Interview by Scott Preston
Country Joe and the Fish came about as part political device, part necessity, and part entertainment. In the Fall of 1965, the remnants of the FSM (Free Speech Movement) on the Berkeley Campus were organizing a series of demonstrations against the war in Vietnam at the Oakland Induction Center. Drawing on the experience of the Civil Rights Movement, the anti-war organizers always provided entertainment either before or after the march — to hold people’s attention. This was the era of the folk revival starting to turn into the San Francisco rock scene and “bands” were starting to appear all over the place. Joe McDonald had been editing a magazine he had founded, Rag Baby, and, as the story goes, ran out of material. He got the idea of doing a talking issue and through various devices and favors wound up having an EP pressed; it was an extended-play disc with four songs on it: two by a group called Country Joe and the Fish and two by another local folk singer, Peter Krug. This disc is considered to be the first self-produced recording to be used by a band as a form of promotion. It contained the original recorded version of the so-called anthem of the sixties “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag” and Joe’s satire of President Lyndon Johnson, “Superbird.” The group was a loose collection of friends and acquaintances, performing mostly jug band-flavored material, most of it Joe’s. After a brief period of what could be called indecision, Joe and Barry Melton earnestly put together a rock band, called it Country Joe and the Fish and started working at music on a rather full-time basis.
Country Joe McDonald has continued to write and record, having issued, on average, an album every 1.25 years since 1970. He tours regularly as a solo performer in the US and abroad. In 2004, after some abortive attempts at reuniting the original Country Joe and the Fish, he formed the “Country Joe Band” with original members David Bennett Cohen, Bruce Barthol, and Gary “Chicken” Hirsh. The Country Joe Band tours regularly, performing both the old repertoire and new songs. (from countryjoe.com)
Cincy Groove: How did Country Joe and the Fish first get together?
Joe McDonald: I had a zine and no copy for an issue. We made a “talking issue” of the zine on a 7″ vinyl and needed a name for the group. We called the group “Country Joe and the Fish” and started working under that name. It was a “skiffle/jug (acoustic) band”.
Cincy Groove: Who do you consider some of your influences?
Joe McDonald: They are many and diverse from semi classical to jazz and r&b and country.
Cincy Groove: What was the first album you ever bought?
Joe McDonald: I started buying records before albums. Probably a Fats Domino 45 rpm or some other r&b artist.
Cincy Groove: Can you tell me about your Woodstock experience?
Joe McDonald: I was there the whole 3 days and saw most of the acts perform from the stage where i was sitting. I was asked to fill in on the first day after Richie Havens played because there was no one else to perform that is how I started my career as a solo performer. I had a great time and thought that the acts were really entertaining and the audience was well behaved and well the show was just fabulous. I saw Jimi Hendrix play at the end sitting with the rest of the folks in the mud.
Cincy Groove: Who were some of the groups you had fun playing with in the 60’s?
Joe McDonald: The experience of being on a show with other groups is not really fun for me. Usually we arrive and do sound checks and eat and go to the hotel and play our part of the show and then leave. I did like it in the early days when we each played 2 sets so that made us stay and watch the shows. That was early on with the San Francisco bands.
Cincy Groove: I see you recently released a tribute to Woody Guthrie. What made you decide to do it?
Joe McDonald: I was asked by the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California to do a live show to accompany a traveling Woody Guthrie exhibit coming to the museum there. I put together stuff :songs, spoken word that I remembered from growing up with Woody Guthrie music and over the years. It is about me, Oklahoma, my father was a dust bowl refugee like Woody.
Cincy Groove: What current projects are you working on?
Joe McDonald: I am trying to make an opera or film script about the life of the english woman Florence Nightingale. I have been working on it for years and studying her life for decades. I have a web site dedicated to her life. I am putting up some of my posters and memorabilia in a local Berkeley restaurant Cafe de la Paz and naming part of the place “Country Joe’s Cafe” it will be open in Berkeley soon. I do an open mic night once a month there at Cafe de la Paz. I continue to do my tribute to Woody Guthrie show plus my regular Country Joe stuff on the road.
Cincy Groove: Are there any newer bands that impress you?
Joe McDonald: I don’t pay much attention now to new bands. The last one was White Stripes whom I enjoyed. I am a fan of hip hop and like rap music and also rave drum and bass stuff. But I don’t really pay attention to names any more.
Cincy Groove: How did you become a part of the Guiness world record for the most guitarists playing at the same time?
Joe McDonald: The city of Concord asked me if I would be the act to perform as they attempted to break the record and I said I would. They asked what song I would play and I decided to do This Land is Your Land because lots of people know it.
Cincy Groove: Do you see any similarities between the war in Vietnam and the war in Iraq?
Joe McDonald: All wars are pretty much the same. People get killed and people kill. They are always started by politicians. They are always fought by young people. With hind sight they always seem to be over nothing important in the end.
Cincy Groove: As I listen to your songs, I can see the subject matter that you sang about relating to the war in Vietnam relating to the war in Iraq much the same way. What do you think about that?
Joe McDonald: Well both wars are modern wars and have similarities . The one difference is of course terrorists.
Cincy Groove: How do you feel about how the internet has affected the music industry?
Joe McDonald: There are always technical changes affecting the music industry and that will never change. But the one thing that has not changed is musicians performing to live audiences that experience will always be with us and that is the source for most of all music. I like the internet.
Country Joe Band:
Country Joe McDonald –
David Bennett Cohen –
Bruce Barthol –
Gary “Chicken” Hirsh –
Upcoming Country Joe tour dates:
For complete show details visit http://www.countryjoe.com
8/1/2008 Knuckleheads Kansas City, MO
8/8 – 8/10/2008 The Festival of Friends Gage Park Hamilton, Ontario
8/16 – 8/17/2008 Ottawa Folk Festival Britannia Park, Ottawa, Ontario.
8/18/2008 Hugh’s Room Toronto Canada
8/24/2008 Storm Relief Benefit Concert Clatsop County Fairgrounds Astoria, Oregon
8/30 – 8/31/2008 Guthrie Center at the old Trinity Church (of “Alice’s Restaurant” fame) Great Barrington, Massachusetts
9/26/2008 Woody Guthrie tribute McCabe’s Guitar Shop Santa Monica, California
9/27/2008 San Diego Folk Hertitage will sponsor the Woody Guthrie tribute at the San Dieguito United Methodist Church in Encinitas
10/11/2008 The 5th annual benefit concert for the Upper Valley Haven Lebanon Opera House Lebanon, New Hampshire I’ll perform my Woody Guthrie Tribute.