Country Joe and the Fish was a rock band most widely known for musical protests against the Vietnam War, from 1966 to 1971. The group's name is derived from leftist politics; "Country Joe" was a popular name for Joseph Stalin in the 1940s, while "the fish" refers to Mao Tse-Tung's statement that the true revolutionary "moves through the peasantry as the fish does through water."
The group began with the nucleus of "Country Joe" McDonald (lead vocals) and Barry "The Fish" Melton (lead guitar), recording and performing for the "Teach-In" protests against the Vietnam War in 1965. Co-founders McDonald and Melton added musicians as needed over the life of the band. By 1967, the group included Gary "Chicken" Hirsh (drums) (born Mar 9, 1940, in Chicago, Illinois); David Cohen (keyboards) (born 8 April 1942, in Brooklyn, New York) and Bruce Barthol (bass) (born 11 November 1947 in Berkeley, California). The 1967 lineup lasted only two years, and by the 1969 music festival Woodstock, the lineup included Greg 'Duke' Dewey (drums), Mark Kapner (keyboards) and Doug Metzler (bass).
The band came to perform an early example of psychedelic rock. The LP "Electric Music for the Mind and Body" was very influential on early FM Radio in 1967. Long sets of psychedelic tunes like "Section 43", "Bass Strings", "Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine", "Janis" (for and about Janis Joplin) and "Grace" (for singer Grace Slick) (all released on Vanguard Records) were often played back to back on KSAN and KMPX in San Francisco and progressive rock stations around the country. Their first album charted at #39 on September 23, 1967, their 2nd album at #67 on February 3, 1968, and their third at #23 on August 31, 1968. Country Joe and The Fish were regulars at Fillmore West and East and Chet Helms' Avalon Ballroom. They were billed with such groups as Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Led Zeppelin, and Iron Butterfly. They played at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. In 1971 the band appeared in a Western film starring Don Johnson as an outlaw gang called the Crackers. The film, entitled Zachariah, was written by the Firesign Theatre and was billed as "The First Electric Western". They also appeared in the George Lucas film More American Graffiti and in the 1971 Roger Corman film Gas-s-s-s.
Their biggest hit was the anti-war "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag", which debuted the same year as the band, but became best known after Country Joe's solo acoustic performance of it at Woodstock. Country Joe was sued in 2001 by Kid Ory's daughter, Babette Ory, who claimed Joe's "Fixin" Rag infringed her copyright to Kid Ory's Dixieland jazz standard "Muskrat Ramble". In August 2003, the court case was decided in Joe's favor, since Kid Ory, Babette Ory, and the Muskat Ramble publisher had all known of Joe's song in the late 1960s but no complaint was made for decades. Finding the complaint objectively unreasonable, the court awarded McDonald some of his attorney's fees and costs. Due to the long delay and prejudice, including death of key witnesses, the court did not even reach the lack of substantial similarity issue. Babette Ory and her attorney appealed, and the appellate court affirmed the decision in favor of Joe McDonald.
According to Peter Schickele (during an episode of his Schickele Mix radio programme), the carillion-like instrument used during the studio recording of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" was intended to be used in the production of the first PDQ Bach album in the studio next door, and was borrowed for the song.
Country Joe's anti-war activity led to his being called as a witness at the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial in 1969.
Barry "The Fish" Melton was later a founding member of The Dinosaurs and has recently released new recordings of that band whose members included Peter Albin from Big Brother and The Holding Company and John Cipollina from Quicksilver Messenger Service and Copperhead. Melton studied law while on the road as a musician and was admitted to practice by the State Bar of California in 1982. He is currently the Public Defender of Yolo County, California, although he continues to tour internationally from time to time.
Melton and McDonald have occasionally reunited to play music in the 70's, 80's, 90's and as recently as 2002 in support of a Christmas toy drive in San Francisco for Toys for Tots.
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