Mar 16th 2010
by James Meyers
Country Joe McDonald is best remembered for his performance with
Country Joe and the Fish, at the original Woodstock. His iconic
protest song 'I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag' and the band's
X-rated performance of the 'Fish Cheer' have become touchstones of
the festival. Spinner spoke with the singer, songwriter, author and
archivist from his home in Berkeley, Calif.
Can you explain what you'll be doing at SXSW?
I'm going to be playing some shows, but I'll also be appearing on a
panel about revolution and protest music along with Wayne Kramer from
the MC5 and Bill Ayers, the activist. I'm not really certain what
we'll be talking about, but I'm sure it will be about protest music
and political activism and revolution.
How did you get involved with this project?
The panel moderator or the guy who was putting the thing together
contacted me. I'd never been on a political panel befor,e so I just
figured what the heck, I think I can talk about those subjects.
What are your biggest influences both as a musician and as an activist?
Woody Guthrie is the biggest influence both politically and as a
musician. He was such a brilliant songwriter able to be an activist
but also a voice for people who were from the mainstream or Main
Street. He addressed topics that affected everyone from politics to
love. I've been working with his daughter, and there are still just
boxes and boxes full of his songs that no one's ever heard. He was
beyond prolific when it came to writing. I've been working on a Woody
Guthrie tribute that mixes his songs along with some spoken-word
performance and mixed-media presentation. When I was younger I was
into jazz, old country music and folk, and that all influenced me at
What are your feelings about current music? Are there any new bands
that you enjoy?
I don't go out of my way to track down new stuff because I have this
huge juke box in my head that's just full of music from my whole
life. I was getting into hip-hop for a couple of years, and before
that some of the grunge bands, Nirvana and Pearl Jam. I like the
White Stripes, except for that bizarre third album. John Mayer does
some good stuff. I can't get into Coldplay or any of that stuff. A
lot of modern pop is very pleasing, but I don't understand the lyrics.
Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?
I don't think I could ever be embarrassed to enjoy any kind of music,
as long as I like it or it makes me happy. I'm not posing with music,
you know? I like Frank Sinatra, the early stuff, and I guess people
consider that elevator music. My friends all hate rap and thought I'd
lost my mind when I started getting into that stuff.
You came of age in the psychedelic '60s. Do you still have any vices?
Cookies. Chocolate chip cookies.
You were one of the highlights of Woodstock -- what would be in your
festival survival kit these days?
Well, nowadays you can't bring anything through the gate, so you need
to bring cash. Actually, money isn't even practical, so bring a
credit card. Other than that, food, water and friends are essential.
Are there any artists you're planning on seeing at SXSW?
My daughter manages Harper Simon, Paul's son, so I plan on seeing
him, for sure. He's really great, has a nice country flavor, and I
love his song' Berkeley Girl.' Of course Wayne Kramer and Bill Ayers.
And it should be no surprise that Billy Bragg and I have a strong
connection through Woody's music. I know Tom Morello from a movie we
were both in. He's a great guy and Rage Against the Machine were a
solid protest band.
What would be your advice to young musicians?
You just gotta keep on keeping on. Develop your own sound your own
viewpoint. Remember, there are very few artists who are created by
the music business; everyone else has to work really, really hard at
it. Try to make as many connections as you can, both in the business
end and the musical side. Find people you can trust. Most likely,
you're going to have to do it on your own. The more you put into it,
the more you'll get back.
How do you feel about the impact of the Internet on the music business?
I think for musicians it's a wonderful tool. It's become a vital
thing for any musician to have an active presence on as many formats
as you can reach. It's all a part of the DIY, do-it-yourself thing I
was talking about before. I don't know how you could spend less money
to reach more people. For musicians it's great, but for music execs
maybe not so much.
Can you tell me about your Florence Nightingale tribute?
It all started around 1980. I was playing a benefit for Vietnam
veterans, which should be no surprise. I met a nurse who shared her
experiences over there with me. Despite all the work I've done with
veterans, I realized I had never really thought that much about the
role that the nurses played. I had ignored them, sorry to say. I
started to think about it every day for days. I started doing some
research on the history of nursing and just became fascinated by
Florence Nightingale. She was one of the most famous women in the
world and predicted correctly that one day she would be remembered as
if she were a fictional character. I've got some songs about her, a
couple musical scripts I've been kicking around. I'm not sure what
will become of it, but it keeps me out of trouble. I may even play a
few of those songs in Austin; I guess I'll just have to wait and see.