Saturday, September 3, 2011

Country Joe and the Fish: The War, the Cheer, and the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag"

Cover of "Feel Like I'm Fixin to Die"Cover of Feel Like I'm Fixin to DieBy Lee Jensen

As the Vietnam War escalated in the mid-1960s and young men increasingly were drafted into the military, protest songs became more mainstream, even reaching the pop charts. Once a staple of folk music, like Phil Ochs' "I Ain't Marching Anymore," anti-war songs like Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction," written by pop composer P. F. Sloan, hit number one on the Billboard charts.

Perhaps the most enduring protest song of the era was Country Joe and the Fish's "I-Feel-Like-I'm Fixin'-To-Die Rag." The song is written in the voice of a military recruiter/carnival barker (with horns, kazoos and an outrageous hurdy-gurdy organ accompaniment) who encourages young men to join the fight in Vietnam, then invites parents to be the first to "have your boy come home in a box." Its chorus: "Whoopee! We're all gonna die."

McDonald, in 1965 a folkie living in San Francisco, wrote the "Fixin'-To-Die Rag" in less than 30 minutes and recorded it as part of an EP (extended play) disc with guitarist Barry Melton and other musicians; they called themselves Country Joe and the Fish.

McDonald, a Navy vet who was raised in a family of American Communists, wrote that the song "attempts to put blame for the war upon the politicians and leaders of the US military and upon the industry that makes its money from war but not upon those who had to fight the war ... the soldiers."

Many were introduced to the "Fixin'-To-Die Rag" in the 1970 Woodstock documentary. On the 1969 festival's first show day, many performers were unable to reach the stage due to the weather and crowds. McDonald, standing onstage watching an exhausted Richie Havens wrap up a three-hour performance, was handed an acoustic guitar and was convinced to play.

McDonald, who understood his job was to kill time as much as entertain, has said that after playing for 25 minutes, he noticed that few in the crowd of more than 300,000 people were listening to him. That's when he shouted, "Gimme an F!" It got the crowd's attention and they shouted back, "F!"

The chant that followed was like nothing like you'll hear from cheerleaders at a football game; it was the "Fish Cheer," which always precedes the "Fixin'-To-Die Rag." McDonald, who felt unappreciated by the music industry, explained that the "Fish Cheer" was born at a 1967 recording session as a way for the band to pat itself on the back. Each band member shouted "Gimme an F," "Gimme an I," "Gimme an S," "Gimme an H." Then they shouted, "What's that spell?" "Fish!"

The "Fish Cheer" became a staple at concerts but the chant would undergo a change in 1968 that made it both controversial and memorable. At New York City's Schaefer Beer Festival, drummer Gary "Chicken" Hirsh came up with the idea to change the "FISH" part of the cheer to another four-letter-word. The audience enjoyed it but the Schaefer festival banned the group for life.

Even without the cheer, the "Fixin'-To-Die Rag" was considered so controversial that Vanguard Records president Maynard Solomon refused to let the group include the song on their debut album, Electric Music For The Mind and Body. Solomon believed the song would become a "thorn in their side and prevent the band from getting any single play on the radio." But Solomon would relent and "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" became the title song of the band's second album in 1967.

McDonald has said that he still enjoys performing the song because so many audience members "experienced" the song during the Vietnam war; in Vietnamese POW camps, the song was played to demoralize the prisoners but McDonald has been told it gave them encouragement. One vet told McDonald that his friend's dying words were "Whoopee! We're all gonna die."

Lee Jensen, author of Rockaeology, unearths the secrets behind the writing, production and recording of the great hits of rock, soul, doo-wop, the British Invasion and Rhythm & Blues. Get the stories behind the songs at

For even more on the "Fish Cheer" and the "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" visit

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