Country Joe: Singing Louder Than the Guns

Country Joe McDonald stands nearly alone among the musicians of the 1960s in staying true to his principles — still singing for peace, still denouncing the brutality of war.
Country Joe McDonald performed anti-war songs at Livermore Lab on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

Country Joe McDonald performed anti-war songs at Livermore Lab on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2015, on the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.

 

by Terry Messman

Country Joe McDonald composed one of the most acclaimed peace anthems of the Vietnam era, “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag,” a rebellious and uproarious blast against the war machine. The song’s anti-war message seems more timely than ever, with its savagely satirical attack on the arms merchants, the military and the White House.

“Fixin’ to Die Rag” condemns the architects of war and the military-industrial complex in bitterly sarcastic terms.

“Come on Wall Street, don’t move slow

Why man, this is war au-go-go!

There’s plenty good money to be made

By supplying the Army with the tools of the trade.”

Recently, the authors of a major new book, We Gotta Get Out of this Place: The Soundtrack of the Vietnam War, ranked hundreds of Vietnam-era songs and listed “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag” by Country Joe and the Fish as one of the top two most important songs named by Vietnam veterans, right after “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” by the Animals.

“The soldiers got it,” wrote co-authors Craig Werner and Doug Bradley about Country Joe’s song. Michael Rodriguez, an infantryman with the 2nd Batallion, 1st Marines, said: “Bitter, sarcastic, angry at a government some of us felt we didn’t understand — ‘Fixin’ to Die Rag’ became the battle standard for grunts in the bush.”

McDonald explained his song’s popularity among the GIs by saying that he himself was “a veteran first and hippie second” and had written the song for the troops. “It comes out of a tradition of GI humor in which people can bitch in a way that will not get them in trouble, but keeps them from insanity.”

McDonald first performed “Fixin’ to Die Rag” on the streets of Berkeley in 1965 as a folksinger. He soon was singing it on a stage at Woodstock in August 1969 while an audience of 300,000 sang along, stood up and erupted in cheers.

McDonald then sang his anti-war anthem at one of the largest peace protests in the nation’s history on April 24, 1971, as 250,000 people sang along with him at a massive peace rally on the steps of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

Fifty years later, showing that the song retains its power and relevance, McDonald sang it on Hiroshima Day, August 6, 2015, at an anti-nuclear protest at Livermore Laboratory. He sang it again on Veterans Day, 2015, at Berkeley’s celebration of the 20th anniversary of the Berkeley Vietnam War Memorial — a veterans memorial that McDonald had been instrumental in creating.

McDonald’s Exceptional Body of Songs

“Fixin’ to Die Rag” has been heard by millions, yet few people are aware of the exceptional body of songs McDonald has recorded over the past 50 years on the great issues of war and peace.

He has written passionately about the suffering of children caught in U.S. bombing raids (“An Untitled Protest”); soldiers dying in massive numbers in battle (“The March of the Dead”); veterans dying of exposure to Agent Orange (“Secret Agent”); arms merchants who profit from war (“The Munition Maker”); and combat nurses suffering from post-traumatic stress (“The Girl Next Door”).

He has sung black-humor blasts against the insanity of hydrogen bombs (“Please Don’t Drop That H-Bomb On Me”); and sardonic put-downs of the two presidents who deceived the nation about the Vietnam War: Lyndon B. Johnson (“Superbird”) and Richard Nixon (“Tricky Dicky”).

His songs have exposed the inhumanity of war at a depth that few other prominent musicians have ever explored. He is nearly alone among the musicians of his generation in staying true to his principles — still singing for peace, still denouncing the brutality of war, and still performing at peace actions and veterans events.

As music journalist Bruce Eder wrote in AllMusic, McDonald has become “almost a mythic figure in agitprop music since the early ‘80s, when he resumed his peace-activist work — like some Tom Joad-like character, wherever the American government seems hell-bent on turning troops loose to kill people, he’s there with his music, trying to answer the call to arms with something else.”

Country Joe McDonald created two of the most important album-length song-cycles about war and peace ever recorded — Vietnam Experience and War, War, War. The tremendously powerful songs that make up these two CDs should be as widely known as “Fixin’ to Die Rag.” As Shakespeare wrote, “He is come to open the purple testament of bleeding war.”

“An Untitled Protest”

Country Joe and the Fish recorded “An Untitled Protest,” on their third album, Together. While “Fixin’ to Die” was rollicking and hilarious, “An Untitled Protest” is as different as day from night. It is a profound poetic meditation, a haunting song of sorrow for the children killed in U.S. bombing raids by “silver birds” that blindly drop anti-personnel weapons on “shores they’ve never seen.”

The song is a mournful drone, building in intensity into a major statement against the war machine. Like most of McDonald’s peace songs, “Untitled Protest” is more human-hearted than political, guided not by ideology, but by the response of conscience to the tragedy of war.

The lyrics are a point-blank gaze into the Vietnam War that witnesses everything: the “red and swollen tears” falling from the eyes of a child caught in a bombing attack, the oxen slaughtered as uncomprehending casualties, and the soldiers who kill people “as they hide.” In an image that remains unforgettably in my mind decades after I first heard this song, U.S. soldiers are “Khaki priests” who “ride a stone Leviathan across a sea of blood.”

He didn’t blame the troops for the war, yet he refused to look away from the deaths of children and civilians in U.S. bombing raids. In the final verse, he warns that “those who took so long to learn the subtle ways of death, lie and bleed in paddy mud with questions on their breath.”

That is what this song achieves: It raises questions about the terrible mystery of war and death. In McDonald’s interview with Street Spirit, he likened his role as a songwriter to a Greek chorus asking the disturbing questions that must be raised.

“Kiss My Ass”

McDonald’s songs of war and peace are unusual in that many are written from the point of view of soldiers in combat zones. “Kiss My Ass,” a song from his Vietnam Experience album, is sung in the voice of a working-class kid who can’t stomach the Army officers when they tell him that “thinking for yourself is a crime.” McDonald himself was once an 18-year-old, working-class kid serving in the military, and his personal experience of being trapped in that system surely enabled him to write this song.

The officers tell him: “Shut your mouth, son, get back in line. We’re sending you to Southeast Asia.” The feisty kid responds with a scorching blast against the Army that lots of drafted soldiers would have dearly loved to say.

“I said one, two, three, four. We don’t want your fucking war.

A, B, C, D. Get someone else — hey, don’t get me.

Left, right, left, right. The whole damn thing puts me uptight.”

The “One, two, three, four,” lyrics are done in the rhythm of a military chant. It’s catchy, like the chants led by drill instructors to get soldiers to march in formation. But the chant in this song helps soldiers question marching in formation — and the entire military.

“Agent Orange Song”

“The Agent Orange Song,” written by Muriel Hogan and sung with deep feeling and conviction by McDonald, is an anthem for countless veterans silently stalked and destroyed by the chemical defoliant after they returned from the war.

It tells the story of a 17-year-old boy shipped to Vietnam and exposed to the deadly dioxin in the defoliant — exposed as well to the deadly deception of U.S. government officials who lied about the lethal effects of Agent Orange.

“We’d hike all day on jungle trails

through clouds of poison spray,

And they never told me then that it

would hurt my health today.”

Agent Orange went on killing countless Vietnamese civilians long after the war ended, and the U.S. government’s irresponsible and criminal use of the defoliant destroyed its own soldiers as well.

“But I got the news this morning,

the doctor told me so,

They killed me in Vietnam

and I didn’t even know.”

Agent Orange can take years and years before it springs its lethal trap, causing cancer of the liver and Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and other fatal illnesses.

The song ends with an unexpected and stirring call for resistance. It just floors the unsuspecting listener when a tragic story about Agent Orange suddenly turns into a call to rebellion by the vet’s own children.

“I’d be so proud to hear my kid say,

Hell no, I won’t go!

Because you killed my dad in Vietnam

and he didn’t even know.”

“Vietnam Veteran Still Alive”

“Vietnam Veteran Still Alive” tells the story of a son so stirred by his father’s service in World War II that he enlists in the military, thinking Vietnam will be a great adventure. Once in the jungle, he learns that “the real thing can be a living hell.” McDonald’s song captures the nightmarish experiences of a generation of soldiers sacrificed in Southeast Asia.

“I saw so many lose their bodies and their minds

in the jungles and blood of Vietnam.”

When the soldier survives and finally returns from the war, rather than being welcomed home as his father was welcomed after World War II, he finds to his despair that he is treated as an enemy.

“Well, I come home from a war to a war at home,

And I can’t help but wonder what it was I’ve done.

I went off to fight the enemy

I’m back home, and the enemy is me.”

With those lyrics, McDonald gave voice to many Vietnam veterans who felt rejected and dishonored by a nation that blamed them for a war gone wrong.

McDonald became involved in Vietnam veterans organizations and was instrumental in establishing veterans memorials in San Francisco and Berkeley. He played benefit concerts across the nation for veterans, spoke out against their unfair treatment, and called for long overdue healing and respect for those who served.

He concludes his song by calling on the White House to welcome them home.

“Hey, Mr. President, don’t you think it’s time,

to give a little thanks to the boys from Vietnam?

Just a little something to ease all the pain

and welcome them back home again.”

He still sings an anti-war message today, but it has become more complex and nuanced due to his awareness of the suffering of soldiers in war, and the nation’s mistreatment of its Vietnam veterans.

It’s an intriguing paradox that one of the most outspoken anti-war voices of his generation also became one of the pre-eminent voices calling on the nation to honor its veterans. His work in this area has helped to awaken many people.

“Vietnam Never Again”

This melodic rocker is sung in the voice of a GI struck by shrapnel and locked in Long Binh Jail, a military stockade in South Vietnam. It describes the alienation of GIs against nearly every level of society — including presidents, generals, businessmen, even hippies — by setting up an effective series of contrasts showing how business leaders profited while veterans suffered from the weapons of war.

“I’d like to be a businessman selling guns and planes

Instead of in this bunker with rounds coming in.

I’d like to be the President talking to the press

Instead of here in Khe Sanh with shrapnel in my chest.”

“War War War” is a musical collaboration between Robert W. Service and Joe McDonald.

“War War War” is a musical collaboration between Robert W. Service and Joe McDonald.

 

“Mourning Blues”

“Mourning Blues” is a requiem for an entire generation. It is the most beautifully affecting song on Vietnam Experience, a plaintive country blues that McDonald sings in an aching voice.

It’s the kind of song that could have been sung as a country lament by Merle Haggard in a Bakersfield bar or as a blues ballad by Bukka White on the streets of Memphis. It’s that timeless.

No rocking anti-war lyrics here, no battlefield firefights, just sorrow and emptiness at the loss of a loved one. It’s a theme as old as the hills, and as sad as the blues.

“Someone I love has passed away

They’re not here with me today.

“I feel so lonely and so empty

without them in my world.”

It could have been written by anyone who ever lost a lover or a child or a parent, and McDonald sings it slowly, in a beautifully expressive vocal, melancholy and aching with loss.

“You miss your well when it’s gone dry.

Can’t stop these tears falling from my eyes.”

Those words come straight from the heart of the blues, and they strike a deep chord. The lyrics are a direct echo of the Mississippi Delta blues, summoned from the past by McDonald to express the losses of a whole generation in a destructive war.

It may be a lament by a soldier who has lost his best friend on the battlefield. Or the tears of wife who has lost her husband in the war. Or the sorrow of a father and mother for a son who never returned home. Or the sense of loss of children left fatherless for the rest of their lives.

It is an elegy for every combat nurse who tended a soldier’s lonely death in Vietnam, and for the sisters and brothers of veterans who wound up homeless and lost on the streets, and disappeared into oblivion. It could have been sung by the parents of students murdered by the National Guard at Kent State and Jackson State.

It’s a ballad for every man and woman scarred irreparably in Vietnam. It’s the longtime loneliness of the unknown soldier.

“Welcome Home”

“Welcome Home” is a joyous pop-rock song with an upbeat melody that celebrates the homecoming of Vietnam veterans. Mindful of the many women who served in Vietnam, McDonald welcomes home brothers and sisters alike.

“Welcome home, brother welcome home.

Welcome home, sister welcome home.”

The song addresses the deep divisions caused by the war, but appeals for reconciliation between all sides of the conflict.

“Some refused to go, and some went away to fight.

Everyone wants to know, who was wrong and who was right.”

But the war is over, and the opposing sides may never agree, so it’s time to put the battles and divisions and deaths to rest, and get together and say: “Welcome home!”

McDonald was asked to write “Welcome Home” by a Navy veteran named Alan Bacall who was working on a film of a large parade held to welcome home Vietnam veterans. Since the nation had failed to welcome the soldiers returning from the war, it fell to a veteran film-maker and another veteran songwriter to step up and say, “Welcome home.”

Songs from the Slaughter Mill

In the midst of the Vietnam War, Country Joe recorded War War War, an eloquent set of anti-war songs with music by McDonald and lyrics from an entirely unexpected source: the poems of Robert W. Service. McDonald first released the album in 1971, and then performed it live for release on CD in 2007, at a “Peace Event and Reunion” honoring U.S. Vietnam War resisters in British Columbia.

Service called his poems “songs from the slaughter mill.” The collaboration between the “Bard of the Yukon” and the Berkeley acid-rocker is one of the most powerful indictments of war ever recorded.

War War War captures the anguish of soldiers cut apart by what Service calls the “ravenous guns” of war, but also expresses the regret of an arms merchant for profiting from slaughter, and the grief of a father who lost his beloved son on the battleground. The record culminates in a hellish vision of a platoon of soldiers arisen from the dead to march through a veteran’s day celebration.

In describing his poem cycle, Service expresses in a single poetic couplet the nightmare of war:

“For through it all like horror runs

The red resentment of the guns.”

McDonald crafted a diverse set of melodies to bring out the intense feelings in Service’s remarkable poems. It is an album of wild contrasts — murderous violence and cruelty, savage laughter at the absurdity of war, and beautifully expressed feelings of love and compassion.

Robert W. Service had been a well-known author of such light, entertaining verse as “The Cremation of Sam McGee” and “The Shooting of Dan McGrew.” But then he served as an ambulance driver and stretcher bearer in World War I and was awarded three medals for his wartime service. His experiences on the brutal battlefields of war, and the death of his brother Albert Service in World War I, led to a considerable deepening of his poetry.

While convalescing from the war, Service wrote Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, a book of poems that realistically portrayed the slaughter and cruel violence he had witnessed. He captured the anguish and heartbreak of those who had lost their loved ones to war, as he had lost his brother.

“Women all, hear the call, the pitiless call of War!

Look your last on your dearest ones: Brothers and husbands, fathers, sons:

Swift they go to the ravenous guns, the gluttonous guns of War.”

“Young Fellow My Lad”

Perhaps it was the death of his own brother in war that enabled Service to write “Young Fellow My Lad,” one of the most heartbreaking expressions of a father’s love and bitter regret over the loss of his son in war. It is a deeply meaningful poem for McDonald, because he has thought and written about the anguish of families who have lost a child in war.

When the narrator’s son joins the army at the age of 17 to fight in World War I, the father’s first burst of pride turns to sadness and fear after his son stops writing. He misses his son unbearably and keeps a fire in his parlor burning in hopes of his return. McDonald’s poignant vocal is full of empathy for the father’s overwhelming love and sorrow.

The father’s words of farewell to his son when he first left for war now seem like a harbinger of loss.

“God bless you and keep you,

Young fellow my lad,

You’re all of my life, you know.”

All too soon, the father receives the message that all parents of soldiers fear and dread. His son has fallen to “the screaming shell and the battle hell.” He will never come home again.

All that is left to the father are his memories, and the hopes and dreams he once held for his son. He tries mightily to find some saving grace in his son’s death, some sense that he will live on.

“So you’ll live, you’ll live,

Young fellow my lad,

In the gleam of the evening star,

In the wood-note wild

And the laugh of the child,

In all sweet things that are.”

One might search for a very long time, and look through every song written about war in our lifetime, to find such a moving expression of the broken-hearted love of parents who have lost a child in war.

This beautiful song by McDonald and Service helps us understand one of the most shattering costs of war — the immeasurable sense of loss and the permanent heartache of parents who will never again see their child return home.

“The March of the Dead”

How else to end this song-cycle but with “The March of the Dead,” a fever-dream, a nightmare-vision, part prophecy and part ghost story. At first, the song may seem the delirious ravings of battle fatigue or the hallucinations of hell. But it may also be a saving grace, with the soldiers rising from their graves to warn humanity away from the path of war.

A parade celebrates the return of the nation’s triumphant troops now that the war is over. But, in truth, the war is not over. It never ended for the vast, haunted regiment of the dead — “the reeling ranks of ruin,” in Service’s memorable phrase. The Army of the Dead marches into the victory parade, just as they come marching in — unseen and uninvited — to cast a pall over every celebration of war.

McDonald’s vocals capture the dread of that moment when the dead come home to display the horrifying costs of war.

“The folks were white and stricken,

each tongue seemed weighed with lead;

Each heart was clutched in hollow hand of ice;

And every eye was staring at the horror of the dead,

The pity of the men who paid the price.”

Florence Nightingale once said that she could never forget the thousands of soldiers lying in forgotten graves. Robert Service witnessed the same appalling loss of life, including the loss of his own brother. He, too, could never forget.

McDonald’s voice sounds haunted when he sings the words that tell us what we owe the veterans of our nation’s wars.

“O God, in Thy great mercy, let us nevermore forget

The graves they left behind, the bitter graves.”

McDonald rescued those eloquent words from the oblivion of time. Service’s poems would very likely have been lost and forgotten, except that McDonald reached back in time and rediscovered them, and then created music that gave new life to the lyrics in all their prophetic urgency. Words by Robert W. Service. Music by Country Joe McDonald.

“Peace on Earth”

Many years after the peace demonstrations of the 1960s had ended, McDonald wrote “Peace on Earth,” an anti-war anthem he often sang at protests against U.S. wars of intervention in Central America and rallies against nuclear arms.

“Tell the leaders of every land

Over and over so that they understand

Military madness has gone too far.

In our world today

There is no room for war.”

He has never stopped singing for peace. He has spoken out against war for his entire lifetime, and also has honored the nation’s military veterans, even in times of great national confusion over their role.

In describing a tribute to veterans at Berkeley’s Vietnam Memorial, he wrote: “There was no anger or hostility, just complete agreement that blaming soldiers for war is like blaming firefighters for fire.”

Bob Dylan once described the chimes of freedom flashing “for each and every underdog soldier in the night.” Through thick and thin, McDonald has demanded that the underdog soldiers of the night be treated with compassion and justice.

In doing so, he has been an important example to the peace movement, and has expanded our concept of nonviolence to include the front-line soldiers and combat nurses. He has reminded us that an anti-war movement must find compassion for all the victims of war, including the ones shipped off in uniforms to faraway battlefields.

In taking this stand, he is carrying on the work of his great heroine, Florence Nightingale, who said, “I stand at the altar of the murdered men and while I live I fight their cause.”


Street Spirit’s  in-depth look at the music and the man: Country Joe McDonald

Country Joe: Singing Louder Than the Guns (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald stands nearly alone among the musicians of the 1960s in staying true to his principles — still singing for peace, still denouncing the brutality of war.

Songs of Healing in a World at War (April 2016)
Country Joe McDonald’s songs denounce the atrocities of war and pay tribute to Vietnam War combat nurses and the legendary icon of mercy, Florence Nightingale, for bravely bringing medical care into war zones.

Carrying on the Spirit of Peace and Love (June 2016 Issue)
Country Joe McDonald has carried on the spirit of the 1960s by singing for peace and justice, speaking against war and environmental damage, and advocating fair treatment for military veterans and homeless people.

Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 1 (April 2016)
Women coming home from the Vietnam War never were the same after their wartime experiences. They were shoved into a horrific, unbelievable experience. That’s what I wrote about in the song: “A vision of the wounded screams inside her brain, and the girl next door will never be the same.”

Street Spirit Interview with Country Joe McDonald Part 2 (April 2016)
“It was magical. All at the same time, amazing stuff happened in Paris, London, and San Francisco — and BOOM! Everybody agreed on the same premise: peace and love. It was a moment of peace and love. It was a wonderful thing to happen. And I’m still a hippie: peace and love!”

Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 3  (June 2016)
“We’re still struggling as a species with how we can stop war. The families (of Vietnam veterans) were so grateful that anybody would acknowledge their sacrifice. And I don’t mean sacrifice in a clichéd way. The war had reached out and struck their family in a horrible, terrible way.”

Interview with Country Joe McDonald, Part 4 (June 2016)
“I knew a lot of the people had to escape or they were killed by the junta in Chile. It was just tragic and terrible. I had grown up with a full knowledge of the viciousness of imperialism from my socialist parents. So I knew that, but I was still shocked.”

 

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