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Eight Miles High
Eight Miles High: Folk-Rock's Flight from Haight-Ashbury to Woodstock
$22.99
Paperback
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BOOK DETAILS

  • Paperback
  • Jun.01.2003
  • 9780879307431
  • Backbeat Books

Richie gives an overview of the book:

The second half of the two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, which saw the movement branch off into folk-rock-psychedelia, singer-songwriters, country-rock, a distinctively British form of folk-rock, and more. While the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and other folk-rock originals continued to blaze innovative paths, space also opened for new talents like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Equally fine music was also made by underrated greats (Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley), artists who took decades to find cult followings (Nick Drake, Skip Spence), and others who remain virtually unknown (Blackburn & Snow). Published by Backbeat Books in 2003, this (like its predecessor, Turn! Turn! Turn! ) includes material from first-hand interviews with more than 100 of folk-rock's key players, from stars like Roger...
Read full overview »

The second half of the two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, which saw the movement branch off into folk-rock-psychedelia, singer-songwriters, country-rock, a distinctively British form of folk-rock, and more. While the Byrds, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, and other folk-rock originals continued to blaze innovative paths, space also opened for new talents like Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, and the folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Equally fine music was also made by underrated greats (Phil Ochs, Tim Buckley), artists who took decades to find cult followings (Nick Drake, Skip Spence), and others who remain virtually unknown (Blackburn & Snow). Published by Backbeat Books in 2003, this (like its predecessor, Turn! Turn! Turn! ) includes material from first-hand interviews with more than 100 of folk-rock's key players, from stars like Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, Donovan, John Sebastian of the Lovin' Spoonful, and Judy Collins to behind-the-scenes producers and cult artists. Click here for excerpts from the book; transcripts of interviews with folk-rockers; links to web pages devoted to folk-rock musicians and folk-rock in general; lists and descriptions of the author's favorite folk-rock recordings, both famous and obscure; and a user-friendly guide to folk-rock's most pivotal performers, songs, and innovations.

Read an excerpt »

By the time Jefferson Airplane's After Bathing at Baxter's hit the shops at the end of 1967, several other major San Francisco Bay Area bands had followed the Airplane's journey from folk to folk-rock and psychedelia, both live and, increasingly, on record. The Charlatans have often been tagged as the first San Francisco psychedelic band. It comes as a surprise to some listeners, if they do manage to locate their sparse body of recording work, to hear an outfit that sounds much more like an electrified jug-cum-blues-cum-good-time rock ensemble than like the Airplane or the Dead. The Charlatans' primary contribution to Haight-Ashbury rock was not sonic innovation, but outlandish image. They dressed in clothing right out of the Western saloon era, took the requisite drugs, and were generally far more interested in having a good time than becoming recording stars. Their best lineup only issued one single, a 1966 effort for Kapp whose Robert Johnson and Coasters covers were poor representations of their best wares.

Nearly a couple of dozen cuts from 1965-68 did emerge 30 years later on The Amazing Charlatans, and do show a quirky if somewhat quaint band that has its place in San Francisco's folk-to-psychedelic evolution. Its most talented musicians, guitarist Mike Wilhelm and drummer/guitarist Dan Hicks, were both electrified folkies, while George Hunter's autoharp added a tinge of old-world balladry. Over the course of demos (including some for Kama Sutra and Autumn), they took a cornucopia of Americana into a time-warped hybrid of Haight-Ashbury haze and nineteenth century barroom fare. "East Virginia," "Alabama Bound," and "Jack of Diamonds" were among the traditional folk numbers mashed through their juicer, along with Buffy Sainte-Marie's standby "Codine." Hicks, their sole songwriter of note, spun ironocomic tales with hints of good-time Tin Pan Alley and western swing. "It was funkier," responds Hicks when asked to compare the group to other folk-rockers in the area. "It wasn't quite as arranged. But also, we had songs that were, you could call, old-timey, that went into pop of the '30s or something sometimes. We'd play 'Sweet Sue,' 'Somebody Stole My Gal,' or something, where these other bands weren't doing that."

The result was something like an undernourished Lovin' Spoonful that had baked in the sun for too long, with all the good and bad that entails. At times there were flashes of genuine excellence. Hicks's "We're Not on the Same Trip" is a lost treasure of early psychedelia, with its diving autoharp, squiggly crossfires of distorted guitar, and droll yet melodic wordplay. "I Saw Her," taught to them by their friend and occasional guest member Lynne Hughes from The Coffee House Songbook (issued by Sing Out! publishers Oak Publications), is folk-rock in the truest sense, in that it places a compellingly mournful English madrigal of indeterminate origin into a rock context. But the group never could corral its inconsistent assets into a viable recording career. By the time of its one and only album, 1969's pleasant but inconsequential The Charlatans , Hicks had left to start his whimsical solo career, the time for folk-rock had passed, and the time for psychedelia was passing.

The fried Lovin' Spoonful ambience on some of their recordings may have been no accident, as the Kama Sutra demos were produced by Erik Jacobsen. The Lovin' Spoonful producer hails Hicks as "one of the greats, for sure. And another guy who squandered his potential, I hate to say. Dan could sing, but he was much flatter then, all the time. He kind of subsequently harnessed that kind of flat singing, but then he was truly flat, pitch-wise. And he wasn't the world's greatest drummer. George really couldn't play anything. He was more like the image-maker, and sang 'Alabama Bound,' and had long hair. And Wilhelm, who could kind of sing and kind of play ... we're doing vocals, and I remember him pulling his lips back onto his cheek like it was white, this tension just oozing out, grinding his jaw. He just couldn't relax. They came in the studio, they were so uptight, and they really didn't have that edge of togetherness, when you put all the microphones on. I couldn't get anything, and nobody really liked them. Nobody saw it. They were just too far out, and too crazy. And when you met 'em, they came across strange and sarcastic. But I tried, several times. They made some nice things, but they were kind of contentious [with] each other and bickering.

"They didn't have any original songs, outside of Dan Hicks's, and they didn't want him to be the frontman. So there was no consensus as far as material. I guess maybe that was one of our major problems with the Charlatans, that there was just no unified musical direction, and no real output of pop songs. I know they always have snippy comments they make about me, [that] I didn't think they were good enough or something. I don't think they were good enough. They were not good enough to live in musical history, unfortunately, in a big way." Remarks Hicks, "I don't know if they had an idea to make us anything like this Lovin' Spoonful. I think they were hoping that, because we played old-timey stuff also, like they did, maybe there would be a connection there, and we could kinda push that and make a success out of that. The tunes came out as good as they could."

Hicks amplified his punning humor and western swing influences in his subsequent, still-running solo career. The short gap between the Charlatans and Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks was filled by unissued, sparsely produced 1967-68 recordings that bridged the good-timey barely-psychedelia of the Charlatans with his more old-timey solo career. Finally released in 1998, these are some of the wittiest folk-psychedelic excursions, branching out into all manner of goofy, unpredictable verbal and melodic directions, reinforcing his stature as the Bay Area's leading cosmic screwball. Like the recordings of Blackburn & Snow and the Charlatans, it's another body of work that was barely or never heard at the time, unfairly consigned to the ears of a tiny corner of rock collectordom.

Big Brother & the Holding Company rose from about as informal, humble roots in Haight-Ashbury as the Charlatans did, and also boasted a number of ex-folkies in the lineup. Bassist Peter Albin had played bluegrass and old-timey music in bands with his brother around San Mateo, 25 miles south of San Francisco. James Gurley had played folk-blues in coffeehouses in Detroit before moving to San Francisco. "His style was basically the fingerpicking style," says Albin. "He said that one time he got into John Lee Hooker's music, and just locked himself in a room and learned how to play that way. For like about three days, he didn't eat or drink, he just plain played these records and played this music on an acoustic guitar."

Gurley was another one of the folkies that made the awkward changeover to electric music by putting a DeArmond pickup into his acoustic. "I think he had a mahogany-bodied Martin. Really, he hadn't played electric guitar before then. I remember propping it up, getting kind of a weird sound. We'd put pennies and scotch tape on the thing, and eventually he got a Gibson Les Paul Junior." Sam Andrew, far more experienced on electric guitar, rounded out a bunch that had formed out of jam sessions at 1090 Page Street, where Albin's brother Rodney let out a 25-room Victorian for a total of $675 a month, a bargain even in those days.

Big Brother vaulted to a leading position in the Haight-Ashbury rock race with the addition of Janis Joplin on most lead vocals. Joplin's salacious image and ear-shattering soul-rock singing has made it difficult for subsequent generations to detect her folk influences. But it's crucial to appreciate that she was very much a folk-blues singer before 1966, with years of experience in folk clubs in Texas and San Francisco. Albin had come across her on her first stay in San Francisco, where "I first saw her at a round robin session at KPFA called 'Midnight Special.' Everybody would just sit around this one microphone in a circle and just do one song. She played guitar and sang. She was basically just doing Bessie Smith-type stuff. She didn't really need a microphone. She was extremely loud."

Live and home recordings predating her entry into Big Brother came out on some anthologies after her death, attesting to her acoustic folk-blues roots. Albin remembers how one night, shortly after Janis had joined Big Brother and the band had moved into a house together in Marin County, "I'm up in my room, and someone turns on this record player, and it's Joan Baez, real loud. I'm pissed off, so I walk down the stairs, and I found that it's not the record player. It's Janis doing 'Silver Dagger' or something like that. It sounds exactly like Joan Baez. I couldn't fucking believe it. So she had the ability to do much different kinds of voices." She also sang some Dixieland jazz with Dick Oxtot, and took advantage of her first stay in the Bay Area, says Phil Elwood, to hear some of his Ma Rainey records, after Barbara Dane had advised him to expose Janis to the early jazz-blueswoman.

By 1966 Joplin had started to outgrow her trad roots and entertained thoughts of joining the 13th Floor Elevators, Austin's top rock group, and psychedelic pioneers in their own right who would spend some time playing the developing acid rock ballroom circuit in San Francisco. She ended up, however, returning to San Francisco, joining Big Brother shortly after arrival in mid-1966. Interestingly, not long after she had gotten into Big Brother, Elektra producer Paul Rothchild tried to put together a band featuring Joplin, Taj Mahal, blues-folk guitarist Stefan Grossman, and guitarist Steve Mann. According to Grossman, Rothchild and Elektra wanted something to compete with the Mamas and the Papas, even to the extent of using the same session dudes (bassist Joe Osborne and drummer Hal Blaine) as the studio rhythm section. "We actually had a rehearsal in Berkeley, with just me, Taj, Janis, and Steve, and it was all go," says Grossman. "I went back to New York to get the money, 'cause they said they wanted to set us up in L.A. in a house and then we would record. I went to the Elektra office and they said, 'Oh no, it couldn't happen,' because of contracts." Joplin was then in Big Brother for good, at least for a couple of years.

Much of Big Brother's early repertoire was taken from old folk and blues songs. Its first album included updates of the spiritual "Blindman"; "Down on Me," which Andrew had heard on a recording by a gospel group in the 1930s; and "All Is Loneliness," from the genre-defying New York folk-jazz-avant-garde blind street musician Moondog. "Bye, Bye Baby" had been written by Powell St. John, who had played harmonica with Joplin in the Austin folk group the Waller Creek Boys back in the early 1960s (and would later sing with Bay Area band Mother Earth). "Coo Coo" (recorded at the sessions but initially released only on a single), a contender for one of the most overdone standards of the folk revival, had been learned by many musicians from Clarence Ashley's rendition on Anthology of American Music .

Big Brother's debut was recorded in a hurry in December 1966 in a shady deal that had hastily been cut with Mainstream Records to raise emergency funds when the band went broke on the road. Hence the playing was unrefined, yet the reckless San Francisco risk-taking came through strong on imaginative reinventions of the folk-based material, in both Joplin's raunchy moan-shriek and the group's loose, loud guitar interplay. Nowhere was that more apparent than on "Coo Coo," where the tempo verged on manic, the lead guitar (by Albin on this occasion) wound up into a vibrant raga-rock frenzy, and Joplin's vocals conveyed an urgent desperation missing from more resigned, pat folk interpretations of the tune.

"It's psychedelic, if only in the terms of very long, extended soloing," agrees Albin. "It was kind of folky, still, that type of solo. When we did it for Mainstream Records, they wouldn't let the song go on much more than three minutes, so we felt we got a little cheated there. On stage, it would go like for five minutes or more. I would really try to get into a lot of single-string, hammering-on stuff." The liberal recastings of old folk songs was not limited to instrumental improvisation, but also extended to the lyrical rewriting that had been an established part of the folk process long before folk-rock or psychedelia. "When Janis came into the band, we had been doing 'Down on Me' with more traditional lyrics, but she said, 'That's old hat, you know.' So she wrote some new lyrics to that song. That's part of the folk tradition, anyway, changing things around to meet your own desires of what you want to say. 'Down on Me' was kind of a religious song, and she did use, still, some religious lyrics, but she made it kind of like a peacenik song too. I still sing 'Blindman,' and I always try to change the lyrics with that one -- wherever I'm playing, I'll try to find out the history of the area and put particular people into the song."

In at least one instance, an original practitioner expressed distaste for what these hippies were doing to the material. Moondog asked if the band did his "All Is Loneliness" in 5/4 time, remembers Albin, and "I said, no we do it in 4. He says, 'Uch. You lost the whole essence of it.' We said, 'We tried to do it in 5, Mr. Moondog, but we couldn't do it. We're just not that good.' He says, 'Uoh [grunts].' That was a tough song to do. You listen to his rounds, he's doing all these different time signatures and phew, [it's] tough." Moondog, aka Louis Hardin, speaking in 1998 shortly before his death, was slightly more charitable: "It wouldn't be the way I would do it, but she [Joplin] liked it, and it was very thoughtful of her to do it. But I'm very fussy about arrangements and that sort of thing, and when people record my things, they're not too careful about the technical side of it. Sometimes it doesn't sound the way I would hope it would sound. But anyway, it's a compliment."

Big Brother, like Jefferson Airplane and others, would quickly spin off into a multitude of admixtures, from heavy blues-rock to soul to free-flight jazzy electric improvisations. What folk-rock had done -- as it had in so many other contexts -- was to give musicians an opportunity that they might not have otherwise conceptualized. For Joplin, it lay in finding that fronting a rock band was far more suitable for her loud voice than working in folk clubs was. For Gurley, it was a chance to mix his earthy folk and John Lee Hooker influences with inspiration from freakier favorites John Cage, Moondog, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. In Albin's case, he saw his opening by discovering that "a lot of groups that came around to 1090 Page to these jam sessions that we had in '65 didn't have bass players. That's basically when I made my move to electric and why I made it, because there was just not too many bass players." For the entire band, he emphasizes, it was a chance "to do jazz-type things, but within our frame of reference, blues and folk music and rock and roll. We would take a song like 'Hall of the Mountain King,' which was classical music, and turn it into kind of a jazz thing, with this extended [jam]. We did lots of experimental-type music. We incorporated all sorts of different, weird shit, from Moondog, Coltrane to John Cage to Betty Boop cartoons."

Across the bay in Berkeley, another band made a quick hop, skip, and jump from ragtag folkies to psychedelic stars. Country Joe McDonald and Barry Melton were the only two guitarists, and the only two musicians involved to play on later Country Joe & the Fish records, when their ad hoc jug band recorded "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag" and "Superbird" in June 1965. The session, recorded by Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records, was do-it-yourself in the purest sense, for use as a record to sell at the first Teach-In against the Vietnam War held at the University of California at Berkeley campus. It was a sort of audio edition of the Rag Baby folk magazine that McDonald ran with ED (pronounced "Ed," spelled in caps) Denson.

"Our first EP has a duet where Joe’s playing acoustic and I’m playing an electric, and it’s sort of transitional," says Melton. "But it’s not really rock music. It’s a full jug band on one tune, and one of the guitars electrified on the other cut." Backing the pair were musicians on washboard, kazoo, and washtub bass; the other two songs on the four-track EP were conventional topical folk tracts by forgotten singer-guitarist Peter Krug. The melody to "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag" was based on "Muskrat Ramble" by New Orleans traditional jazz trombonist Kid Ory.

It seemed highly improbable that "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag" would ever evolve into the most famous anti-war folk-rock-psychedelic song of the 1960s. Even this first record was done as something of a street protest rather than a commercial enterprise. "We even had a table for the express purpose of selling our first batch of records right in [UC Berkeley’s] Sproul Plaza during the Teach-In," says Melton. "We alternated between playing the record over a speaker system and playing the song live to whoever came by. There were many tables there, but I think ours was the only one selling records." Adds Phil Elwood, who saw McDonald when Joe was just another guy busking folk songs on street corners near campus on Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue, "I was astonished that Country Joe became anything more. He was the perfect street-rocking protest man."

Melton was not angling to become a rock star either. Like so many of the musicians electrifying in the mid-’60s, he was even in early 1965 still a folkie, playing with others in hootenannies and as opening acts for featured performers at the Jabberwock in Berkeley. Melton, in fact, shared an apartment next door to the club, his roommates including future Country Joe & the Fish bassist Bruce Barthol, who had first met Melton in a high school folk music club. Another roommate was folk guitarist Robbie Basho, who experimented with eerie dissonance, tunings, and world music influences on his obscure recordings. "Bruce and I lived mostly on white bread, peanut butter, powdered skim milk, and whatever food we could forage from the Jabberwock," confesses Melton. "After the customers ate, we came down and scoured the leftovers." The janitor at the Jabberwock was the teenaged Jef Jaisun, who a few years later would cut the folk-hippie satire "Friendly Neighborhood Narco Agent," eventually to become a staple on Dr. Demento’s radio show.

As had happened only slightly earlier in Los Angeles clubs like the New Balladeer, the acoustic coffeehouse innocence would soon get transmogrified by electric music and an entry into commercial rock that no one was anticipating. As for many other incipient folk-rockers, it happened almost by accident, the bonds strengthened by musical and political interests deeply grounded in the folk revival and even pre-rock Leftism. "Sometime during the summer, I got a phone call out of the blue from some guy named Joe McDonald asking me if I wanted to make a record with him," remembers Melton. "Joe and I had a kind of instant communication. Both of us were ‘red diaper babies’ and had astoundingly similar backgrounds. His dad was from Oklahoma, mine from Texas, and both of our mothers were East Coast Jews. We shared a mutual fondness for Woody Guthrie—Woody and his family had actually been neighbors of mine in early childhood, and my dad was a friend of Woody’s—and all things Left in folk music.

"I should note Joe was, in a word, kind of ‘straight’ when I first met him, and I elected not to pull any of my carefully rolled joints out of my guitar case when we met for our first rehearsal. After all, he was still in the Navy reserves, married, and while he seemed to be a very political guy, I could tell he wasn’t a ‘head.’ But I brought Joe over to our house, introduced him to the Jabberwock group of folks, and eventually he began to become a regular in our scene and a regular in the Instant Action Jug Band. This is the band that gets its own chapter title (‘The Frozen Jug Band’) in the Tom Wolfe book, Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test."

However, Melton and McDonald were, like other folkies, converted to the power of electricity after seeing the Paul Butterfield Blues Band (who often played in the Bay Area) in concert. Enthuses Melton, "It had all the excitement of electric music, and it had all the intellectual cachet of folk music." Within months, Country Joe & the Fish evolved at the unbridled pace of an acid rush, almost as if the musicians were being willingly swept along by cultural undertows out of their direct control, rather than shaping their destiny by themselves. Melton and McDonald, who as a folk duo had toured around colleges in the Northwest on behalf of the Students for a Democratic Society, got a fuller band together after McDonald moved into Melton’s house, in which bassist Bruce Barthol was also residing. As all this was happening, according to Barry, "We turned Joe on to acid. He needed it, or so we thought.

"Once we hit into the electric medium and into the rock medium, we were pandering to the public taste," Melton continues. "We became extraordinarily popular. The little folk club where we used to play once every two weeks, we played every single night for a month, or something like that, and filled it. And after a while we filled two shows a night every single night."

Still, the transformation from that first recording to their second EP, released on the Rag Baby label in mid-1966, was nothing short of astonishing. Although there were still a couple of lineup changes to come before the band did its first album for Vanguard, the EP was, as Melton aptly notes in comparing it to the debut Fish full-length LP, "much more weirdo wacko kind of Middle-Eastern Japanese, San Francisco raga-influenced stuff." Blues, disquieting minor keys, vibro-distorto electric guitar, and Farfisa organ swirled around each other in one of rock’s most convincing early facsimiles of an acid trip. It all came to a head on the six-minute instrumental "Section 43," re-recorded in a somewhat less exciting version on the Fish’s first Vanguard LP. Its Asiatic guitar, tribal maracas, devious organ, floating harmonica, and ethereal mid-sections of delicate koto-like guitar picking rivaled the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s "East West" as the finest psychedelic instrumental ever.

But was it folk-rock? Melton thinks so. "Rock music is the garbage can of music, or the melting pot, depending on what your attitude is," he laughs. "You can throw anything in the soup, and it becomes a big stew. You can keep throwing things in all day, and it will absorb it, and still be edible. So in a band like Country Joe & the Fish, we could absorb jazz, Japanese music, Middle Eastern music, Indian music, blues music, country music—it all fit in there somewhere. It was okay to do that. And for a lot of folk musicians, particularly guys like me from fairly urban areas, here was a chance to throw in all the stuff that we knew, everything from Pete Seeger and the Weavers to John Coltrane, in one place."

Also influential on the Fish was guitarist John Fahey, nominally a folk musician but too avant-garde to be confined to that category, who devised all sorts of interesting dissonances with his acoustic compositions. "Joe was a great admirer of John Fahey, as was I," explains Melton. "Our manager, ED Denson, was from Takoma Park, Maryland, grew up with John Fahey, and later co-founded the Takoma label with John. ED, I think more than Joe, had the idea that we could use Fahey-like compositional structures, which had discrete sections and/or movements, and incorporate them into electric music. Hence the four or five discrete movements of ‘Section 43.’"

Two more musicians with folk and folk-rock experience—folk-blues guitarist David Cohen (who also played organ in the Fish) and Gary "Chicken" Hirsh, who’d drummed with Blackburn & Snow—were aboard by the time the group started recording for Vanguard. Country Joe & the Fish’s first album, 1967’s Electric Music for the Mind and Body, could be viewed as the most psychedelic extension of the jug band aesthetic. There was raga-rock ("Section 43"), apocalyptic blues-rock ("Death Sound Blues"), good-time country-folk-rock ("Sad and Lonely Blues"), organ-driven hard rock ("Love"), and weird minor-key-driven organ instrumentals ("The Masked Marauder"). Just as importantly, there were all kinds of lyrical viewpoints: political protest (the anti-President Lyndon Johnson diatribe "Superbird," initially heard on the first EP and re-recorded in a full rock arrangement), drug songs ("Flying High"), love songs about women ("Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine"), and love-everybody love songs ("Love").

"Our records could be a real schizophrenic experience, ’cause we didn’t have an overall sound sometimes," admits Melton. "We went from sort of ragtime to blues to jug band to blah blah blah. You could call us a jack of all trades and a master of none, in some respects. But we really had sets where we played ten songs, none of which had any real musicological relationships to the one that preceded [it]. So I think we weren’t looking for a sound, although we had this sort of Farfisa organ semi-psychedelic sound that ultimately became a niche."

Although Country Joe & the Fish’s second album was not as strong as Electric Music for the Mind & Body, it did contain a newly electrified "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to- Die Rag." Anti-Vietnam War sentiment was much higher when it was released in late 1967 than it had been at the outset of the folk-rock era in mid-1965. The war was on a never-ending ramp of escalation, and its end looked as far away as ever. But far from merely being scared about getting killed in Vietnam, young men (and young women, even though they were not subject to the draft) were not buying the very morality of killing people halfway around the globe who had never done them harm. Virtually no one who bought a Country Joe & the Fish record had to be convinced that the Vietnam War was a bad thing.

The genius of the Fish’s "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag" was in how it projected those sentiments with equal doses of savage sarcastic humor and genuine outrage. The absurdity of the war and its addled reasoning was mimicked by the hurdy-gurdy organ, super-jaunty tempo and kazoo blasts, and wise-ass vocal delivery recruiting soldiers for dispatch to Vietnam and their heavenly makers for no discernible purpose, ending with bursts of gunfire. The song passed from FM radio hit to mythic legend when McDonald, minus the original Fish, gave a rousing solo acoustic performance of the song at the Woodstock festival, later featured in the Woodstock movie, substituting his infamous "F-U-C-K" cheer for the original "F-I-S-H" one. It was a long way from its roots in McDonald’s Guthrie-Seegerite solo folk days, Chris Strachwitz’s Arhoolie Records, and Kid Ory’s "Muskrat Ramble."

And repercussions of those roots followed the song around. A cover by Pete Seeger in 1970 was included on a single that was pressed in small quantities as advance DJ copies, but never released. Seeger once commented that distributors refused to handle it; he was also prohibited from singing it on Spanish TV. (As of late 2002, the single could be heard on McDonald’s Web site.) Folklorist Strachwitz retained 50% of the song’s publishing rights, which brought him a considerable windfall after its use on the Woodstock soundtrack, helping him to keep his still-active Arhoolie label going. In 2001, McDonald was sued by Kid Ory’s daughter, who claimed that the melody was "68 percent similar" to that heard in her father’s 1924 recording of "Muskrat Ramble." McDonald was warned that singing "Fixin’ to Die" in public would subject him to a $150,000 fine.

Early Fish manager ED Denson, who’d already done important work in the folk revival by helping to locate old country bluesmen and revive their careers, agrees that Country Joe & the Fish were like a West Coast counterpoint to the East Coast’s most radical folk-rock band, the Fugs. "They were similar in that both were essentially political in focus. However, the Fugs were from a longer tradition of direct action protest than anyone in the Fish, and they had that proto-punk Lower East Side attitude from the onset, while the Fish were fundamentally innocent (vs. worldly)."

Nor were the Fish intent on using music as a vehicle for preaching to the masses. "We were all ‘stoners’ back then, and one of the first realizations borne of psychedelic insight is the inadequacy of language," feels Melton. "In fact, I think every member of my band and any of the other bands called upon to play at political events was a bit angered at the fact that the politicos would use our music as a shill to lure crowds and then talk to them endlessly. And there is nothing more grating to a stoned audience than a bunch of people talking. Somehow, I believe what we all sensed was that whatever it was that was ‘high’ about our music wasn’t to be found in the words. Rather, it was in the improvisational interplay between the musicians and those magic moments when we really got into the ‘zone,’ that magical place of near-enlightenment, approaching pure experience, when we truly escaped the smallness of who we were into a place far more expansive and reflective of an altered state or other reality. And I truly believe that’s why the audiences came to hear our music—for the same reasons they later flocked to see the Grateful Dead—to see if we’d ‘get there’ that night."

Melton remains proud, however, that songs such as "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag" "had to do with the mission of Country Joe & the Fish. We were interested in stopping the war. Our thing was political action. And somehow, it became manifest to us at some point in time that we’d have a bigger voice if we stepped into a popular idiom. This perception proved correct. We were glad we were there, because it made us more relevant. For a minute there in time, we were bigger than Pete Seeger." Denson seconds the benefits of playing rock to circulate messages to much bigger audiences than would have been available to folk performers by the late ’60s: "I think it made all the difference in the world. If you are going to swim in the ocean of the masses you have to look like you belong there, or else the fish will not recognize you as one of their own."

"It wasn’t simply political commentary," continues Melton. "Other bands alluded to drugs; we talked about them, straight-up. The Grateful Dead didn’t have any songs that actually directly talked about drugs. ‘Driving that train, high on cocaine’—that’s later on. If you listen to what’s on the first record, there’s some stuff there that’s fairly shocking for its time. We were talking about weed right on the first record, getting high. By the second record, we were singing the LSD commercial. So we were overt. Not simply politically overt, sociologically overt. In other words, we said it. We also said ‘fuck,’ you know. We were the guys who said what other people alluded to. It was right there in the lyric content. Everybody else had the message coded in there."

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About Richie

Richie Unterberger is the author of several rock history books, including "Unknown Legends of Rock'n'Roll" and a two-volume history of 1960s folk-rock, "Turn! Turn! Turn!/Eight Miles High." His most recent book, "White Light/White Heat: The Velvet...

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