Rag" song. Instead of spelling out F-I-S-H, they went for the more outrageous vulgar "F" word instead. It was an outrageous 1960's antiwar protest song performance.

As popular as this moment was with the Woodstock crowd, it resulted in a concert promoter cutting their ties with MacDonald. Ed Sullivan canceled the band's appearance on the show, but allowed them to keep the paid advance money. And, in Massachusetts the band was cited for public obscenity during a show and fined $500 for using the vulgar "F" word version of the song. Yet, the the darkly funny protest song made a place in history for the band.

Interestingly, Country Joe was actually sued over the song in 2003 by a copyright holder, the daughter of songwriter Kid Ory, who claimed that the song was actually lifted from an old 1926 Jazz song, "Muskrat Ramble" her father had written. Strangely, Ory's daughter had sued based off a 1999 version of the song that Country Joe had recorded, when the song had actually existed since 1965 on an early Country Joe & The Fish Ep and later album. Ory's daughter sued for the 1999 version because the statue of limitations had expired on the 1965 version of the song. However, this was a fatal legal flaw because lawyers for Country Joe were able to successfully use a "laches" defense, or otherwise that Ory's daughter had slept on her rights for many too many years. Ory's daughter actually had to pay MacDonald $750,00 for legal fees when she lost this case. Further, she had to sell the rights to her father's songs to also pay for the settlement to MacDonald.

Controversy is nothing new for the outlandish 68 year old MacDonald. He was born to two parents who were American Communists who moved to the Berkley, California and were active in leftist politics. Joe's mom actually served as a city council member in Berkley for many years, winning election after election. Country Joe was interestingly named after Soviet dictator Josef Stalin by his parents, who were sharp critics of the American way of capitalism and politics, although young Joe enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17. However, despite growing involvement in Vietnam, the Navy discharged Joe MacDonald for several reasons according to him. His anger and left leaning background led him to write the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" song in about 30 minutes as a form of dark "GI humor" as MacDonald explained. Country Joe's critical views on the military were based largely on his being being a military veteran himself as well as opposing the draft. But Country Joe supports the concept of joining the military and being a volunteer soldier. Country Joe could best be viewed as a nationalist type of American.

Conservative TV host, Bill O'Reilly has been a critic of Country Joe MacDonald, even making a comparison between him and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro because of his support and protest involvement with leftist antiwar mom Cindy Sheehan. But, that's so typical for County Joe. He's still radical after all these years, influenced both by his leftist childhood as well as his former and unhappy involvement in the military as well as his stature as a main figure in the protest music scene. Country Joe was long associated with Vanguard records, a label featuring other 60's leftist protest singers such as Joan Baez for example.

Many years have passed, but County Joe is still radical after all these years it seems. Some things just never change.