JOE: JUST AN OLD FOLKIE
by Rip Rense
(First published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, 1991. For more about Country Joe
McDonald,, visit www.countryjoe.com)
It's just a coincidence---really. The
United States goes to war for the first time since Vietnam, and Country Joe McDonald
releases his first album in over five years. But no, the man who penned the anti-Vietnam
anthem, "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" (you know, the one that goes
"one-two-three, what are we fightin' for?") has not included a single anti-war
song on the new CD/cassette.
In fact, Superstitious Blues
(Rykodisc), which features McDonald's old friend, Jerry Garcia, is probably the gentlest,
most apolitical collection of tunes ever done by the musician who, in the 60s, founded one
of the great, legendary San Francisco bands, Country Joe and the Fish. The new album is
largely acoustic, and largely folk-y.
McDonald, now a 49-year-old father of
four (with a fifth due in March), has long found himself in the curious position of being
more recognized as a social figure than a musician---the result of his anti-war activism
in the 60s, years of doing fundraisers for Vietnam veterans' groups (usually at his own
expense), and his general activism on behalf of a variety of issues ranging from women's
rights to the environment.
Yet songwriting is, and has always been,
his focus. Country Joe has recorded 19 solo albums(!) for Vanguard, Fantasy and his own
Rag Baby labels (plus the newest) since the Fish broke up in 1970, and six with the Fish
(including one reunion effort in the late 70s.) Some of the albums, particularly a couple
of very pop-ish LP's in the late 70s, were---even by McDonald's admission---misdirected,
but albums such as 1969's Thinking of Woody Guthrie, War War War (a 1971 release
in which McDonald set the poems of World War I soldier Robert Service to music), 1974's Goodbye
Blues, Paradise With An Ocean View (1975), Leisure Suite (1981),
and the acoustic On My Own (1985) were complimented by critics in the U.S. and abroad.
(His song, "Save The Whales," from Paradise. . . has long been as much
an environmentalist standard as "Fixin'-To-Die. . ." has been for pacifism.)
Although most of these works are no longer available, Vanguard has just released The
Best of Country Joe McDonald, an excellent selection of tracks from 1969 through
McDonald continues to regularly perform,
mostly in the San Francisco area (often with ex-Fish guitarist Barry "The Fish"
Melton, now a San Francisco attorney), but his recorded musical output dropped in the '80s
as other interests took precedence---chiefly his work with war veterans, and what he
described as an "obsession" with researching the life of the legendary nurse,
Florence Nightingale. His last LP was a two-record set, Vietnam Experience, a
project done specifically for an audience with strong ties to the Vietnam War, in 1985.
Why the long layoff?
"It's a matter of
cost-effectiveness," laughed McDonald, reached at home in Berkeley. "It took a
long time to make the new album, because of working on shoestring budgets, not having
major label deals and just working for my own label. It took a long time to make Vietnam
Experience, and it took a long time to sell it. And also I was really into the
military thing---really into it---throughout most of the 80s."
Superstitious Blues is poignant,
pretty, powerful---yet understated---and, along with War War War, Thinking of Woody
Guthrie, and 1975's Paris Sessions, has turned out to be one of McDonald's
favorite efforts. He is particularly pleased by the teaming with Garcia (on four of Blues's
nine tracks)---notably on "Clara Barton," a tribute to the great Civil War nurse
("we sound like a whole string band.") Indeed, Garcia's expressive guitar leads
seem a natural complement to both McDonald's folk-based strumming and plaintive, lyrical
(and largely unchanged since the 60s) voice.
"I had a folk-based, folk-rock album
in mind," he said. "(There was) a deliberate attempt to just do the record
organically, slow, and just with people that I knew---people I'd been playing with in the
Bay Area for years. It sort of had that comfortable feel to it. We didn't look for any
stars, except Jerry (Garcia). Jerry was really a choice because he was also a person on
the scene that I really liked, and liked the way he played. And he's just a local guy.
World-class local guy."
And it's another coincidence---really
---that McDonald has recorded a folk-ish record at a time when folk music, the media and
"music industry" allege, is "back."
"I'm just so out of the music
business, that I don't perceive that at all," he laughed. "But in studying the
music, or perhaps anything, you can only go forward so far, and then you have to go back.
Because there are always the same roots. It's been a while since a generation has
experienced 'folk' music, as we call folk-based music. . .With Jerry and me, we didn't
have to talk much about it, because we came from the same background of years and years
and years of studying these great, great people of the past---I mean people like (blues
pioneer) Robert Johnson, or even R&B from the '50s, so it was great. I had a lot of
kids in the 70s tell me that Carlos Santana invented the blues, and stuff like that."
The Gulf War---folk-ish album or
not---finds Country Joe back in a sad, familiar setting---singing at anti-war rallies. One
of the first examples of peace demonstrations broadcast by CNN about a week before war
broke out was a small rally in San Francisco---with McDonald and his acoustic guitar smack
dab in the middle. Those who take umbrage at such rallies will be interested to know that
aside being a veteran of Woodstock, McDonald is also a veteran of the U.S. Navy.
"I'm a military veteran, and I guess
I did more work with military veterans during the Vietnam war than anybody else. I saw the
war veterans as a very strong statement for what war really is," he said. "They
are the experts, and I felt very strongly about it, and I worked a lot with them. Didn't
really do my career that much good, but I was very interested in the subject of war."
He traveled extensively at his own
expense throughout the 70s, doing fund-raising concerts on behalf of the Vietnam Veterans
Against the War, but was "in a process of denial" about being a veteran himself.
(He spent four years as a Navy air traffic controller, two stationed in Japan, in the
early 60s.) It wasn't until the press started calling McDonald for comments the Agent
Orange controversy in the early '80s that he revealed his military record.
"If anyone had pointed it out at
Woodstock, I might have denied it," he said flatly. "So I had to come to grips
with the fact that not only was I a rock star working with veterans more than anybody
else, but I was a veteran myself. And that was an identity crisis for me."
The question most often asked of him
since the Gulf War started is if he plans to write another "Fixin'-To-Die
Rag,"---a song that included lines like "there's plenty good money to be
made/ by supplying the army with tools of trade/just hope and pray that if they drop the
bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong." Country Joe, whose lyrics now tend to be
less sardonic and more in the vein of, say, Woody Guthrie (sample line from "Clara
Barton:" "she never ran from the shot and the shell, bringing aid and
comfort in the midst of hell. . .") says no.
"I've been thinking about that for
the past couple of weeks. And I think that sarcasm and that kind of satire is something
that comes from youth and insecurity. You're powerless, essentially, and you want to be
shocking, because you have power in that, and laughing at things that you can't really
change---making fun of them---I don't feel any of that stuff anymore around the Gulf. I
just feel a very strong, calm conviction that we shouldn't be at war, and we have to do
all we can to stop it. I don't feel like writing any clever songs about it."
Sounds pretty serious, Joe. . .
"I think we should start to be
serious---my generation. It's our turn to be serious about life. It's time for us. We're
growing up, and there's a lot of serious issues. And the kids will be silly. I mean, those
rappers and hip-hoppers---they're as goofy as they can get. I've got teeny-boppers in the
family, so I hear that stuff. As nuts as we were, I think, it's really noisy and funny and
hostile and whatever. We're old fogies, now, I guess."
Or old folkies, anyway.
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