Country Joe & The Fish
If you mention the name Country Joe & the Fish to Americans born in 1955 or earlier, chances are that they'll know the band you're talking about, at least to the degree that they know their most widely played and quoted song, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag." The problem is, that particular song captured only the smallest sliver of who Country Joe & the Fish were or what they were about. One of the original and most popular of the San Francisco Bay Area psychedelic bands, they were also probably the most enigmatic, in terms of who they actually were, and had the longest and strangest gestation into becoming a rock band. And Joe McDonald may have written the most in-your-face antiwar, anti-military song to come out of the 1960s, but he was also one of the very few musicians on the San Francisco scene who'd served in uniform.
Born on January 1, 1942, to a very leftist-oriented family, Joe McDonald was named in honor of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. (In the context of World War II, Stalin was regarded by many on the left -- and even some apolitical observers -- in the United States and elsewhere as heroic, for being Hitler and Nazi Germany's greatest nemesis, at a time when the governments of England, France, and the United States were given to waffling and dithering over what to do about German militarism; the millions of deaths within the Soviet Union for which Stalin is now blamed were not yet known.) McDonald was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte, where he grew up surrounded by all manner of political activity, in support of labor unions and other leftist and progressive causes. He was also exposed to a massive amount of music, ranging from R&B to Dixieland jazz. Between the El Monte Legion Stadium and the Lighthouse Club at Hermosa Beach, McDonald got a wide musical education -- his own early gigs were as a trombonist in jazz outfits and a guitarist in folk groups. He spent most of the early '60s serving a hitch in the United States Navy, in which he enlisted at age 18.
On returning to civilian life in 1964, McDonald resumed playing music and cut his first album, in collaboration with Blair Hardman in 1964, entitled The Goodbye Blues, and also started editing a radical magazine called Et Tu. Soon after, McDonald headed for Berkeley, CA -- his official purpose was to attend college, but he quickly became a part of the city's burgeoning folk music scene, which took up half of his time. He mostly worked solo, playing songs by Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, and Woody Guthrie, interspersed with a slowly growing body of his own compositions. The other half was devoted to politics -- the city's politics, especially the campus of the University of California, was already liberal, but as the 1960s progressed, the left began exerting an ever louder voice on the campus, through the Free Speech Movement and other protest campaigns, initially to get Reserve Officer Training Corps recruiters barred from the campus and later to open up the university's speech and political environment; Vietnam wasn't yet a central issue, but issues such as civil rights, the economic embargo of Cuba, the working condition of migrant farm laborers, the American role in decades of repressive politics of the Dominican Republic, and a Kennedy-era foreign policy … Read More