Country Joe at Orland High
In August 1969, Country Joe McDonald played a song at Woodstock, appearing right after Richie Havens to fill time until the next scheduled big-name act came on. Traffic and weather were playing havoc with the line up. McDonald’s song, played on a borrowed Yamaha 150-G with a rope for a strap, was “Feel-Like-I’m-Fixing-to-Die Rag,” which became the best known anti-war song to come out of the Vietnam era.
“What are we fightin’ for?/ Don’t ask me I don’t give a damn/ Next stop is Vietnam,” rang the chorus of the song that was introduced with the famous “Fish Cheer": “Give me an ‘F'…” McDonald shocked Middle America and grabbed its attention when, in a more sanitized era, he had his audience spell the “F-word.”
It was an in-your-face celebration of defiance by the anti-war, anti-establishment generation.
Thirty-five years later and 3,000 miles to the west, McDonald stood on stage with a guitar in hand in the multipurpose room of Orland High School before about 120 Orland seniors. The former leader of the band The Fish was doing a favor for boyhood friend Andre Carrao, owner of the Orland Bowl bowling alley.
McDonald, who’s reunited with three of the original Fish, is 62 now; Woodstock is farther away in time for today’s kids than World War II was for his generation. But there is at least one strong parallel at work—young people of different generations contemplating a war that is both hard to explain and far from over.
McDonald took the stage, and the first thing he yelled was “Give me an ‘F,'” much to the unnerving surprise of the Orland High teachers standing in the back and along the sides. The students cheered.
“Thanks, I needed that,” McDonald said. He then launched into about an hour-long set of psychedelic-tinged tunes, including a love song to Janis Joplin, with whom he said he lived in the Haight-Ashbury district. (He knocked the dust off a number of ‘60s clichàs but to his credit refrained from saying, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.") He also played a solo blues number on the trombone.
He talked about his friends who died as a result of Vietnam, some during the war, others after. He sang about drugs ("Hey partner, won’t you pass that reefer ’round?") and didn’t preach.
“I did a lot of psychedelic drugs during the ‘60s,” he told his young audience. “But that didn’t work out too well for me. I’ve found that clean and sober is much better. Now that might not be the best for you, but it works for me.”
He also voiced the antithesis of his generation’s stated ideals: “I hope you have a prosperous business and make tons of money. But if you can’t do that, don’t be bummed.”
Finally he launched into his trademark song, and all the teachers and many of the students sang along.
When it was over he told the seniors, “If you go off to Iraq, I hope you all come back alive and well.”
The gig was put together by history teacher Jason Bragg, who has a student who works at the bowling alley. The class had been studying the Vietnam War and all its historical trappings, including Woodstock. The student knew of his boss’s connection with McDonald, who was on his way home to Berkeley after ending a tour in Oregon.
“This is a history teacher’s dream, getting a speaker that you have discussed in class," said Bragg, who was born in 1974.