Country Joe & The Fish - Biography
By J Poet
When the psychedelic sound of San Francisco swept the nation during the Summer of Love, Country Joe & the Fish were there to represent Berkeley, CA the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement and a hippie and creative hotbed just as vital as San Francisco, if not as well known. The band was one of the major San Francisco Hippie Bands, and exploded onto the national consciousness in 1969 when McDonald kicked off the Woodstock Festival with the infamous Fish Cheer – “Gimme an F, Gimme a U, Gimme a C, Gimme a K. What’s that spell?” – and the “I Fell Like I’m Fixing To Die Rag” possibly the most famous anti-Vietnam War protest songs. The band only cut five albums before breaking up in 1970, but their amalgamation of folk, rock, protest music and psychedelia was unlike anything before or since. McDonald, Melton, Cohen and Barthol stayed active making music and the break up; Hirsh moved to Oregon and became a well-known painter.
Joe McDonald was born in Washington, D. C., in 1942, but grew up LA, where his parents were famous leftist organizers. McDonald frequented the El Monte Legion Stadium and soaked up gospel, R & B and rock from every black and white band that played the venue. He started playing guitar early and was writing songs in high school. After graduation he enlisted in the Navy, and went to Los Angeles City College on the GI Bill. He started writing protest songs and moved to Berkeley in 1962 to go to UC Berkeley, but was more busy playing music with bands he put together including the Instant Action Jug Band and the Berkeley String Quartet. His first recording, a duo outing with Blair Hardman came out on a small indie label in 1964. First American Records reissued the album as The Early Years in 1977.
By 1965 the FMS – Free Speech Movement – organized on the UC Berkeley campus to fight the administration’s crack down on students organizing to support the Civil Rights movement, had morphed into the anti-war movement and the first stirring of hippie/counter culture consciousness. Berkeley’s folk protest singers were starting to become folk rockers and McDonald sensed the shifting of the paradigm. He’d been editing a magazine called Rag Baby and decided to do a “talking issue”, an EP with four songs on it. Two songs. The great “I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag” McDonald’s ode to Lyndon Johnson, “Superbird”, were by Country Joe, Barry “the Fish” Melton and their jug band. McDonald and Melton kept working together and morphed into Country Joe & the Fish.
They quickly became an A list band in the San Francisco Bay Area and got signed by Vanguard Records. While they were recording Electric Music for the Mind and Body (1967 Vanguard), they put out an eponymous three-song indie EP, today extremely hard to find. It included three songs they re-recorded for the first LP - "Bass Strings," "Section 43" and "(Thing Called) Love." McDonald wanted to include “Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag” but Vanguard nixed it, saying it would be too controversial. The album didn’t have a hit single, but “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine”, "Masked Marauder" and “Section 43” became college radio hits. Vanguard finally agreed to let the band to use “I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die” and it became the title of album #2, also cut in 1967. I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die (1967 Vanguard and Electric Music for the Mind and Body weren’t major hits, but both albums stayed on the Billboard Hot 100 for the next two years.
The band was headlining all up and down the west coast and had a featured spot in the Monterey Pop Festival film. Together (1968 Vanguard) was their best selling album, with Melton’s scorching “Rock and Soul Music” being another college radio hit. The touring was taking a toll on the band and by the time they made Here We Are Again (1969 Vanguard) the band was in flux. Jack Casady of the Jefferson Airplane and David Getz and Peter Albin from Big Brother and the Holding Company helped the stripped down trio record the album. Here We Are was a stab at a more pop sound using horn charts and a string section.
In 1969 the band played Woodstock, McDonald led the crowd in the fish/fuck cheer and stepped into history. The Fish had two tracks on Woodstock (1970 Atlantic) the #1 selling triple LP of the concert. Country Joe & the Fish didn’t last long enough to capitalize on their Woodstock fame. McDonald made two solo albums for Vanguard Thinking Of Woody Guthrie (1970 Vanguard) and Tonight I'm Singing Just For You (1970 Vanguard). Between the solo discs the band, with only McDonald and Melton left from the original lineup, released CJ Fish (1970 Vanguard). It was a return to their original folk rock sound, and a solid finish to their brief, trail-blazing career. The last Fish band had a brief cameo in George Englund’s Zachariah, a hippie western based on Hesse’s Siddartha, which came out in 1971.
McDonald went on to a successful solo career as a musician and political activist. Melton went back to college and became a lawyer and worked as a public defender. He also founded The Dinosaurs with other vets of San Francisco’s psychedelic bands and play occasional reunion gigs with McDonald. Cohen still plays piano in sessions and was part of the pit orchestra for the Broadway hit Rent. He has several piano instruction books and CDs available. Barthol went back to school to take a MFA in Musical Theater at NYU. From 1976 to 2006 he was the principal composer and lyricist for the San Francisco Mime Troupe. Hirsh moved to Oregon in the 1970s and became a well-known painter.