About Country Joe McDonald
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.
One of the greatest dilemmas through Joe’s career has been the inability to actively pursue a political direction. This shortcoming, if one were to call it, that is best described by a confrontation in New York in 1968. Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman were desperately trying to get Joe to convince the bulk of Country Joe and the Fish to participate in the Yippie Festival of Life during the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Hoffman pleaded with Joe to “come and lead, to give direction to tell us what to do” at this event. Joe’s response, characteristic of most of his public life was to answer that “he was the guy who sang the songs, pointed out the wrongs; not the guy who fixed them.” In other words he has viewed himself as a “Greek chorus,” a “moral conscience” for a generation that has had a lot of influence on its times but not many answers to burning questions.
While working with and about military nurses Joe became increasingly aware of the figure who could have been the first military nurse — Florence Nightingale. He has become a well-respected scholar on the subject of her life and recently traveled to Turkey to further research her activities there during and after the Crimean War, as well as visiting sites relevant to her life in England. His “Tribute to Florence Nightingale” website has become a major resource for grade-schoolers.
He 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.