He is probably best known for a song he performed at the original Woodstock Festival called "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag". Before his solo performance at Woodstock, he was the lead singer for the California based group Country Joe And The Fish. We are of course talking about "Country" Joe McDonald.
We talked to "Country" Joe about Country Joe And The Fish, the 1960s, and that song, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag".
Q - Why are you referred to as "Country" Joe McDonald? Where did that name come from?
A - It was a name for a group for a record, Country Joe And The Fish. I was the only Joe in the band. There it is.
Q - Why The Fish?
A - It was suggested that the group be called Country Mao And The Fish because Mao Tso-tung said that the revolutionaries move like fish through the sea and I said that was stupid. It was suggested that we call it Country Joe And The Fish after Joseph Stalin.
Q - When you were starting off in the music business, you were in the Bay Area?
A - I was in El Monte, California in high school. I had my first Rock band and I played trombone in dance bands on the weekend.
Q - How far is El Monte from the Bay Area?
A - Los Angeles County.
Q - You were in the Bay Area at the same time Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane were around.
A - I moved here in 1965.
Q - What was the atmosphere like? Were people friendly? Was it a competitive situation? Was there rivalry?
A - Well, I was in Berkeley, which is quite different than San Francisco. So, I don't know about rivalry. I never experienced any rivalry. It was the beginning of a scene and there were venues to play and work for groups. We got work and we got a record contract and we began to tour. We were all happy about it.
Q - Were you friends with these other bands?
A - Yeah. I mean, there was no Rock 'n' Roll. We invented it. So there was no competition in the genre because there was no genre. The classic Rock you're talking about, I don't know if it essentially goes back to Rock-a-billy, does it? See, the Rock 'n' Roll we know today started in the '60s, not in the '50s, in my opinion. There was no competition because you couldn't really compare the music of Elvis Presley or The Everly Brothers or any of those people to what the San Francisco scene was doing. Everything that followed was brand new. And there was only a handful of groups. There was no competition. You couldn't go in a music store and buy Rock 'n' Roll. So, there was no competition for a market because there was no market.
Q - Certainly in 1965, the British Invasion was in full swing!
A - I don't know, whatever.
Q - Probably at the time you were in the Bay Area, the American groups were forming to answer back to the British Invasion.
A - I don't think there was any electric Rock 'n' Roll as we know it today, in 1965. It happened in 1966.
Q - After you got a record deal, where did you tour?
A - All over the United States and Europe.
Q - As a headliner or a support group?
A - We headlined and we opened for other people. It wasn't really openers. It was co-billing.
Q - Do you remember some of the groups you were co-billed with?
A - Every Rock group you can imagine.
Q - That covers a lot of groups!
A - About 50 to 100 groups.
Q - According to Rolling Stone's Encyclopedia Of Rock, you were once the publisher of a magazine called ET Tu Brute. What was that magazine all about?
A - It was a little, tiny magazine that had poetry and drawings and some song lyrics in it.
Q - You did that in your college years?
A - Yeah. Los Angeles State College.
Q - Did you have any idea that you would be a writer one day?
A - Well, I started writing songs when I was 15. Then I was 21, so I was continuing to write.
Q - What did your performance at Woodstock do for your career?
A - It launched me as a solo performer.
Q - You were actually arrested in Worchester, Massachusetts for inciting an audience to lewd behavior?
A - We had a thing called the Fuck Cheer, from the Woodstock movie. We weren't arrested, but we were tried. I was tried.
Q - Did the charges stick?
A - I was found guilty and the case was appealed and thrown out of court.
Q - At one time you were writing film scores. Are you still doing that type of work?
A - Well, not on the level you're talking about I have done some film scores, but they were small, 16 millimeter film scores, not the level you're probably talking about in Hollywood.
Q - Not commercially released?
A - They were commercially released, but in art theatres. I still do something like that I suppose.
Q - Did you put Country Joe And The Fish together?
A - No. It was a group of people that were performing together and when Bob Dylan went electric, we went electric and took the name.
Q - Commercial success, was that important to you?
A - No. It just happened. It wasn't important.
Q - Where did you write this "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" song?
A - In my apartment in Berkeley.
Q - How long did it take you to write that song?
A - 20 minutes.
Q - You were in the Navy, weren't you?
A - Yes.
Q - In the mid 1960s?
A - 1959 to 1962.
Q - I met a guy named Nick Calcagnino in Syracuse, N.Y. He said his brother Edward John (Calcagnino) spent four years in the Navy, stationed right outside of Vietnam in the early 1960s. He said "You know that song Country Joe McDonald sings, 'I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag'?" I said "Yeah, I know that song." He goes "Well, my brother wrote it." I said "Did he? That's my kind of story. Let me interview your brother." He said "He won't talk to you." I said "What do you mean, he wrote it?" He said he had served in the Navy with Country Joe McDonald. He said he had the 12 string guitar he wrote the song on and he's got the handwritten lyrics. I said "That's some story." I never got to interview Edward John Calcagnino. I never saw the guitar or the handwritten lyrics. He passed away in 2000. And I haven't seen Nick in years. Does this name Edward John Calcagnino ring a bell with you? *
A - No.
Q - As far as you're concerned this is just another story?
A - I don't know. That's the first kind of story like that that I've heard. That's all I can say.
Q - So, what keeps you busy these days?
A - I perform a tribute to Woody Guthrie.
Q - You're in a tribute act then?
A - No, not what you're talking about.
Q - You don't dress up like Woody Guthrie then?
A - No. I tell some stories and sing some songs about Woody Guthrie. I've been doing it for 11 years.
Q - Is there a lot of work out there for you?
A - Enough for me.
Q - Do you perform in clubs?
A - Clubs and theatres.
Q - Are you still recording?
A - I have a new album out right now.
Q - On what label would that be?
A - Ray Baby label, my own label.
Q - You probably sell that on your website and at shows?
Editor's Note: Eric J. Calcagnino, the nephew of Nick Calcagnino, says that his uncle is mistaken on many of the claims he made to Gary James. According to Eric, although his father, Edward Calcagnino, was a gifted musician, he never professed to writing "I Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die".