Country Joe was a legendary agit-prop performer in the heydays of Berkeley’s student riots. If his beginnings were political, he soon discovered San Francisco’s hippies and LSD and managed to web his political stance to acid-rock’s visionary format. (Translated by Ornella C. Grannis)
Joe McDonald was the musician who inherited, for a brief season, Bob Dylan’s and the Fug’s charisma.
McDonald found himself in the right place at the right time: the protest marches for peace that arose in 1964 at Berkeley, on the opposite side of the San Francisco Bay.
Born to a Jewish mother and a communist father, McDonald moved to Berkeley in 1962 – after a four year stint in the Marines – to become a sarcastic spokesman for the anti-war movement. He was a folk singer by trade and a politician at heart. He employed the idea of the “rag baby”, a sort of musical announcement to be distributed at concerts. The first of such announcements came in the form of an EP in 1965.
His style fused Woody Allen’s sarcastic debate, Bob Dylan’s caustic complaints and the Fugs’ satire with the happy sound of jug-band. McDonald’s engagement in 1965 of an electric band, The Fish (the fish in Mao Zedong’s Red Book are the revolutionaries) with eighteen-year old prodigy Barry Melton at the guitar and David Cohen at one of the first Farfisa organs accompanying the singers’ bitter polemics, allowed an expansion of style into blues and rock and roll.. His notoriety was centered on campus, but he never got the full attention the hippies of the Bay: his religion was politics, not acid.
The repertory of Country Joe, as he was billed on his records, stretched from Vaudeville to the dreamy ballad to the instrumental jam. The album Electric Music For Mind And Body (Vanguard, 1966), was the manifesto of his hip socialism, in particular the ferocious Fugs-style satire Superbird, the bitter fairy tale Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine (practically a campus adaptation of Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone), the tragic Death Sound Blues. But as a testimonial to McDonald’s unusual eclecticism, the album also features Sad And Lonely Times, a country interlacing of guitars and vocal harmonies, and the hoarse blues Love. The Fish adopted the amateurish sound of a jug band, electrified as folk-rock demanded, crusty as the rebellious spirit of the campus required and coarsened by drugs, with ragged tambourines, uneven singing, and squealing guitars.
The true genius of McDonald reveals itself in the most surreal pieces, such as Happiness Is A Porpoise Mouth, a melancholy waltz articulated by Spanish chords of the acoustic guitar and a simple organ. Bass String is the most stoned and hallucinatory, a mini acid symphony that expands and rarefies itself until nothing remains of the identity of its sound. In these experimental miniatures is evident the influx of the psychedelic society: elastic tempo, stretched vowels, piercing screams, random noise. The height of the record and also the apex of Country Joe’s psychedelia is Grace, a lyric serenade of echoes, bells, thumps, pizzicatoes, drops and many other little slow background noises alongside a Japanese lullaby, refracted like a maze of deforming mirrors. More creative yet are the instrumentals. Section 43, sinister and vaguely oriental, orchestrated for harmonica, Farfisa, tom-tom and pealing guitars, remains to date a masterpiece of acid rock. The Masked Marauder alternates between an instrumental lead by a cheesy Farfisa, a Vaudevillian march, and a theme that sounds like a film soundtrack by Morricone. Overall, this is an album that uses politics as a pretext, an album that in reality stands more for the psychedelic spirit of the San Francisco hippies than for the revolutionary spirit of Berkeley’s radicals.
More populist than Dylan and more musical than the Fugs, Country Joe found the right balance between politics and music with the album that followed: I Feel Like I’m Fixin To Die (Vanguard, 1967). In it, the arrangements are more sophisticated (with plenty of sound effects and atypical instruments distributed between the grooves) and the sound is crisper. The three ring circus fanfare that gives its name to the album, and even more so the irreverence of the “Fish Cheer”, is one of the everlasting examples of political song, the target obviously being Vietnam, and also the best introduction to the work of these jester/acrobats of rock. The rest of the album is not expressed in such a surreal mode, the best mode for this artist. Instead, it fluctuates, soft and tranquil, in benevolent melancholy. It’s subdued by ballads: Who Am I, ecstatically suspended in one of McDonald’s slow-motion vocals, Pat’s Song, an imitation of Donovan adapted to Cohen’s ceremonial organ, and Janis, a tender serenade with a harpsichord that fuses waltz, rag, country and western.
Much more radical are the acid excesses of Magoo, sung with dilated and refracted march-like vocals and accompanied by the sound of a storm, and of Thought Dream, a slow piece to which the organ confers a religious tone. The instrumentals have lost the calliope spirit of the Farfisa, having adopted instead that sound of the Grateful Dead’s acid jams, as in Eastern Jam.The form is transfigured in the swoon of Colors For Susan, a piece of liquid, transcendental guitar music, punctuated by casual thumps, that constitutes although without words, one of the best made Indian prayers of hippie music.
In the 1968 McDonald participated in the Chicago protests. The year after he triumphed at Woodstock. Also in 1969 he was arrested for greeting the audience in his usual way (“F-U-C-K”). His politics were now prevailing, and his music was languishing after a couple of mediocre albums of political songs.
McDonald went back abruptly to the folk of his roots at at time when everybody was doing the same. The results were unimpressive: Together (Vanguard, 1968) and Here We Go Again (Vanguard, 1969) include Rock And Soul Music, Good Guys Bad Guys, Rocking Round The World.
Thinking Of Woody Guthrie (Vanguard, 1969) reprised ten songs of the great father of the song of protest, done according to the dictates of Nashville, the great father of musical fascism.
McDonald’s last political forays are to be found in War War War (Vanguard, 1971), in particular in Man From Athabaska and The Call, and on the noble Paris Sessions (1973), a tribute to contemporary events in the name of a vibrant rock and roll,with a mostly female line-up that included Dorothy Moscowitz of the United States of America.
McDonald continued to release a series of impressive albums well into the 80s: Paradise With An Ocean View (1975), Love Is A Fire (Fantasy, 1976) Goodbye Blues (1977), Rock And Roll Music From The Planet Earth (Fantasy, 1978), the acoustic On My Own (Rag Baby, 1980), and many others.
Superstitious Blues (Rykodisc, 1991) is music for “retired” hippies.
Bevis Frond brought him back on the scene for a tribute album, Eat Flowers & Kiss Babies (Woronzow, 1999). (www.scaruffi.com)
And here is one of his superb solo-album … called “Superstious Blues”.
This excellent comeback album finds McDonald in acoustic mode, accompanied by Jerry Garcia for some strong picking on a thoughtful collection of songs. (by William Ruhlmann)
Terry Adams (cello)
Stephen Barsotti (bass)
Barry Flast (bass, piano)
Peter Frankel (guitar)
Jerry Garcia (guitar, slide-guitar)
Kirk Felton (drums)
Sandy Rothman (dobro)
01. Standing At The Crossroads () 4.23
02. Eunecita () 4.13
03. Superstitious Blues () 3.58
04. Tranquility () 3.36
05. Starship Ride () 3.09
06. Cocaine (Rock) () 3.48
07. Blues For Breakfast () 3.38
08. Clara Barton () 3.37
09. Blues For Michael () 6.52
All songs written by Country Joe McDonald
Still alive and well: Country Joe McDonald in 2017