|Me playing my Epiphone F hole guitar at the Berkeley Marina. Photo taken by Jeff Blankfort who I have lost contact with. This was a PR shot. I was planning my career.|
SUMMER OF 1965
In the summer of l965 I was in our upstairs flat on Grove Street in Berkeley, near Ashby Avenue, that my wife Kathe Werum and I rented when the doorbell rang. A woman named Nina Serrano dropped by to ask me if I would write some songs for a play about the Vietnam War. The name of the play was Change Over and it was written by Fred Hayden and directed by Nina.
I have no idea how she knew about me or that I wrote songs. Kathe and I had just moved up from Los Angeles a few months before and knew almost no one in town. Both Nina and Saul would move in and out of my life for the next forty years but I could not have had any idea of that then. I agreed to take on the project and took a copy of the script and went to a rehearsal of the play. There were spots in the play for me to write songs. One spot was for a Madam of a whorehouse to sing a song and I wrote the song “Red Hot Mama” for her:
SHE’S GOT GIRLS THAT JUMP AND GIRLS THAT BALL
AND IF YOU AIN’T HAD MAMAS AIN’T HAD NOTHING AT ALL
BUT IF YOU WANT TO USE THE CREDIT PLAN
YOU BETTER GO HOME DADDY WORK IT OUT BY HAND
Aside from the two performances of the play, that song almost never was heard or performed. I did perform it solo at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC in the early 70s.
Another song was for three Vietnamese soldiers before a battle. The first one was a woman who had sacrificed all for the revolution and the army. The second was a coward forced to join the army and fight and the third was a killer who had learned to love killing for revenge. The song came out of the play dialogue and was hard for me to write. I got its chorus:
WHO AM I? TO STAND AND WONDER....TO WAIT
WHILE THE WHEELS OF FATE
SLOWLY GRIND MY LIFE AWAY
WHO AM I?
But the verses were hard and it took three days for finish the song, “Who Am I.” The song became part of my and Country Joe and The Fish’s repertoire and is loved by people even today. Since the audience aside from the play had no idea of the plot I have always wondered what the appeal of the song was. I paused at my little desk after finishing the song and strummed a few chords on my guitar and the idea for “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag” came into my head. Within a few minutes I had written my most famous song. So of course this was a very good day’s work for this songwriter.
I had no way of knowing that the “Fixing to Die” song would become not only my most famous song but an important antiwar song woven into the fabric of America and the Vietnam War generation. I chose the title because a man named ED Denson had become my friend and he owned a record company named Takoma Records with the famous guitarist John Fahey and had just rediscovered a blues singer named Bukka White. Bukka White had a well-known song he wrote and sang called “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die.” I liked the title and put the term “Rag” at the end as a black humor sort of thing. I published the song in my little magazine I was putting out with ED Denson and Mike Beardslee called Rag Baby magazine.
Although that song was due to become famous and well known because of a chance performance by me at the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969 and subsequent movie and record set, it never earned much money as famous songs go and made me rather infamous. Perhaps the addition of a four-letter cheer which started out spelling FISH but ended up as FUCK had something to do with that. But perhaps not. The Vietnam War has remained controversial for decades and the antiwar position can still start a fight. This was an era when the word “fuck” was never printed in newspapers or magazines or said in public. Of course the song had an unflattering view of our national leadership in the war and expressed an attitude for soldiers that some might consider treasonous.
The song went on to be well loved by war protesters and soldiers alike even up to today.
In the summer of 1965 I was sitting on the steps of the Associated Students of University of California Berkeley building playing my guitar. It was during the time of the Berkeley Folk Festivals – events dreamed up and produced by a Berkeley man named Barry Olivier. Thousands of people came and listened to folk music and attended workshops and concerts. I could not afford to go to any paid events and along with many other young people sat on the steps and played music.
I met a young teenager there, Barry Melton. He was playing a guitar also and he started playing guitar to the songs I was singing, something we have done now for over forty years. We instantly got along very well on many levels. We had much in common from a family point of view. His parents were active in the left-wing labor movement. His father was a country boy and his mother was an intellectual Jewish woman. Our sense of humor was the same. And musically we really jelled, having a certain something together that has been entertaining to us and the audience for years. We also had a common attraction to mind-altering substances.
I was playing songs from my repertoire which included original tunes and folk songs and protest songs. We must have been doing OK because we got an invite to open for a couple from Canada named Ian and Sylvia who had a hit song “Leaving on A Jet Plane.” They were playing in the little student restaurant at the bottom of the Associated Students building called The Bear’s Lair, after the University mascot the California Bear. Playing bass with them that night was the famous bass player Harvey Brooks. He went on to play with Bob Dylan and The United States of America and countless other musical entities. For Barry and me, this was our first gig together. This was not Country Joe and The Fish; it was Barry Melton and Joe McDonald ....the Country Joe and The Fish thing was a few months away and would also play heavily in both of our lives for the rest of our lives.
I did manage to go to a free workshop on the blues that day held in the Student Body building. I think it was Bukka White teaching a how-to-play-the-blues workshop. After it was over I went up to ask something about the blues and met for the first time a man named Stefan Grossman, who went on to be a famous guitar player and teacher. In response to my question about the blues, Stefan turned to me and said, “Forget it, you will never be able to play the blues.” I remember this because it was so odd that he would even talk to me as I did not know him. I thought he was wrong, and he was, of course. I think that was and is the only time we interacted in our lives.
I had been living in Berkley for a few months. My wife Kathe and I had moved up from Los Angeles with the intention of living in San Francisco but the large size of the city scared us. So after a brief spell of living with her aunt and uncle, Larry and Virginia Horowitz, in Lafayette, we moved into a flat in Berkeley at the corner of Shattuck.
It was there that I put music to the Robert W. Service poem about WWI, “The Ballad of Jean Desprez,” and wrote “Section 43,” the instrumental. “Section 43” was played with acoustic guitar, top and bottom strings lowered to D, and a G major harmonica on a rack. I later taught the band Country Joe and The Fish how to play it and it was recorded in 1966 on the second Rag Baby EP.
The Jean Desprez poem came from a collection of poems titled Rhymes of a Red Cross Man. After discharge from the Navy I stayed in Los Angeles with my sister Nancy and her husband Charles Montgomery. I got a job delivering frozen shrimp in a small factory in Los Angeles. Nancy and Charles lived right across from Los Angeles State College where I attended school for a couple of semesters. The job was kind of strange in that all the employees were Japanese women who spoke very little English. And I had just gotten back from two years in the Navy in Japan. The owner and his secretary were not Japanese.
The employees all wore paper hats over their hair and smocks and sat around a table filling boxes of breaded shrimp and putting them into bigger boxes and then I took them into the walk in freezer. I also took the frozen shrimp boxes and put them into a truck and drove them somewhere. I took the bus to and from work. One day I noticed a very small used-book store and walked in and saw the little book of poems Rhymes of a Red Cross Man by Robert W. Service. I liked the cover art. Service had been a Red Cross stretcher-bearer in WWI and the book was dedicated to his brother, who was a Lieutenant and was killed in the war. One day a year of so later I put the poem to music. I remember that I always started to cry at the dramatic end of the song and that it took maybe five or six times singing it before I could do so without crying.
I used to go to events in Berkeley called Teaton Tea Parties arranged by some people, one of them being Kevin Langdon. We would sit around in someone’s house and sing folk songs and drink a mulled warm red wine called Teaton Tea. It was great fun. And it was there that I got into performing the Jean Desprez ballad, which was almost ten minutes long. But in that environment often people would sing very long folk songs so it was not so unusual. Years later the song was inspiration for me putting many of the poems to music and recording the album War War War that is still a hit today, and it was one of the hits from that album. Especially in England where I sang it on the Old Gray Whistle Test TV show and at the Bath and Bikershaw Music Festivals.
I somehow had gotten to know Ed Denson, co-owner of Takoma Records with genius guitarist John Fahey, who started the school of the New American Guitar. ED knew about my little magazine Et Tu that I started when I was a student at LA State College and in the Folk Music Club. My wife Kathe designed the dove motif cover for that magazine. I put out about five issues, I am not sure exactly how many. I left the last copies of the magazine at the Jabberwocky Coffeehouse for sale and I don’t know what happened to them. The owner Bill Elhert, the Jolly Blue Giant, can’t remember either. Malvina Reynolds was an adviser on that magazine and I had sent copies to Pete Seeger. Malvina lived in Berkeley and I went to see her when I moved there and asked her to be an adviser and she said sure.
But Ed and I wanted to start a new Berkeley magazine about the folk music scene with articles and songs and schedules of what was happening. I knew another guy, Michael Beardslee, from a group therapy group I was going to. I knew Mike was an artist so I asked him to help with the artwork and the three of us formed DMB publications for Denson, McDonald, and Beardslee.We started making the magazine Rag Baby, which turned into Rag Baby Records.