Sunday, New Year's Day, is also the 75th birthday of an American oracle, singer-songwriter Country Joe McDonald. Born to an Oklahoman father and a Russian-Jewish mother, McDonald grew up indelibly Californian, suffused with that state's anti-establishment possibility. Surrounded by politics from the start — one oft-repeated story says his Communist Party-member parents named him for Joseph Stalin, before souring on the course of Soviet history — McDonald's art found him epitomizing a most important (and troublesome) political role: a witness.
After naval service, McDonald settled in Berkeley, joining that city's folk-music and jug-band community; his first album (made with Blair Hardman) had an initial pressing of 10 copies. McDonald's most famous song received a similarly quixotic first release: “I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag” appeared on a record accompanying a 1965 “talking issue” of the San Francisco-based magazine “Rag Baby,” credited, for the first time, to Country Joe & the Fish. The jaunty, black-comic recruiting pitch for the Vietnam War cut a lethally ironic path through the somber earnestness of protest.
“Fixin'-to-Die” musically reflected McDonald's hootenanny experience, but as Country Joe & the Fish evolved (anchored by McDonald and fellow guitarist Barry Melton), they became one of the more exploratory psychedelic acts of the late 1960s. Along the way came the Fish Cheer, exhorting the audience, pep-rally style, to spell out their name — and, later, a rather different four-letter word starting with “F.” The new-and-improved Fish Cheer became a visceral manifestation of the limits of politeness in dissent.
McDonald may well have been the era's most dedicated political conscience. (That the Woodstock festival, for instance, is remembered as having any political dimension was largely due to McDonald's performance.) But he was clear-eyed about his efficacy: Music could only be an alarm, not a solution. McDonald's prolific post-Fish solo career journeyed wide: “War War War,” a 1971 folk-tinged song cycle on World War I poetry by Robert Service; “Paradise With an Ocean View,” a 1975 album leveraging California country-rock to interrogate the American dream's ecological impact; and, in the 1980s, a renewed association with Vietnam veterans and, particularly, former military nurses. (Building on the latter, McDonald became an expert on Florence Nightingale and the history of nursing, fashioning a one-man show around the subject.)
Despite his best efforts, McDonald kept finding himself relevant. His penchant for protest found new fuel under Ronald Reagan; McDonald revived “War War War,” long out of print, to topical effect after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Last April, at a three-day examination of Vietnam at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library, there (among Henry Kissinger and John Kerry) was McDonald, singing his greatest hit. Testing his footing in that unlikely venue, he gave the crowd a familiar prompt — “Gimme an F!” — to rousing response. “Thanks,” McDonald laughed, “I needed that.” So do we, Joe.