Country Joe McDonald
Country Joe McDonald performing at Parr Meadows 1979
|Joseph Allen McDonald|
|Born||January 1, 1942|
|Genres||Alternative country, country, bluegrass, country rock, folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock|
|Musician, political activist|
|Labels||Vanguard Records, One Way Records, Fantasy Records, Rykodisc, Shanachie Records|
|Country Joe and the Fish|
McDonald was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in El Monte, California, where he was student conductor and president of his high school marching band. At the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Navy for three years and was stationed in Japan. After his enlistment, he attended Los Angeles City College for a year. In the early 1960s, he began busking on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. His father, Worden McDonald, from Oklahoma, was of Scottish Presbyterian heritage (the son of a minister), and worked for a telephone company. His mother, Florence Plotnick, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and served for many years on the Berkeley City Council. In their youth, both were Communist Party members before renouncing the cause, and named their son after Joseph Stalin.
McDonald has recorded 33 albums and has written hundreds of songs over a career spanning 40 years. In 1965, he and Barry Melton co-founded Country Joe & the Fish which became a pioneer psychedelic rock band with their eclectic performances at the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore, the Monterey Pop Festival, and both the original and 1979 reunion Woodstock Festivals.
Their best known song is his "The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" (1965), a black comedy novelty song about the Vietnam War, whose familiar chorus ("One, two, three, what are we fighting for?") is well-known to the Woodstock generation and Vietnam veterans of the 1960s and '70s. McDonald wrote the song in about 20 minutes for an anti-Vietnam War play. The "Fish Cheer" was the band performing a call-and-response with the audience, spelling the word "fish", followed by Country Joe yelling, "What's that spell?" twice, with the audience responding, and then, the third time, "What's that spell?", followed immediately by the song. The "Fish Cheer" evolved into the "Fuck Cheer" after the Berkeley free speech movement. The cheer was on the original recording of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag", being played right before the song on the LP of the same name. The cheer became popular and the crowd would spell out F-I-S-H when the band performed live. During the summer of 1968 the band played on the Schaefer Music Festival tour.Gary "Chicken" Hirsh suggested before one of the shows to spell the word "fuck" instead of "fish". Although the crowd loved it, the management of the Schaefer Beer Festival did not and kicked the band off the tour for life. The Ed Sullivan Show then canceled a previously scheduled appearance by the band, telling them to keep the money they had already been paid in exchange for never playing on the show. The modified cheer continued at most of the band's live shows throughout the years, including Woodstock and elsewhere. In Massachusetts, McDonald was fined $500 for uttering "fuck" in public.
McDonald subsequently embarked on a solo career. One of his solo albums, the 1973 Vanguard LP Paris Sessions, was reviewed by Robert Christgau in Christgau's Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981), in which he said: "Amazing. The man (repeat: man) has written feminist songs that are both catchy and sensible. Despite the real/honest prison poem and the silly, outdated record fan routines, his best in about five years."
In 2003 McDonald was sued for copyright infringement over his signature song, specifically the "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" chorus part, as derived from the 1926 early jazz classic "Muskrat Ramble", co-written by Kid Ory. The suit was brought by Ory's daughter Babette, who held the copyright at the time. Since decades had already passed from the time McDonald composed his song in 1965, Ory based her suit on a new version of it recorded by McDonald in 1999. The court however upheld McDonald's laches defense, noting that Ory and her father were aware of the original version of the song, with the same questionable section, for some three decades without bringing a suit. In 2006, Ory was ordered to pay McDonald $395,000 for attorney fees and had to sell her copyrights to do so.
In 2004, McDonald regrouped with three of the original members of Country Joe and the Fish (Bruce Barthol, David Bennett Cohen, and Gary "Chicken" Hirsh) and they toured the United States and the United Kingdom as the "Country Joe Band".
In the spring of 2005, McDonald joined a larger protest against California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget cuts at the California State Capitol Building.
In 2015, McDonald (with assistance from Alec Palao), formed The Electric Music Band; the intention of the group was to perform the early psychedelic material of the early career of Country Joe And The Fish. The band has performed 'Electric Music For The Mind And Body' in its entirety, and band members include Palao, The Rain Parade's Matt Piucci and Derek See of The Chocolate Watchband.
In 2017, McDonald released an album on his own Rag Baby label entitled "50".
McDonald was married to Kathe Werum from 1963 to 1966 and married Robin Menken a year after his divorce from Werum. In 1968, Menken gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Seven Anne McDonald, in San Francisco. Seven, formerly a columnist for LA Weekly and now a movie producer and artist manager, had a previous career as a TV child actor in the late 1970s and early 1980s, managed Johnny Depp's Viper Room nightclub and the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins in the 1990s, and wrote for Details, Elle and Harper's Bazaar magazines in the 1990s and 2000s. According to Ron Cabral's biography on Country Joe and the Fish, Seven was the subject of and inspiration behind the song Silver and Gold. McDonald has noted that his ex-girlfriend at the time, Janis Joplin, showed much anger for breaking up with her to be with Menken but asked him to write a song about her; the result was "Janis".
McDonald has four other children, Devin (b. 1976) and Tara (b. 1980) from his marriage to Janice Taylor, and Emily (b. 1988) and Ryan (b. 1991) from his marriage to Kathy Wright.
For discography of Country Joe and the Fish, see that entry