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Country Joe McDonald Sings the American Journey of Woody Guthrie
By Terry Roland
Of the many symbolic moments of the late '60s, arguably none captured the frustration, anger, and absurdity of the times more than when Country Joe McDonald stood before 500,000 people in Bethel, New York, in 1969 and in an attempt to get the attention of the large crowd, led a pep rally-call and response to, "Gimme an..... . . . ," and you know the rest. That moment neatly segued into a solo version of his controversial song of protest, humor, and irony, "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag." Later, immortalized in the classic epic documentary Woodstock, it would become a defining moment of the times with the typical sharp wit and tragic insight from this one-of-a-kind folksinger. This is an insight the singer-writer still contributes to the current national political and cultural scene.
Today, Country Joe McDonald has remained true to his political and musical convictions. Like activists and ground breakers of any era, this has come with a price. Although his musical career began simply enough, playing folk, country, and ragtime music, Joe soon found himself in the middle of the controversial Vietnam era. As a veteran of the navy, he took personally what the troops of 1969 were going through in a war where so many young Americans were dying, with no end in sight. With his band, Country Joe and the Fish, their concerts and music would become symbols of the protest movement of that day. Although other than "Fixin' to Die Rag," the band's music was not politically themed, they became a rally point for the antiwar movement. Joe became friends with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, which then linked him to the radical political left, which was under federal investigation. During the late '60s and early '70s, Joe was censored, banned from concert venues, and, at one point, even under FBI investigation.
Nowadays, Country Joe McDonald's journey has not changed from his roots. Like his contemporary Neil Young, he is serving to remind younger singer-songwriters that folk music is about social action and songs relevant to the day.
Country Joe is not a veteran of a past era; he is still in the struggle he fought four decades ago. Still, he's come a long way. He offers a website chock full of spiritual wisdom, resources for veterans, peace movement information, music, and stories of the '60s. Based on this site, his continued involvement with music and the way he has engaged with some of the most important and compassionate causes of our times, he has followed through on the ideals he helped to symbolize back in the Woodstock days.
The Country Joe website suggests that is a man of true diversity and many dimensions. He's like a tree with many branches, but firmly rooted in the earth.
Joe has recently put together a tour paying tribute to another folk-singing activist, Woody Guthrie. This is not the first time he has paid musical tribute to Woody. In 1968, he became the first folk singer of his generation to release a tribute album of Woody's songs titled Thinking of Woody Guthrie. Since that time multiple tributes to Woody have been released. However, it's worthwhile to note, these projects were completed while it was safe to do so, now that Woody has emerged with a sense of folklore and legend as the man who wrote, "This Land Is Your Land." But few know that Country Joe McDonald was the first to ignore the commercial and political ramifications of 1968, showing admiration for a folksinger who was uncelebrated during his lifetime and who, during the McCarthy era, was regarded a Communist. Indeed, Woody''s conviction and passion seems a missing key in today's public arena. So, Country Joe has chosen to set his ego aside and give the real Woody Guthrie time back in front of an audience, which is really where both folk singers belong.
With this current tour, Country Joe returns full circle to one of his major influences. Initially, he was asked by the Steinbeck Center in Salinas, California, to do a live show to support the Woody Guthrie exhibit coming to the museum. Rather than just getting up and performing a series of familiar Guthrie songs, he put together a rich, story-driven show full of known and lesser known songs covering the diversity of the music of Woody Guthrie. The show has been released as a live CD called simply A Tribute to Woody Guthrie. This CD, like the show, covers stories from Bound for Glory and Woody Sez, along with seldom heard songs like "Vigilante Man."
It is significant to note that many of the values both Woody Guthrie and Country McDonald support came out of the Christian-based humanitarian activists movements of the last two centuries. When Country Joe has protested war and sought to give humanitarian support to our veterans, he has been influenced by the Quaker's, the Christian social reformists of the early 20th Century, and even Biblical admonishes to minister to the needy. He even has a fascination with Florence Nightingale, who began her ministry based on a Christian vision. He has devoted a web page to her which has benefited children throughout America.
Woody Guthrie was a wild and raucous troubadour. He also drew influence from the Christian values of the day when he sought to speak out for the poor and downtrodden. When he was near death suffering the effects of Huntington's Disease, he wrote his last song, "Jesus My Doctor." He scrawled this out on a small bit of paper which merely read, "Jesus, Oh Jesus, Oh Jesus..."
Country Joe's album and tour give audiences
a chance to see the full dimension of these were two visionaries who were
influenced by Christianity.