McDonald's tribute to Woody Guthrie
Mar. 28, 2008
By BRUCE DANCIS
Gimme a W.
Gimme an O ... Gimme another O.
Gimme a D ... Gimme a Y.
What's that spell? WOODY.
What's that spell? WOODY!
What's that spell? WOODY!!
It seems like a natural fit: Country Joe McDonald, the radical and
irreverent rock star of the 1960s, famous for his bitingly anti-war
"I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" and the notorious "Fish Cheer,"
performing the songs of Woody Guthrie, the radical and irreverent
folk musician of the 1930s and `40s, famous for his topical songs
about Dust Bowl refugees, labor organizing and the chasm between rich
and poor in a land of plenty.
Guthrie's music had a profound influence on the early 1960s folk
music revival, especially on artists such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and
Phil Ochs, and continues to influence performers ranging from Bruce
Springsteen and U2 to Lila Downs and the Dropkick Murphys. McDonald's
band, Country Joe & The Fish, remains in the popular consciousness as
one of the emblematic rock groups of the late `60s counter-culture.
McDonald's latest project, accordingly, is "A Tribute to Woody
Guthrie." It's a 90-minute one-man show of Guthrie's songs -
including "This Land Is Your Land," "Union Maid," "Roll on Columbia,"
and "Pastures of Plenty" - and writings, told and performed in the
dry, deadpan manner that links both musicians.
"I grew up with union music and protest music," says McDonald, 65,
during a recent interview in the north Berkeley home that he shares
with his wife and two teenage children. He recalls first hearing
Guthrie on an album his parents owned, "Songs of the Dust Bowl," when
he was 6 or 7 and growing up in the San Gabriel Valley.
Other connections run deep: Like Guthrie, Country Joe's father,
Worden "Mac" McDonald, grew up in Oklahoma, rode the rails and moved
to Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Both men held left-wing
political views and married Jewish women from the East Coast. And
both had sons who became famous musicians in the late `60s (Arlo
Guthrie and Country Joe, respectively).
But McDonald also recognizes another affinity between himself and
Guthrie: He believes that neither man could, or should, be pigeonholed.
He acknowledges that he's been "defined" by what he did at Woodstock
in 1969 - something about that cheer and the "One, two, three, what
are we fighting for?" lyric to "Fixin' To Die Rag" - and is seen as a
political type who spreads his views as he travels around the country.
"But I don't see myself as that," McDonald says. "Protest is part of
it, but I do lots of different kinds of music - spiritual, dance,
rock `n' roll, blues.
"And some of the subjects I'm interested in - like the military
family (McDonald spent three years in the U.S. Navy in the early
1960s and has devoted much time to issues involving Vietnam War
veterans) - are not fashionable in the progressive community, or the right."
As for Guthrie, McDonald points out that "he was in the Merchant
Marine during the Second World War and was torpedoed three times. And
he was drafted into the Army, too. I think he was a loyal, patriotic American."
In his show, McDonald quotes Guthrie as saying, "I ain't necessarily
a communist, but I have been in the red all my life." While he
"pushes" Guthrie's radicalism in his show, including singing the
often-neglected "No Trespassing" verse in "This Land Is Your Land,"
McDonald also notes that Guthrie never gave up his belief in Jesus
Christ and his view that "Christ was a man of the people."
As for his own politics, McDonald says, "I wasn't infatuated with
communism and I wasn't infatuated with capitalism, but I had an
attitude and I liked satire."
And creatively, McDonald says, "Woody Guthrie was kind of like James
Joyce. The guy couldn't stop writing, he couldn't stop drawing and he
couldn't stop singing. When he and (pal and fellow folk singer) Cisco
Houston got off the Merchant Marine for two days in New York City,
they went into Moe Asch's studio and recorded 135 songs in two days.
Every kind of song you could think of. The guy was a machine."
McDonald actually began performing Guthrie's music in 1969, when he
recorded his first solo album, "Thinking of Woody Guthrie," in
Nashville. It would become the first of many Guthrie tribute albums
by various artists.
Then in 1970, McDonald was asked by Marjorie Guthrie, Woody's widow,
and Harold Leventhal, manager of the Guthrie archives, to write music
for a Guthrie lyric which had none, and to perform the song at a
Hollywood Bowl "Tribute to Woody Guthrie" concert.
"They wanted to push the image the public had of Woody Guthrie,"
McDonald says. "Instead of being that protest troubadour and hobo,
they wanted him to be (thought of) as a modern writer, which he was."
McDonald found an erotic lyric by Guthrie entitled "Woman at Home,"
which, according to Nora Guthrie, Woody's daughter and current
director of the Guthrie archives, was the first effort "that began
opening this other door to Woody."
In the 1980s, McDonald produced an album by Joady Guthrie, another
son of Woody's, entitled "Spies on Wall Street."
McDonald's Guthrie tribute show began in 2001, when the John
Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif., hosted a touring Smithsonian
Institution exhibit about Guthrie entitled "This Land Is Your Land."
They asked McDonald to perform at the opening.
After some research, McDonald found other unfinished songs and poems
about subjects as varied as sex and automobiles; "Woody Sez"
newspaper columns from the West Coast communist newspaper the
People's World, and humorous correspondence between Guthrie and
friends like folk singer Malvina Reynolds ("Little Boxes"). He put
these various elements into his show.
McDonald's added some very personal parts to his concert, telling
stories about his father and reading from his dad's autobiography,
"An Old Guy Who Feels Good." The show also features a touching story
about his father seeing Country Joe & the Fish performing "Fixin' To
Die Rag" in the "Woodstock" movie as well as the Woody Guthrie song
his father asked Joe to sing when he lay dying - "So Long It's Been
Good To Know Ya."
Nora Guthrie, who has known McDonald for years and says "Joe is like
a brother to us," says she loves McDonald's "Tribute," which she saw
in New York a few months ago.
"I think he's nuts," she says, with a laugh, "and that's a good thing
in Guthrie language.
"My favorite thing about Joe's show is his delivery - it's so dry.
It's very much like Woody's humor, too," she says. As an example of
the latter, she cited "The Live Wire: Woody Guthrie in Performance
1949," the recently released live-concert album that won the 2008
Grammy Award for best historical album, in which her father spends
lots of time talking about the songs he's performing.
"The show that Joe does is exactly like that - 10 minutes to explain
a five-minute song - but that's Woody."
McDonald acknowledges that "in the show you hear me talking more than
I normally talk. The show wears me out, but I enjoy it. And I like
the fact that it closes with my father. It kind of brings it home for
me and the audience."
McDonald will soon be releasing a live, two-disc CD of his "Tribute
to Woody Guthrie" on his Rag Baby label (available through his Web
He'll also be taking part on July 1 in an effort in Concord, Calif.,
to break the Guinness World Record for the most guitarists playing
together on a song. (The record, set in Adelaide, Australia, is
1,700.) McDonald will be playing his guitar and leading the group in
a rendition of "This Land Is Your Land."
Woody Guthrie spent the last 13 years of his life in a New Jersey
hospital, suffering from a degenerative nerve disorder now known as
Huntington's disease. He died in 1967 at the age of 55.
Country Joe McDonald has no plans to retire anytime soon.
"Eubie Blake, the great pianist who performed into his 90s, talked
about the pain of rehearsing and practicing," McDonald says, "and
that's a reality.
"One enormous part of it for me is that I haven't hit the lottery,
and in certain professions you don't have a pension plan.
"But I'm lucky to have an occupation that I can continue doing."