Political and ecological issues were set to musical accompaniment by Country Joe McDonald, who co-founded and led the psychedelic folk-rock band Country Joe & the Fish, the leading left-wing band of the '60s. Since the group's breakup in 1971, McDonald has continued to musically espouse his political views through his original, folk-like songs.
A native of Washington, D.C., McDonald grew up in El Monte, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles, where his parents, Florence and Worden, had moved to escape political difficulties in the capital city. Music played an important role through McDonald's childhood, and he attended many concerts at El Monte Legion Stadium; after becoming enchanted by Dixieland music, he frequented the Lighthouse Club in Hermosa Beach.
At the age of 17, McDonald enlisted in the U.S. Navy. Following his discharge after three years, he attended City College in Los Angeles for a year. Although he moved to Berkeley to continue his schooling, McDonald was distracted by his love of music and spent most of his time playing in bands like the Berkeley String Quartet and the Instant Action Jug Band, which included future bandmateBarry Melton.
Joined by folk guitarist Blair Hardman, McDonald recorded his first tunes in 1964. Released originally by First American Records, many of the songs were later re-recorded by McDonald for his 1976 albumThe Goodbye Blues.
McDonald continued to be active in politics in the mid-'60s, and published a left-wing magazine, Rag Baby. After publishing the first few issues of the magazine, McDonald conceived the idea of recording a special "talking" issue. Released as an EP, the issue featured two songs, "I Feel Like I'm Fixing to Die Rag," a Dixieland-like indictment of the Vietnam War, and "Superbird," a satire aimed at President Lyndon Johnson; both were credited to "Country Joe & the Fish." Following the completion of the project, McDonald and Melton agreed to form a more serious rock band.
With McDonald's political lyrics set to a dynamic rock beat, Country Joe & the Fish became popular in the San Francisco Bay area, performing frequently at the Jabberwocky coffeehouse in Berkeley and the Avalon and Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. Their second EP featured three of McDonald's tunes -- "Bass Strings," "Section 43," and "(Thing Called) Love."
McDonald spent most of 1974 living in Europe. Returning to California in 1975, he joined a band,Energy Crisis, that featured former Fish Bruce Barthol and ex-Instant Action Jug Band member Phil Marsh. The band appeared on McDonald's 1975 album, Paradise with an Ocean View. The album, which included the anthemic tune "Save the Whales," reflected an increase in McDonald's ecological commitment.
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