Country Joe focuses on causes he loves
COUNTRY Joe McDonald, former front man for Country Joe and the Fish, author
of the world-famous "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," (Gimme an F. . .),
veterans rights activist and father of five, has a new CD out called
He recorded it at his home in Berkeley and sells it himself from the
Country Store on his Web site of the same name as the CD. It reflects his
new way of doing business.
"I haven't turned a profit yet," he says. "But I tell everyone I made as
much money as Amazon.com."
McDonald, 59, looks a bit more grizzled than he did when he posed as Pancho
Villa for an early Fish album cover. But he has retained the bemused
expression and sardonic manner that have served him well during more than
three decades in the public eye. And the same concerns.
His Web site has a discussion board about the current crisis because, as he
says, it's "better to do something than just sit around and worry."
In the sixties, Country Joe became famous for skewering the political
("Tricky Dickie From Yorba Linda"), cultural ("Now if you're feeling a bit
low down / can't seem to get your feet off the ground / Maybe you oughtta
try a little bit of LSD") and social ("Be the first one on your block to
have your boy come home in a box") life of a nation at war with itself and
a faraway enemy in Vietnam. And he did it in a way that both entertained
audiences and got his deadly serious point across.
His accidental appearance at Woodstock sealed his acceptance as a cultural
icon. He could have mined the '60s revival vein for probably a long time
and a lot of profit.
But he veered instead to the area of veterans rights, working with Vietnam
veterans associations to protest the shameful treatment the veterans had
received when they returned home and to make sure their contribution was
appreciated and recognized. And the work with the vets led him to another
subject that's become a guiding passion for him: Florence Nightingale.
"In 1981 there was a two-day Vietnam War Symposium at Veterans Hall," he
recalls. "Ron Kovic was there, and Lynda Van Devanter, the Vietnam nurse
who wrote 'Home Before Morning.' There were only about 50 of us there, but
we were all movers and shakers. Lynda accused us of being sexist, and it
was true. Here I was trying to be politically correct, and I had forgotten
all about women in the military. The war on women is still alive and well.
And it's become a cutting-edge issue for me because I have three daughters."
McDonald wrote a song for Lynda about Vietnam nurses, called "The Girl Next
Door." He wrote a song about Clara Barton, who started the Red Cross. He
wrote a song called "Thank the Nurse," that appears on the new CD.
He married a nurse, his current wife and the mother of his two youngest
children. And he began researching the life of Florence Nightingale, who
had tended wounded soldiers during the Crimean War and founded the
profession of nursing.
At the old Holmes Books in downtown Oakland, McDonald found some books
about Nightingale. In his reading, he discovered an interesting thing about
her. After the end of the Crimean War, Nightingale suffered from a
mysterious nervous malady that caused her to become reclusive for the rest
of her life, which lasted another fifty years.
Its parallels with post-traumatic stress disorder intrigued him. PTSD was
an issue he had embraced in his work with the vets. He wrote a song about
her, "Lady With the Lamp," and became a student of her life. His tribute to
her in the link from his Web site is recommended by Britannica.com and the
California Nurses Association.
McDonald's own life has been remarkably consistent. He is a stay-at-home
dad who likes to describe himself as "a housewife." He tries to practice
guitar for about two hours each day, works out to maintain the stamina he
needs to perform two sets, cooks and cleans for his family and helps his
children with their homework.
He says he doesn't need to write many new songs, because he's recorded 35
albums, and most of those were his own songs.
"Reclusiveness is an aspect of old age," he says. "You just wanna be left
He is pleased that the latest recording technology and Web marketing enable
him to do most of his business from home. He suffers from a malady he calls
"phonephobia" but likes to communicate by e-mail.
McDonald will be playing at Biscuits and Blues in San Francisco on Oct. 11.
He doesn't play many gigs in the East Bay, he says, and when he does,
people don't come to hear him.
"Berkeley takes no pride in its radical individualism," he says. "Since my
mother died (Florence McDonald served on the Berkeley City Council and the
Rent Board before her death in 1988), it's become really cliquey and
bourgeois. It's a bourgeois town," he says, quoting the old Leadbelly song,
"and it's grumpy as hell."
Of course he has no plans to move or retire. "I have to work," he says.
"Work is value, and what you get from work is money to buy food, and then
you get to eat it. I like to cook. I've been doing it for 33 years. And I
like to work. I sing my causes and the things I'm interested in."
You can e-mail Susan Lydon at firstname.lastname@example.org
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