If you happened to be at Woodstock, or you saw the movie, or maybe you saw the recent Documentary, or if you talked to someone who did – then you know about the iconic performer, with a borrowed guitar and a piece of rope for a strap, who made history by leading a ‘Cheer’ and singing his anti-war song “Fixin’ To Die Rag”, that humorously, and memorably, took issue with a very unpopular war. Country Joe McDonald is certainly more than just a scene captured on a bit of film. The same commitment and honesty has served him all these years. We at Songwriters Marketplace want you to meet the man today. An outspoken advocate for Veterans, avid proponent for Nursing, and a prolific songwriter, who has put out an album every year since the 70s. Country Joe McDonald represents an era, and that era was defined by a ‘Cheer’ and an anti-war song, delivered by Country Joe McDonald. One – two – three – what are we fighting for?
Joe, you are certainly more than an image of a man on stage, at Woodstock, with a borrowed guitar, and a rope for a strap. The ‘Cheer’ is history and painted wide strokes in our cultural collective memory. The man you have been since has made a difference – tell us something we need to know of that man.
He is a military veteran.
An important point – when looking back. As a songwriter/performer you have been on a long road – has it been satisfying?
It has paid the bills, been very interesting, and yes satisfying.
You have certainly become a master songwriter. What would you tell beginning songwriters about the craft and the journey?
The only way to write a song is to write songs. If you want a career in the craft of songwriting you will need to make money by selling them or singing them yourself – I sang them myself.
You have a large catalog of music, is songwriting still as important to you now, as when you were younger?
My catalog is actually rather modest, about 255 songs. I used to feel like I must write songs in order to communicate. I don’t feel that way any more, and hardly ever write a new song now.
You started your own label. What prompted that?
I started my own label back in 1965 and just kept it going. After I no longer had a contract with any other Label I made albums myself. Albums are pretty much yesterday for me now.
What is your take on the state of the music industry today? What would be your advice to today’s hard working artists?
My advice is always the same: Keep on making music, build an audience, and try to keep them happy. The music industry today is as it always has been – Performance and Musician based. The distribution is different, because of ever changing technology.
Joe you were made famous by your solo performance at Woodstock. After all these years has that been a good thing?
It’s been good for me – it allowed me to have a solo career.
I noted that you have chronicled your life on your website – and by doing that chronicled the history of a time. Your web sites are full of information and a hidden history, I would invite our readers to go and have a look, what compelled you to take the time to do that?
Well, the stuff on the site just happened piece by piece. It was fun and the person who handles my sites was also the poster artist, Tom Weller, who did all the Country Joe and the fish posters and stuff back then. We have worked together for over 30 years now. He got into web design and web mastering – so I got the idea and he executed them. I am surprised myself at how much stuff there is on those sites. I have always been interested in communications, history, and the exchange of ideas and facts – so it fit perfectly for the Internet. I hope people enjoy it and find it interesting and useful in some way.
I’m sure they will when they discover it – as we did. You must have a huge amount of personal mementos– give us a little run down on your collection. What are your favorite pieces?
I have about 1,000 things scanned now – those are posters, photos, and flyers, and I am not done yet. In the end I hope to archive all the 60’s and upwards Rock Posters and Folk posters, photos, magazine items, letters, programs, and newspaper – I collected stuff with my name on it and I inherited quite a bit of stuff from the sixties Folk Era.
It’s hard to site favorites, but I sent a few to you to post: A Poster for a London England show, with me as the headliner, and Cheech and Chong and special guests; one from the Fillmore Auditorium, a Country Joe and The Fish Show; with Led Zeppelin as second bill; a newspaper article about a war protest, and me leading the crowd in a fuck Nixon cheer; letters from the David Frost Show protesting Country Joe and the Fish singing ‘Fixin To Die Rag’.
Click the Pics to enlarge [supsystic-gallery id=6 position=center]
Thanks for that – they are a wonderful moment caught in history. I would also point our readers to the link of you testifying at the ‘Chicago Seven trial’ a stunning window into the past. Do you have plans for all that Country Joe McDonald memorabilia?
I hope to make a collection of one of each, and sell off the extra copies to make some money for my kids. But first I want to document everything and look at it all – the computer makes that possible. It is a bit of a family scrapbook of my life. I am curious to see what happened to me. I will include some personal stuff, before Country Joe and The Fish, like my years in the Navy, and from high school. It is an autobiography of sorts.
Quite a task Joe, there is a whisper in the wind that you are putting together a book and a multi-CD set of your songs, going back to the sixties – that would be exciting – is that true?
I do hope to do that, and perhaps it will find its way into a biography of sorts. First, I have to sort, scan, and document it all. I have been mostly just busy going through it all and just throwing it into boxes and cabinets. Now I have some time and the inclination – and the technology to do it. I am getting help from a friend, Lincoln cushing, who has done four books about political posters – and just finished scanning a collection of a friend of ours, who just died – he had a collection of 20,000 posters to go to the Oakland Museum
We wanted to do an interview with you that allowed the current Joe McDonald to be seen and appreciated. You seem tireless in your advocacy for social justice. Your work in behalf of Vietnam vets is only one example. You once said, “I’m here to sing about it, not talk about it.” Where did that start?
I sing better than I talk. My parents were advocates for social justice. I was born into it – and I am no longer tireless.
Nurses have become important to you. That has led you to be an expert on Florence Nightingale, tell us how that came about.
I was inspired by Lynda Vandevanter to look into nursing and found the life of Florence Nightingale very interesting. I do a one-man tribute to her life in spoken word and song and I have a web site dedicated to her life.
“Lady with the Lamp” by Joe McDonald
I don’t mind, please don’t misunderstand —
I know the score of war.
A soldier’s life is give and give
And then they ask for more.
Walking on the picket line
Where my comrades fell,
Holding up the thin-red-line
In the shot and shell.
The lady with the lamp,
You know she understands.
The lady with the lamp,
She’s the soldiers’ friend.
From the album Carry On (Shanachie 8019)
Give us some insight into your songwriting and writing process.
It is a gift from God.
What’s important to Country Joe McDonald these days?
Living one day at a time.
Thank you Joe for the interview and for all you have done. We look forward to another chat when the CD and book come out.
The links below are amazing – spend some time on the sites and learn more about Country Joe McDonald.
Woodstock ’69 : Country Joe McDonald’s “F-U-C-K Cheer” &
famous anti Vietnam war song “Fixing To Die Rag”
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