Woodstock Performers: Country Joe & The Fish
This series of articles—32 in all—covers each of the artists who performed at the original Woodstock festival August 15-18, 1969.
Joe Cocker and his excellent Grease Band had wrapped up just before 3:30 p.m., when a wicked storm had blown in, pouring rain down in buckets. The mud that had become a trademark of Woodstock was back, as was another of the lengthy delays that marked the festival. Country Joe & The Fish would wrap up just before 8:00 p.m. and Ten Years After would follow them.
Country Joe McDonald had already appeared at Woodstock as a solo act, having filled in on Saturday to entertain the crowd while the stage was being set up for Santana's set. This time, he had The Fish with him.
The Fish had seen a number of personnel changes since its inception in mid-1965, when McDonald and Barry Melton had started singing as a duo in Berkeley. They had added Carl Schrager (washboard, kazoo), Bill Steele (bass guitar), and Mike Beardslee (vocals) to their jug band lineup, and self-recorded an EP for a "talking issue" of McDonald's underground magazine.
Resuming life as a duo after the EP was recorded, McDonald and Melton were regulars at a place called the Jabberwock Cafe. They were joined onstage from time-to-time by other jug band musicians, including Bruce Barthol (bass), Paul Armstrong (guitar), David Bennett Cohen (bluegrass guitar) and John Francis-Gunning (drums). They loved the vibe that seemed to envelop them when they played together, and so The Fish became a six-piece outfit.
They began playing electric instruments and delving into psychedelia, influenced as they were by LSD. Cohen moved to the organ, and the group began playing more and more of their own material. They were immensely popular in the San Francisco Bay area and released their first LP in May 1967, making it one of the first psychedelic albums to come out of the Bay scene. That was followed quickly by I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die, the album that included "The Fish Cheer." This organ-heavy LP didn't do as well as their first LP had, but the cheer started getting some airplay on late-night and underground radio, giving the band some limited national exposure.
The cheer took on a life of its own after a performance at the Schaefer Beer Music Festival in Central Park in the summer of 1968. Hirsh had suggested altering the cheer by replacing “fish” with a four-letter expletive that also started with "F". The song's new lyrics totally fired up the crowd of 20,000, but cost the band national exposure. A prepaid and already scheduled appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” was canceled.
McDonald briefly left the band while they were working on their third album, returning in time for the recording sessions. In September 1968, bassist Barthol left the band, just prior to their fourth album. He had been adamant that they should play the Festival for Life, organized by the Youth International Party in Chicago, during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. The others voted him down, fearing that their equipment could be damaged if things got out of hand. The festival saw violent clashes between demonstrators and police, and the remaining members were glad they had made the decision not to attend.
From January 9-11, 1969, The Fish performed at the Fillmore West as a way to say goodbye to their original lineup. Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane took Barthol's place on bass, and their finale, "Donavan's Reef Jam," included guests Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Steve Miller, and Mickey Hart. Hirsh and Cohen left soon after recording the group's fourth album, Here We Are Again, and a new short-lived lineup was put together, featuring Casady and David Getz (formerly with Big Brother and the Holding Company).
The Fish, put back together once again for what was a last-minute booking at Woodstock, was now made up of Barry "The Fish" Melton (guitar, kazoo, vocals), Greg "Duke" Dewey (drums), Mark Kapner (keyboards, organ) and Doug Metzler (bass). They hit the rain-soaked stage at 6:30 p.m. for an 80-minute set.
The band began their set with “Rock and Soul Music“ from their 1968 album Together, then moved to the bluesy “(Thing Called) Love,” from their 1967 debut album Electric Music For The Mind And Body. They followed that with another song from their debut, the Dylan-inspired “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine.” Melton was at the mic for the next song, “Sing Sing Sing,” which would be released in 1970 on the CJ Fish album. Next was the also unreleased “Summer Dresses,” followed by a cover of Mac Davis’ “Friend, Lover, Woman, Wife,” a studio version of which would appear on McDonald’s first solo album, Tonight I’m Singing Just For You. Three more new tunes from the upcoming CJ Fish album followed, “Silver and Gold,” “Maria” and Melton’s “The Love Machine,” featuring some great guitar work and a short but impressive drum solo.
The Fish were trying their very best to move the mud-soaked Woodstock crowd back into a happy state of mind. They trotted out Tiny Tim’s “Ever Since You Told Me You Loved Me (I’m A Nut),” an old Tin Pan Alley ditty from Tim's 1968 album, God Bless Tiny Tim. Their cover featured Kapner singing and playing the ukelele, before smashing the instrument Townshend-style when he was done. The crowd ate it up.
They wrapped things up with a short instrumental jam that morphed into "Crystal Blues" and a reprise of “Rock and Soul Music,” this time extending the jam. And finally, what Fish concert would be complete without a full-band version of “The Fish Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag.” Classic.
Country Joe & The Fish Performing "Rock & Soul Music" at Woodstock
Give me an "F"...give me a "U"...
What's that spell? FISH!— Country Joe leading the "Fish Cheer" at Woodstock
Life After Woodstock
The group released their fifth album, CJ Fish, in May, 1970. The album did respectably well, but the guys just weren't motivated to keep feeding the music machine by writing, recording and touring, so they called it quits a few months after CJ Fish was released.
McDonald is still actively performing, and has released more than 30 albums during his long career. He remains a champion for Vietnam veterans' charities. He has performed at previous Woodstock reunions and was even booked to play the now-cancelled Woodstock 50 event.
Melton continued to perform as a solo artist in the Bay Area, know simply as "The Fish," and later joined the supergroup the Dinosaurs in the 1980s. The Dinosaurs consisted of Peter Albin (Big Brother and the Holding Company), John Cipollina (Quicksilver Messenger Service), Spencer Dryden (Jefferson Airplane), Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead) and Merl Saunders (Saunders-Garcia Band). Guest stars and other members over time included Papa John Creach (Hot Tuna), Jack Casady (Jefferson Airplane), David LaFlamme (It's a Beautiful Day) and Jerry Miller (Moby Grape).
Kapner was part of Neil Diamond's band for a time and also served as Music Director at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Massachusetts from 1991-1995. While there, he composed soundtracks for yoga tapes and also performed frequently in bluegrass bands. Three members of the classic lineup, Barthol, Cohen, and Hirsh, joined McDonald in 2004 as the Country Joe Band for a live album, Live in Berkeley, and US tour. They disbanded in 2006. In 2018, drummer Dewey released a crowd-funded "greatest hits" album spanning his 50-year career in music.
Five Musical Facts
- It turned out that there were folks associated with the Ed Sullivan show in the audience at the Schaefer Beer Music Festival. The following week, the signed contract was sent back to the band, with a note that their appearance had been cancelled. They got to keep the money, but were banned from the show for life.
- Relative unknowns Led Zeppelin opened for The Fish at the Fillmore West on January 10, 1969, midway through their first tour of North America. Their first album, Led Zeppelin, was released two days later.
- Country Joe & The Fish were a last-minute replacement at Woodstock for Jethro Tull. Tull's Ian Anderson felt the timing just wasn't right for the band. They had just embarked on their second US tour to promote Stand Up, and were given very short notice about Woodstock.
- Singer-songwriter Steve Earle first heard the song "Fish Cheer/Fixin’-to-Die”" as a teenager in San Antonio, Texas. The song inspired his career in music and his role as an activist.
- McDonald didn’t realize that “Fixin’-to-Die” had become popular with the grunts in the jungle until he started working with Jane Fonda on a U.S.O.-style anti-war tour. Guys who had already done a tour of Vietnam were coming up to him, shaking his hand and thanking him for the song.
© 2019 Kaili Bisson