The famous Woodstock Music Festival, which began 50 years ago this week (Aug. 15) in 1969, featured many prominent musicians, including Jefferson Airplane, The Who, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Santana and Jimi Hendrix, but the most galvanizing performance was when Country Joe and the Fish, a band led by Country Joe McDonald, performed their anti-Vietnam War song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag.”
The song, which McDonald says he wrote in 30 minutes, reflected the fact that by 1969 most Americans had turned against the Vietnam War, especially the young people who composed most of the Woodstock audience.
Normally McDonald introduced the song by leading the audience in the “Fish Cheer,” spelling out the word “Fish,” as in, “Gimme an F!” (the crowd responding “F!”), and so on, but at Woodstock, he led the crowd in spelling the other four-letter word that begins with “F.” Wearing a U.S. Army jacket, he then sang, “Well, come on all of you big, strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again. Got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam.”
From there the song becomes a clever parody of the war, including advice to military leaders – “Well, come on generals, let’s move fast, your big chance has come at last. Now you can go out and get those reds, ‘cause the only good commie is one that’s dead” – and advice to corporate America – “Come on Wall Street, don’t be slow. Why man, this is war au-go-go. There’s plenty of good money to be made, supplying the army with the tools of the trade” – and advice to parents – “Come on mothers throughout the land. Pack your boys off to Vietnam. Come on fathers, don’t hesitate, to send your sons off before it’s too late. And you can be the first ones on your block, to have your boy come home in a box.”
Rightly, the song never blames the soldiers because McDonald knew they had little choice in the matter.
In between was the famous chorus, “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam. And it’s five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates. Ain’t no time to wonder why. Whoopee, we’re all gonna die!”
During the song, McDonald, admonished the audience that they weren’t singing loud enough, shouting, “I don’t know how you expect to stop this war if you can’t sing any better than that,” and the crowd responded. By one (admittedly unreliable) estimate, two thirds of the 450,000 gathered at Woodstock had joined in by the time the song ended.
Country Joe then raised his guitar in the air, shouted “All right!” and walked off stage to thunderous applause.
Bruce G. Kauffmann’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.