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Friday, September 24, 2010

The invention of Country Joe and The Fish

       In the late summer of 1965 I heard that there was going to be an anti-Vietnam War event held on the University of Berkeley campus by a group called the Vietnam Day Committee. They had an office on Telegraph Avenue and this guy named Jerry Rubin seemed to be in charge in some way. I stopped in and asked Jerry if I could play some music at the event and he said he had a small stage setup between the open field the event was being held on (that field now has Zellerbach Hall built on it) and Sproul Steps, and I could perform there. By coincidence my magazine Rag Baby was just then destined to morph into a record company soon to be called Rag Baby Records, and record my song “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag” with a group to be called Country Joe and The Fish. This is the way it happened:

            Ed Denson and Mike Beardslee and I met at Mike’s house to talk about our forthcoming issue of Rag Baby magazine. It was a biweekly and we realized that having been all caught up the excitement of the forthcoming demonstration, or Teach-In on the War in Vietnam, as it was being called, we had neglected not only to write any stories for the issue but to gather information about what was happening at the local clubs, etc. So in essence we had nothing for the next issue which was due out soon. I suggested off of the top of my head that we make a talking issue! Ed Denson, as I mentioned, was already in the record company business with his label Takoma Records and knew about making records. I had recorded an LP at Fidelatone Records in Southern California with my friend Blair Hardman before I came to the Bay Area, so between us we knew it could be done. Mike agreed and Ed made arrangements for us to record in Chris Strachwitz’s living room on a small reel-to-reel tape recorder. Chris Strachwitz owned the label Arhoolie Records.

            The day approached for us to record and we planned the have local songwriter Peter Krug sing his song about the Watts Riots, “Fire in the City,” and another song on one side. We planned to make a seven-inch 33 1/3 speed record with a small hole in the center, called an EP (standing for extended play, because it got more time on it than a 45-rpm speed single record with a big hole in the center). I was going to sing my Vietnam Rag song and another song about President Lyndon Baines Johnson titled “Super Bird.” I gathered people from the Berkeley String Quartet: Carl Schrager on washboard and Bill Steele on washtub bass, and added Barry Melton whom I had been playing with for a while. Barry said that he wanted to try playing electric guitar so we went to a shop behind the Mediterranean Cafe called Berkeley Music.

            This place was owned by a guy named Campbell Coe who was never there. He was a photographer stringer for Associated Press also and always taking photographs around the area. He smoked a cigar and was an older man and people even made a bumper sticker saying “Campbell Coe is a myth” because he was never around. He did the repairs to instruments left there but was never around to do it. I once left an instrument and took it back after many weeks and took it to Lundberg’s Guitar Shop because they were always in and actually did repairs.
Annie Johnston used to work there and was there the day Barry and I came to rent an amplifier and electric guitar. She played guitar and sang and later was part of the Cleanliness and Godliness Skiffle Band. We rented the guitar and amp for five bucks and walked up to Chris Strachwitz’s house to record.

            Chris had one mic in the center of the room on a wire hanging down. Another guy was there Carvell Bass who I lost contact with soon afterwards. He was a UC Berkeley student and he played 12-string rhythm guitar if my memory serves me correctly. Also I believe Mike Beardslee sang some backup vocals. Well, because of the washtub bass and washboard, acoustic instruments, and the added electric guitar and harmonica, we qualified as being called a “folk-rock group.” This was all the rage at the time, acoustic bands with electric instruments. We finished very quickly. We recorded “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag,” “Super Bird,” and also “Who Am I” from the play Change Over. “Who Am I” did not make it onto the EP. I can’t remember if Peter Krug recorded at the same time or not.

            When we finished Ed asked what we should call the group on the
label copy. I hadn’t thought about that. Ed suggested that we call the group Country Mao and The Fish. He said that Mao Tse Tung had said that the revolutionaries move through the people like the fish through the sea. Well, as I mentioned before, my parents were left-wingers who had been harassed by the FBI. I grew up with radical politics and was not really fascinated by it. Ed, on the other hand, was part of a new group of American university students who were just coming in contact with left-wing politics and found it very appealing and fascinating. Anyway, I thought that the name sounded stupid.

            Ed then suggested we call it Country Joe and The Fish after Joseph Stalin. I said, “Well, that at least sounds better!” Oddly enough, I was not to find out until decades later that my parents had named me after Joseph Stalin, being at that time themselves very fascinated and involved with Communism and Russia. They were later to change their minds about Stalin and Communism, but my dad who was named Worden Calhoun, was always proud that he had given me a sensible name. So it was that the group became named Country Joe and The Fish.

            Over the years people have asked me many times how I got to be called Country Joe, and the simple answer is that I was the only Joe in the group and that I sang the lead vocals. I remember a time a bit later when Annie Johnston had gotten with the Cleanliness and Godliness Sniffle Band that we had a funny conversation on the phone at the Jabberwocky Coffeehouse. I was in the back room when the pay phone rang and I picked it up. The voice on the other end asked something and I said “who is this” and she answered “Dynamite Annie Johnston,” which was the name the band had given her. I laughed and said, “Well, this is Country Joe.” And that is how career names are made.

            So it was decided what the band would be called. Then another fateful thing happened. Supposedly Chris Strachwitz asked me if he could administer to the publishing of the songs on this little record and he says I said yes. He had just discovered that he could make money by handling the publishing of artists’ songs he recorded on his label and wanted to do the same with me. He took 50 percent of the money for doing this! For the next eight years he was to collect money for “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag” and “Super Bird.” The Rag was to go on to have a place on the famous Woodstock Music Festival soundtrack and film and generate quite a bit of income for Chris and me, but more about that later.

            ED and Mike worked on the layout for the little Rag Baby Records Talking Issue. It was put into a manila envelope along with tear sheets of the music from Rag Baby magazine. The envelope was longer than a record sleeve and printed upside down so the opening was at the bottom by mistake. I don’t know how many records were pressed, perhaps more than 100, no more than 200 I would say. About 70 we put into the envelope with the sheet music pages. The cover had a picture of protesters stopping the train that came through Berkeley carrying recruits to the Alameda Naval Air Station for shipment to Vietnam to fight the war. The demonstration was, I believe, arranged by the Vietnam Day Committee. We said that we were selling them for one dollar by mail. The date on the cover is October 1965.

            On the day of the Teach In I went over to the campus with my guitar and a few of the little records. I found the small stage for singers to sing on with a microphone setup. Folksinger Malvina Reynolds walked up with her guitar. I knew Malvina, she was one of the advisers for my magazine Et Tu. I had written her from Los Angeles before I moved to the Bay Area and she agreed to be an adviser. I knew about her because she was one of the new “protest singer-songwriters” that grew up around Pete Seeger and had some popular songs printed in the magazines Sing Out! and Broadside. So Malvina said “Can I sing?” and since it was my job to run the alternative stage I said sure. My memory is that we both sang a set of music to no one. Everyone was going over to the field where the Teach In was being held. They just walked by us. Some who knew us said hi but they kept on moving so we did also after a while.

            I then closed down the little stage and walked over to the field where the Teach In was going on. I got there in time to hear Ken Kesey play the harmonica and I.F. Stone speak. I began to walk in the crowd and sell my little EP record for 50 cents if my memory is correct. I don’t remember how many I sold but maybe five or so. There really was nowhere in town to sell them. We wound up putting them on the counter at Moe’s Books on Telegraph Avenue. He must have sold about twenty or so over the months to follow. As I mentioned there were about 70 in all made with the envelope and inserts, and years later I visited Mike Beardslee in the Midwest and he showed me a stash of about twenty. When he passed away his wife gave me about ten and his son Tom got the rest. The local music record shops had no idea what to do with them.
            It is hard to realize now that back in 1965 there was almost no alternative music in record shops. You could count the titles just about on one, or maybe both, hands. And there was no place to sell a self-produced anything, especially sold in a manila envelope. This first Rag Baby EP has remained a secret Country Joe and The Fish product, because the next EP, when the band went electric, got all the attention and in total perhaps 8,000 of those little records were made and sold.

        So it was discovered that if we advertised an appearance at the Jabberwocky Coffeeehouse under the name of Country Joe and The Fish we would draw another two or three people and we started to do so. Before we had a floating membership under the name The Instant Action Jug Band, but now we began to perform with a somewhat regular membership made up mostly of Barry Melton and myself with whoever else was around. Then, when Bob Dylan put out an electric album titled Highway 61 Revisited, Barry and I decided to “go electric” too. Bruce Barthol, who had been playing guitar up to that point, expressed a desire to play bass and went to Leo’s Music in Oakland and got a Hoffner electric bass just like Paul McCartney played. That bass was a thorn in my side for years as it was not fretted correctly and never got properly in tune. Bruce and I fought about that endlessly. He always contended that he could get it in tune but I never thought that he did and that it was the fault of the instrument. Barry got a guitar and amplifier and found a guy from New York City named David Cohen who was mostly a bluegrass guitar player but had some knowledge of piano so it was decided that he would play organ. We went back to Leo’s Music and bought a Farfisa organ.

            That Farfisa organ had one of the definitive sounds of the 60s. It was a very small model and had a row of buttons that were all titled things like flute, trumpet, French horn, etc. etc. It was assumed that when those buttons were pushed that the sound would change to morph into a sound resembling the word written on the button. This never happened. As I remember it there were two sounds that came out of that organ and neither of them sounded like a traditional instrument of the orchestra, but the beauty of it was that it gave us a distinctly original sound. David just invented a way to play the organ and is often credited with giving the group a very unique sound, and he did.

            David also played electric guitar. This gave us the luxury of having two lead guitar players. Barry played a very bluesy style influenced very much by Lightnin’ Hopkins, whom he heard play many times in Los Angeles at the folk club the Ash Grove. David played a very traditional bluegrass style. So I got the idea to have them both play leads at the same time as I was playing guitar also and could back them up with rhythm guitar. This was to be one of the very first times the world heard “double leads” and it was always a very exciting event.

            We also incorporated drums in the band and these were first played by a local drummer    John       Francis Gunning. I don’t remember how he was found, but John Francis was good friends with the drummer for the local trio The New Age, featuring the vocals and songs of guitarist singer Patrick Kilroy and flute playing of Susan Graubord and conga drumming of Jeffrey Stuart. They had some fantastic “new age” songs and a wonderful high-energy sound. They did one piece I really loved with a La La La La chorus and words: when I walk through the trees there is a song I sing. At the famous Human Be-In in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, soon after I jumped up on stage and joined them in the chorus. Well, Jeffrey and John Francis were good buddies and often played drums together, Jeffrey on congas and John Francis on traps or a full drum set. So John Francis began playing drums with us. We began converting our acoustic folk-rock repertoire to a rock and roll band repertoire.  

            We soon had an electric set worked up and were playing regularly at the Jabberwocky. Our audiences were very small. The place only held about 50 people and we never filled it up. I never was able to really hear my vocals because you must remember that the place was designed for the folk music era and everyone played acoustic music. The most electric thing ever seen there before us was Lightnin’ Hopkins who played electric guitar through a very small old amp and picked up a local drummer for his blues sound. 

            One night while playing, I got a funny feeling about the evening and announced that Barry really needed a new guitar. It was true, his playing had gotten much better and the guitar he was using was not very good.There was a man and woman in the audience whom I had noticed over the past few weeks of our shows. They were older than the rest of the audience, perhaps in their thirties, and dressed casual conservative. Over the weeks they had taken to bringing incense with them and lighting it during our show. They were Martin and Mary Jo Dimbat and lived in the nearby Bay Area town of Concord. He was a chemist and she was a housewife. They had lost a son our age in a bus accident a few months before and had sort of adopted the band as part of their grieving process. I of course knew nothing of this.

            After our set I was in the back dressing room with the rest of the band and Martin Dimbat came in and pulled out a checkbook and said, “How much does a guitar cost?” Well, I was stunned. I had forgotten I even mentioned it. I told him to wait a minute and rushed over to Barry and told him and asked him how much a new guitar would cost. My memory is that he said one hundred and twenty five dollars. We just sort of made up the number on the spot. Martin wrote out the check and the next day we went back to Leo’s Music in Oakland and Barry got his first real electric guitar. The Dimbats followed our career through all of its stages and when we began to play the Avalon and the Fillmore Auditorium they were always in the audience. We dedicated one of our albums to them. I still consider them good friends and see them from time to time in my audience. What a wonderful gift it was to be there for them and them to be there for us.


  1. Thanks Joe - a memorable piece of Folk / Rock / American cultural history very well told. Your style reminds me of that of U.S. Grant in his 2 volume memoir of the Civil War which was the bestselling book (besides the Bible) of the 19th Century.

  2. These posts are such a pleasure to read. Keep going, please!

  3. Joe, this is great stuff. Write an autobiography.