Country Joe McDonald

Country Joe McDonald

Country Joe McDonald performing at Parr Meadows
Photo Courtesy of Bob Sanderson
Background information
Birth name Joseph Allen McDonald
Also known as Country Joe
Born (1942-01-01) January 1, 1942
Washington, D.C.
Genres Alternative country, country, bluegrass, country rock, folk, psychedelic rock, acid rock
Occupation(s) Musician, political activist
Instruments vocals, guitar
Years active 1959–Present
Labels Vanguard Records, One Way Records, Fantasy Records, Rykodisc, Shanachie Records
Associated acts Country Joe and the Fish
Notable instruments
Martin Acoustic Guitars

Joseph Allen "Country Joe" McDonald (born January 1, 1942) is an American musician who was the lead singer of the 1960s psychedelic rock group Country Joe and the Fish.[1]

Early life and early career

McDonald was born in Washington, DC, and grew up in El Monte, California, where he was student conductor and president of his high school marching band.[2] At the age of 17, he enlisted in the United States Navy for three years and was stationed in Japan. After his enlistment, he attended Los Angeles City College for a year. In the early 1960s, he began busking on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California.[1] His father, Worden McDonald, from Oklahoma, was of Scottish Presbyterian heritage (the son of a minister); he worked for a telephone company. His mother, Florence Plotnick, was the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants and served for many years on the Berkeley City Council.[3][4][5] In their youth, both were Communist Party members before renouncing the cause, and named their son after Joseph Stalin.[6]

Music career

McDonald has recorded 33 albums and has written hundreds of songs over a career spanning 40 years. In 1965, he and Barry Melton co-founded Country Joe & the Fish which became a pioneer psychedelic rock band with their eclectic performances at the Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore, the Monterey Pop Festival, and both the original and 1979 reunion Woodstock Festivals.

"Legendary Artists: Sounds of San Francisco" at an Audio Engineering Society convention in 2012. Left to right: Mario Cipollina, Peter Albin, Joel Selvin, McDonald

Their best known song is his "The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" (1965), a black comedy novelty song about the Vietnam War, whose familiar chorus ("One, two, three, what are we fighting for?")[7] is well known to the Woodstock generation and Vietnam veterans of the 1960s and '70s. McDonald wrote the song in about 20 minutes for an anti-Vietnam War play.[8] The "Fish Cheer" was the band performing a call-and-response with the audience, spelling the word "fish", followed by Country Joe yelling, "What's that spell?" twice, with the audience responding, and then, the third time, "What's that spell?", followed immediately by the song. The "Fish Cheer" evolved into the "Fuck Cheer" after the Berkeley free speech movement. The cheer was on the original recording of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag", being played right before the song on the LP of the same name. The cheer became popular and the crowd would spell out F-I-S-H when the band performed live. During the summer of 1968 the band played on the Schaefer Music Festival tour.[9] Gary "Chicken" Hirsh suggested before one of the shows to spell the word "fuck" instead of "fish." Although the crowd loved it, the management of the Schaefer Beer Festival did not and kicked the band off the tour for life. The Ed Sullivan Show then canceled a previously scheduled appearance by the band, telling them to keep the money they had already been paid in exchange for never playing on the show.[9] The modified cheer continued at most of the band's live shows throughout the years, including Woodstock and elsewhere. In Massachusetts, McDonald was fined $500 for uttering "fuck" in public.[10]

McDonald at the LBJ Library in 2016

In 2003 McDonald was sued for copyright infringement over his signature song, specifically the "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" chorus part, as derived from the 1926 early jazz classic "Muskrat Ramble", co-written by Kid Ory. The suit was brought by Ory's daughter Babette, who held the copyright at the time. Since decades had already passed from the time McDonald composed his song in 1965, Ory based her suit on a new version of it recorded by McDonald in 1999. The court however upheld McDonald's laches defense, noting that Ory and her father were aware of the original version of the song, with the same questionable section, for some three decades without bringing a suit. In 2006, Ory was ordered to pay McDonald $395,000 for attorney fees and had to sell her copyrights to do so.

In 2004, McDonald regrouped with three of the original members of Country Joe and the Fish (Bruce Barthol, David Bennett Cohen, and Gary "Chicken" Hirsh) and they toured the United States and the United Kingdom as the "Country Joe Band".

In the spring of 2005, McDonald joined a larger protest against California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget cuts at the California State Capitol Building.

In the fall of 2005, political commentator Bill O'Reilly compared McDonald to Cuban President Fidel Castro, remarking on McDonald's involvement in Cindy Sheehan's protests against the Iraq War.[11]

Personal life

McDonald was married to Kathe Werum from 1963 to 1966 and married Robin Menken a year after his divorce from Werum.[12] In 1968, Menken gave birth to the couple's first daughter, Seven Anne McDonald, in San Francisco. Seven, formerly a columnist for LA Weekly and now a movie producer and artist manager,[13] had a previous career as a TV child actor in the late 1970s and early 1980s,[14] managed Johnny Depp's Viper Room nightclub and the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins in the 1990s,[15] and wrote for Details, Elle and Harper's Bazaar magazines in the 1990s and 2000s. According to Ron Cabral's biography on Country Joe and the Fish, Seven was the subject of and inspiration behind the song Silver and Gold.[12] McDonald has noted that his ex-girlfriend at the time, Janis Joplin, showed much anger for breaking up with her to be with Menken but asked him to write a song about her; the result was "Janis".[7][16]

McDonald has four other children, Devin (b. 1976) and Tara (b. 1980) from his marriage to Janice Taylor, and Emily (b. 1988) and Ryan (b. 1991) from his marriage to Kathy Wright.[12]

As of 2012, McDonald still lived in Berkeley, California.


For discography of Country Joe and the Fish, see that entry




  1. 1 2 Richard Brenneman, "Country Joe McDonald Revives Anti-War Anthem", Berkeley Daily Planet, April 16, 2004, accessed July 18, 2007.
  2. "Patriots: the Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides", Christian G. Appy, p. 196.
  3. "The Jewish Standard". August 14, 2009. Retrieved 2014-04-19.
  4. "Country Joe McDonald, The Country Joe Band". Retrieved 2014-04-19.
  5. "meltoneightmiles". Retrieved 2014-04-19.
  6. "Patriots: the Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides", Christian G. Appy, pp. 195–196.
  7. 1 2 Gilliland, John (1969). "Show 42 – The Acid Test: Psychedelics and a sub-culture emerge in San Francisco. [Part 2]" (audio). Pop Chronicles.
  8. "Patriots: the Vietnam War Remembered from All Sides", Christian G. Appy, p. 199.
  9. 1 2 Country Joe McDonald, "That Notorious Cheer", accessed October 10, 2007.
  10. cited in Jacques Attali's Noise: The Political Economy of Music citing Pop-music/Rock by Philippe Daufouy and Jean-Pierre Sarton (Champ Libre, 1972).
  11. The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly, October 19, 2005.
  12. 1 2 3 Cabral, Ron (March 31, 2004). Country Joe and Me. AuthorHouse. ISBN 978-1-4184-0642-4.
  13. "Seven McDonald". LinkedIn.
  14. "Seven McDonald". IMDb.
  15. "Bio". Retrieved 2014-04-19.
  16. "Country Joe McDonald, An Autobiography".
  17., Discography
  18. Country Joe McDonald at AllMusic: Discography
  19. "Country Joe McDonald". IMDB. Retrieved September 25, 2014.
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