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Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Berkeley String Quartet


                 The Berkeley String Quartet

           In the summer of 1965 I decided to drop out of Los Angeles State College and move to San Francisco to become a folk singer. I had joined the folk music club at LA State and started a magazine called ET TU which was to become RAG BABY MAGAZINE when I got to Berkeley. I recorded an LP with Blair Hardman titled GOODBYE BLUES after a song I wrote about leaving with the same title. We had ten copies made. I kept five and Blair kept five. We had played quite a bit together before that and were both members of the folk song club. Our playing  included a trip to Pershing Square in downtown LA where we played for the homeless people hanging around there and ate at the Salvation Army. I remember they had salmon. I liked it. I imagined I was back on the road again like my father and Woody Guthrie. 

      I was married to Kathe Ann Werum and we traveled together up to San Francisco. It was too big so we stayed with her uncle and aunt Larry and Virginia Horrowitz in Lafayette just outside of Berkeley. Larry Horrowitz told me I should go onto Get Chiaritto's Midnight Special radio show in Berkeley on KPFA radio. I did and fell in love with Berkeley. We moved there. I continued my magazine in Berkeley and renamed it Rag Baby Magazine. Then one day Ed Denson and Mike Beardslee and I did not have copy for the magazine so we recorded a talking issue on a seven inch vinyl and called it RAG BABY RECORDS.  This was the first "I-Feel-Like I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" recording and we called the skiffle band that played Country Joe and The Fish.

       Kathy and I got an upstairs flat on old Grove Street near the Black and White Liquor store at Ashby and Grove. The downstairs neighbor was Carl Shrager and Toby Lighthauser. They sang together. Carl played guitar and wrote songs. I started going to the Jabberwolk coffee house , and met Ed Denson, Bill Steele, and Bob Cooper. Ed Denson and I along with Michael Berdslee started Rag Baby magazine. Ed would later manage Country Joe and The Fish. Bill Steele made an album and wrote a song called "Garbage" that was sung by lots of people including Pete Seeger. Bill played washtub bass. Bob Cooper played 12-string guitar.

      The four of us formed the group the Berkeley String Quartet. We played the Drinking Gourd, the Coffee Gallery, and other venues in San Francisco. The photo was taken on Sproul Steps on the University of California, Berkeley campus. I don't remember who took the photo. At the left you can see my guitar case with collage all over it. Part of the collage is a headline saying "Kennedy Slain." That gives you a time frame. Also a centerfold from Playboy magazine. I am playing an F-hole Epiphone guitar that I bought from Jon Lundberg of Lundberg�s guitars in Berkeley on Dwight Way where I worked and learned to repair guitars.
       A few years ago someone sent me CDs of these performances that he said were recorded in his living room back then. I do not remember his name nor do I remember recording it. But I am very thankful to him for the memories and bringing to life that old group sound. I post it here for you to enjoy. There was also years ago a live recording from the Drinking Gourd but I lost it somewhere down the line.



Fact Sheet
It started out to be a "jug band," but it isn't.
The four young men in the group were interested in traditional American music, but what they played together didn't emerge as a purely "traditional" sound; they had too much formal musical training, too much city background.
On the other hand, they didn't end up forming another "slick" commercial folk group.
Instead, they produced something unclassifiable which they called the Berkeley String Quartet: four men playing guitars, banjos, an autoharp, a washtub bass, harmonicas, kazoos and odds and ends like washboards, stovepipes and salad spoons.
Their repertoire ranges from traditional American songs and tunes through popular songs of the twenties and thirties to contemporary folk and topical songs.
Their approaches to songs range from irreverence -- as in the performance of "Grandfather's Clock" to the tick-tock of a wooden spoon held across Joe McDonald's teeth -- to simplicity and sincerity -- as in the flowing rendition of Bob Dylan's "If Today Were Not an Endless Highway."
Audiences in San Francisco Bay Area coffeehouses have learned that the group follows no pattern except unpredicability, but there are at Ieast two rules underlying the group's arrangements:
One -- based on the fact that two members of the quartet have made extensive study of folklore and traditional music -- is that traditional material should be treated with respect.
The other -- a sort of echo ot Spike Jones -- is that music should be fun, both for the performers and the audience.
Why the Berkeley String Quartet? Because something about that famous city drew together four young men with widely divergent backgrounds.
Bob Cooper, whose suggestion to form a jug band gave birth to the group, came west from New York City where he had been immersed in folk music since the age of 14. He attended Hofstra University in Long Island and St. John's College in Anapolis, Md. In between, he went to sea, working his way around the east coast, the Gulf of Mexico and Northern Europe. A devotee of old-time country music as played by performers like Jimmy Rogers and the Carter Family, he performs on guitar, 12 string guitar and five-string banjo.
Joe McDonald came to Berkeley from Los Angeles with the stated intention of becoming a professional folk singer. He had studied classical trombone for nine years, played in a Dixieland jazz combo, and in high school led a rock 'n roll group. He carried his guitar through three years in the Navy, learning songs along the way, and occasionally writing his own.
Carl Shrager was formerly a classical pianist, performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra at the age of 15. He attended Oberlin College Conservatory of Music, where he discovered folk music. The discovery led him from Oberlin to Berkeley, and then to some 50,000 miles of travel through every state and nearly every city in America. He performs on guitar, autoharp and assorted home made rhythm instruments, and has composed original ballads and love songs.
Bill Steele, who provides the musical foundation for the group on washtub bass, came to the Bay Area five years ago from upstate New York, where he had encountered folk music and learned to play guitar and banjo in the Cornell University Folk Song Club. He was at one time editor of a small newspaper and currently pursues a career as a freelance writer, specializing in science articles for young people's magazines.



Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Bacon and Day Senorita guitar

John Fahey album cover with him holding the Bacon and Day Senorita guitar

    The Bacon and Day banjo company made a few guitars they called Senorita. No one seems to know how many of them were made. This was maybe during the 1940's. The Senoritas were a bit different. They had one that was quite elaborate with stones and inlays and color and one that was plainer. They were bigger than a parlor size but not as big as a dread naught size. When I first came to Berkeley in the summer of 1965 I worked for a while in Lundberg's Guitar shop. Jon and Dierdre Lundberg moved from the Midwest to Berkeley in 1960 with the intention of starting a guitar shop in San Francisco. After talking with Barry Olivier at his guitar shop near the University of California campus above Telegraph Avenue they opened Fretted Instruments their shop on Dwight Way in Berkeley just above Shattuck Avenue it became a haven for all people who played steel string wooden instruments for decades.

       When I moved to Berkeley in the summer of 1965 I found a job working the counter of Lundbergs' and helping and learning about guitar repairs from Jon Lundberg. This was before Country Joe and The Fish. I met Ed Denson who owned Tacoma Records with John Fahey. The label release Johns' first ground breaking guitar instrumental LP's. John lived in Los Angeles but would often come to Berkeley. I also became the boyfriend of Pat Sullivan. Pat Sullivan had been girlfriend of John Fahey. Pat and John and Ed all came from a town back east and knew each other well. Pat played the guitar very well in the many folk styles that everyone was trying to play back in the early sixties.

            Below is a sound file video of a mystery person playing his brand new ARK New Era Senorita, enjoy!

         John bought a Bacon and Day Senorita from Jon Lundberg and that guitar is seen on the cover of the album above. The guitar came back to Jon Lundberg and I bought it in 1970. Stefan Grossman also owned the guitar at one point. Later I found out through Bill Belmont who was "managing" my career that Dougal Stermer (sp) had and wanted to sell another Senorita. I bought his. It was not as fancy as the other one. Less ornate. A few years later I sold both guitars through Sam "Fat Dog" Cohen of Subway Guitars in Berkeley. It was something I have regretted for years.

      About two years ago I was playing a gig at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists hall at Cedar and Bonita. On the show was Henry Kaiser and he showed me a guitar made for him by a guitar maker named Tony Klassen.  He had a history of making classic steel string guitar replicas under his own name. They were perfect. Henry told me that Tony had just found a Senorita just like the one I had and had sold and asked if I wanted him to make me one.

      I contacted Tony and made a deal for him to make me one. He made three. One for Henry Kaiser. One for Stefan Grossman. And one for me. Those are the pictures above of the brand new ARK New Era Senorita.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Fete de la Humanite/Woodstock/Barry/Lundberg's


It came to pass during the All Star Band years that as part of a European tour we were hired by the Communist Party of France to perform at its huge outdoor concert in Paris called Fête de la Humanité. The Communist Party is no big deal in France, nothing like America where it is hated and feared. It is part of the mainstream fabric of French life and has been for years. Also playing on the show were the English rock band The Who.
            A few weeks before the concert while driving in our tour van to Marseilles, France, guitarist Phil Marsh (Cleanliness and Goodliness Skiffle Band, Energy Crisis) said he felt ill. In Marseilles he remained in his room unable to even get out of bed. I went to visit him and see how he serious it was. I remembered that somewhere I had heard if you were lying on your back and could not sit up without extreme pain, it was appendicitis. So I asked Phil to sit up. He tried and fell back in tears and terrible pain. I concluded yes, it was appendicitis and called the hospital.They said they would send an ambulance. I told Phil and went downstairs to the lobby to wait for them to arrive.
            I had been going in and out of his room checking on him for sometime. The door to his room was left open. I left the key downstairs with the front desk. I had asked the front desk to call for the ambulance. But the person at the front desk did not know that. It was another person. I decided to go back upstairs and keep Phil company. When I walked past the front desk the concierge asked me, “Where are you going?”
            I told him the room number. He looked down to where the keys were kept and told me, “There is no one in that room.” I said, “Of course there is.” He said, “No, there is not. You see the key is here.” He held up the key to show me, then said, “When the key is at the front desk the person is gone. When the key is gone the person is in their room.”
            I said, “I don’t know what the hell you are talking about. My friend is up there with an appendicitis attack and the hospital is coming to get him any minute now.” He said, “There is a French way and an American way and I tell you there is no one up in the room because the key is here.”
All Star Band

            I just walked past him and went up to the room. He followed me up and when he saw that Phil was really in the room he stuck the key in the door so that now things were in their proper order.
            Soon afterwards they took Phil away to a French hospital. I will never forget his sad face, streaming with tears, as they put him on the stretcher into the ambulance. He spoke almost no French and they spoke almost no English. But I had no choice, the tour had to go on, and Phil had to stay and get operated on.
But here is Paris a week later Phil was playing with us in a wheelchair, happy to be back with his friends and playing music in the band.
            We did our sound check and it sounded very good. But at show time the sound was small and tinny and, well, terrible. I could not understand it. Afterwards Roger Daltry of the Who band stopped by the dressing room and asked, “Why didn’t you use our sound system?” Well, I had no idea that there were two sound systems and I realized that for whatever reasons we had been screwed. It was usual for managers and band crews, who are very competitive, to not give a break of any kind to the other acts on the show. I just assumed that the promoters, the French Communist Party in this case, had one sound system, which they probably did. But it seemed that The Who had brought their own super sound system in addition to the one provided and hooked it all up alongside the other one. I had always marveled at the huge sound they got onstage. We sure sounded small compared to them that day and that seemed to be by plan.
            During The Who’s set, a guy came into our little dressing room and asked me if I wanted to smoke some grass. I said sure. I was the only person there as the band had all gone off other places. It was pretty strong stuff and we got very stoned. As we were just sitting around being stoned there was a knock on the door and I opened it up to find a wild-eyed woman fan asking, “Is Country Joe here?” I did not want to talk with her, so as evil as it sounds I pointed behind me and said, “Sure he’s right back there,” and then left and went outside.
            She quickly ran inside and five or ten minutes passed as I was enjoying the fresh air and being ignored. I could not help wondering what was going on in the dressing room. Suddenly the door flew open and the guy ran out yelling, “I am not him” to the woman who followed him out into and through the crowd. It was great fun! I figured she must really be a nut case if she did not even know what Country Joe looked like and she wanted to see him so bad. Through the rest of the day I saw her chasing him around the place.
            The Fête de la Humanité was a regular event, as I mentioned. Our event was uneventful except for the sound system and the groupie bit. But next year during Jerry Lee Lewis’s set, some Maoists in the audience caused a riot. I saw a video of the event. Jerry Lee was forced to flee the stage. Maoists in the back threw bottles toward the front which hit people in the head and they got mad and threw bottles which started landing on the stage and in the end flew through the drum kit and stopped the show.


I had a similar experience at the Woodstock Music Festival during a lull on Sunday when the Country Joe and The Fish band were to play. The audience was hot and thirsty. Backstage we got cases of beer and some bottles of champagne. I was on stage with Barry Melton when I decided to get some drinks and pass them out to the audience. The show was stopped for some reason; sound problems or something. So I brought some beer onstage and passed a few bottles of the champagne into the press pit in front of the stage. It was about five feet to the fence that separated the press pit from the audience. That same press pit Abby Hoffman had jumped into the day before to get away from Pete Townshend. So I was kinda passing out cans and gently tossing them over the press pit.
            People in the back caught on and were holding up their hands asking for some cans of drinks. So Barry got a stupid idea and started throwing them cans. Well, the cans were of course hitting people in the head but he did not stop and kept on throwing them. I mentioned that it was not a good idea but he kept on going. Soon the cans were coming back in our direction. It was obvious that people were throwing them at us and we had to get the hell offstage or get hit. So we did.
            When I first met Barry Melton on the steps of the University of California Berkeley Associated Student Union Building at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1965, I had no experience with recreational drugs. Barry was quite experienced in this way. He was only seventeen years old, which was to cause us some amusing problems later as a band, but had grown up in the Los Angeles area and sold, so the story goes, marijuana in high school. Bruce Barthol, who was also only seventeen years old and was soon to become the bass player with The Fish band, had used pot with Barry, or Barry sold it to Bruce.
            This was a bit odd because I had just gotten out of the US Navy and had spent two years in Japan with the Navy but I had never used pot or any other drugs. The reason that the song “Bass Strings” was called “Bass Strings” is that that was a code word Barry and Bruce used to refer to pot back when they were in high school together. So it seemed a perfect title for that song which was about LSD and pot.
            In 1965-66 I hung out and worked part-time learning instrument repair and helping at the front desk of Lundberg’s Guitar Shop in Berkeley. I will say more about the shop later. Jon and Deirdre were very special people to the folk and folk-rock music scene in Berkeley and nationally.
            I was sitting in their shop watching the counter and playing the guitar when the fingering for the blues that turned into “Bass Strings” happened and I wrote the song in a matter of minutes. Since it is all about feelings and taking drugs, considered by some to be one of the greatest 60s drug songs ever written, I guess that the band was just about to go electric and Dylan might have just gone electric.
Miss Cheryl's apartment

            Barry and Bruce were living in Miss Cheryl’s apartment house behind the Jabberwocky Coffeehouse in Berkeley. It was at this time that Barry introduced me to LSD and on my first acid trip around the apartment I watched a maple tree and marveled at the color of the fall leaves – something I had not seen in my hometown in LA County. I put that into my song “Porpoise Mouth,” which is all about myself and that first LSD trip.
Barry Melton

            I remember sitting on the back porch of our apartment and looking at a big tree. It turned into a big skeleton of a fish and had hundreds of naked people climbing all over it. I was thinking, “Wow, this is pretty weird. Must be a hallucination because it sure can’t be what is really there.” I thought of telling the guys to come and look but that was crazy as they could not see what I saw. So I just got up and went inside because it was a bit much.
Bruce Barthol

            We were on the top floor and Miss Cheryl lived on the bottom floor. She was a very nice and tolerant landlady. One day Barry came home with a houseguest named California Cal. California Cal dressed like an Indian guide kind of person with a brown leather outfit and a bowie knife. I didn’t want to mess with him. We had a record player up there in our apartment, the old-fashioned kind in a wooden case. One day I came home and California Cal was very proud because he had taken the record player apart and made a mobile from the parts. It was hanging in the kitchen. I thought, “Gee, this guy is as nutty as a fruitcake but he has a big knife.” So I told Barry. It wasn’t like I needed to tell him because he could see for himself. Thank God California Cal left and was never seen again.

            There was this famous blind black folksinger named Reverend Gary Davis who came to play at the Jabberwocky. Remember the club was right behind us. Or we were right behind it. So the Rev wound up staying at our place. Sleeping on a mattress on the floor like the rest of us. On night Barry came home and the Rev pulled a gun on him. Wow, blind man with a gun. He started yelling, “Who’s there?!” It took Barry a few minutes to calm him down and convince him that it was him and not somebody out to rip him off.

            After my marriage to Kathe Werum tanked, I needed a place to stay and was invited to share the apartment with Barry and Bruce. I shared a room with Bruce. He was very, how shall I say it, messy? There was nothing really but two mattresses on the floor. We each had a bit of clothes and guitars but that was it. I had just gotten out of the Navy, remember, where you are living in a very clean and tidy environment. I drew a line in the middle of the floor and told Bruce, “This is your side and this is my side.” I remember my side being clean and his side being really dirty. He did not mind. He was seventeen.

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.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chicago Trial

My Testimony at the Chicago Seven Conspiracy Trial


THE COURT, Judge Hoffman
MR. KUNSTLER, counsel for the defense
MR. SCHULTZ, counsel for the prosecution

SCENE: A courtroom in Chicago, January 19, 1970

THE CLERK: You will remove your gum, sir.
THE WITNESS: What gum?
THE CLERK: That you are chewing on.
THE WITNESS: I am afraid that I don't have any gum.
THE CLERK: You may be seated, sir.
MR. KUNSTLER: Would you state your full name, please?
THE WITNESS: Country Joe.
MR. KUNSTLER: What is your occupation?
THE WITNESS: I am a minister in the New Universal Life Church. I am a rock and roll star, I am a producer of phonograph records. Father, husband, leader of a rock and roll band. Singer, composer, poet, owner of a publishing company, and a few other things.
MR. KUNSTLER: Do you currently have a rock and roll band?
MR. KUNSTLER: What is the name of that band?
THE WITNESS: Country Joe and the Fish.
MR. SCHULTZ: For the record may we have the witness's full name? Country Joe is really not sufficient.
THE COURT: I am assuming that his Christian name is Country. He is under oath. He was asked his name.
MR. SCHULTZ: It might be the name that he uses and not the name that was originally his.
THE COURT: Is Country your first name?
THE COURT: That is your first name or Christian name, is that right?
THE WITNESS: Some people call me Country, yes.
THE COURT: What is your real name?
THE COURT: You say some people call you that. What is your real name, sir?
THE WITNESS: I am afraid I don't understand what real means.
THE COURT: What is the name -- were you baptized?
THE WITNESS: No I wasn't.
THE COURT: What were you called when you went to school as a child?
THE COURT: What was your family name?
THE COURT: And your family name is now McDonald, is that right?
THE WITNESS: Yes, it is.
THE COURT: How do you spell it?
THE WITNESS: M-c-D-o-n-a-l-d.
THE COURT: McDonald, that is what your family name is, is that right?
THE COURT: And you are familiarly known as Country Joe, is that right?
THE WITNESS: Country Joe McDonald, yes. Joseph sometimes.
MR. KUNSTLER: Can you identify this?
THE WITNESS: It is a phonograph record, it is our first LP.
MR. KUNSTLER: When you say your first LP, does that mean an LP of the rock and roll band known as Country Joe and the Fish?
THE WITNESS: Yes. And this is another one of our albums that we produced for Vanguard Records.
MR. KUNSTLER: How many other albums do you have that have been released?
THE WITNESS: We currently have five albums released, five LP's.
MR. KUNSTLER: I call your attention to -- let me withdraw that answer. Do you know Jerry Rubin?
THE COURT: No, not the answer. You withdraw that question.
MR. KUNSTLER: I mean withdraw the question.
THE COURT: I just wanted you to know I was listening to you.
MR. KUNSTLER: I just did it to see if you were.
THE COURT: You still call him Country Joe even though his name is McDonald?
MR. KUNSTLER: I know, your Honor, but he is known throughout the world as Country Joe.
THE COURT: That is what you say. I never heard of him.
MR. KUNSTLER: If your Honor would look at these-- [indicating the records]
THE COURT: I will not look at them. Besides that wouldn't prove that he is known throughout the world.
MR. KUNSTLER: [laughing] Are you known throughout the world as Country Joe?
MR. SCHULTZ: I object.
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER; Do you know Jerry Rubin?
THE WITNESS: Yes, I know Jerry Rubin.
MR. KUNSTLER: Can you identify him at the table?
THE WITNESS: He is the one with red pants on.
MR. KUNSTLER: When did you first meet Jerry Rubin?
THE WITNESS: I met Jerry Rubin in 1964, October 15, the march to end the war in Vietnam, the march held in Berkeley California,
MR. KUNSTLER: Did you participate in this march yourself?
MR. SCHULTZ: Objection, your honor.
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER: Now, I call your attention to Abbie Hoffman. Do you know him?
THE WITNESS: There he is. He is the handsome fellow with the handsome jacket on.
THE COURT: May I suggest to you, Mr. Witness, when you are asked to identify anybody here, either you may step down, you can point to him, or you may describe him by his apparel, but do not characterize him as being handsome or in any other such manner.
THE WITNESS: I am sorry. I have never been in a trial before.
THE COURT: I accept your apology.
MR. KUNSTLER: Do you recall when you first met Abbie Hoffman?
THE WITNESS: Yes, I first met Abbie Hoffman at the meeting in the Chelsea Hotel in New York. At that meeting was Irwin Silber, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, myself, my manager, Banana Ed Denson, Barbara Dane.
MR. KUNSTLER: Who is Irwin Silber?
THE WITNESS: He is the editor of a magazine called Sing Out a folk song magazine in New York. He is no longer the editor but he was. His wife-
MR. KUNSTLER: Who is Barbara Dane?
THE WITNESS: His wife, who is a very well known folk singer.
MR. KUNSTLER: Was there -- do you remember who else was there?
THE WITNESS: Let me see, Barbara Dane, Irwin Silver, Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Nancy Kunstler -- no, Nancy--
MR. KUNSTLER: You got the last name a little wrong.
THE WITNESS: That girl there, [points to Nancy] and several members of the band.
MR. KUNSTLER: When you say band, is that your band?
THE WITNESS: Yes, Country Joe and the Fish.
MR. KUNSTLER: Was there a discussion at the Chelsea Hotel?
THE WITNESS: We had a very long discussion. The meeting had been called to discuss the proposed Yippie! Convention in Chicago, to be held in Chicago. We never -- we hadn't heard much about it, and so we all met and we were staying at the Chelsea Hotel in New York and we met to discuss the Yippie! happening thing in Chicago. Jerry Rubin said to me, "We feel that the Democratic Convention being held in Chicago is a very important political event in the country, and that it represents fascist forces in America, oppression of minority groups, continuation of the war in Vietnam, and actual celebration of death, that the Democratic Convention being held in Chicago will be a celebration of death in that all of those things which are held in high esteem by the establishment, political parties in this country are those things which represent death and oppression," and that it was the responsibility of those people, young people, who are concerned with freedom in America to try to do something in Chicago which would counter-balance the evil and negative vibrations from the Democratic Convention and that since I had written the Vietnam Rag, which has become the most well known song against the war in Vietnam, and that my group was very influential with young people of America, amongst the youth, that it was very important that we try to say something in Chicago which would be positive, natural, human, and loving, in order to let the people of America know that there are people in America who are not tripped out on ways of thinking which result only in oppression and fear, paranoia and death.
At that point Abbie Hoffman wanted to know what the song was, and then I -- then I sang the song. It goes:
[he sings] "And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam. And it's --"
THE COURT: No, no, no, Mr. Witness. No singing.
THE WITNESS: "five, six, seven -- "
THE COURT: Mr. Marshal --
[the marshal goes over to Country Joe and puts his hand on Joe's chin to close his mouth]
THE MARSHAL: The Judge is talking.
THE COURT: No singing is permitted in the courtroom. You are here to answer questions. You may continue telling about this conversation.
Q. Can you recite the song? Do you think you can do that?
A. Yes, The chorus of the song is:
"And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for? Don't ask me, I don't give a damn. The next stop is Vietnam.
"And it's five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates. There ain't no time to wonder why -- whoopie -- we're all gonna die.
"Come on, all of you big strong men. Uncle Sam needs your help again. He's got himself in a terrible jam, way dawn yonder in Vietnam.
"So put down your books and pick up a gun. Come on, we're all going to have a lot ot fun. Come on, Generals, let's move fast. Your big chance has come at last. Now you can go out and get those reds because the only good commie is one that's dead, and you know that peace can only be won when you've blown them all to kingdom come.
"Come on, Wall Street, don't be slow. Why, man, this is war au go go. There's plenty good money to be made by supplying the army with the tools of the trade. But just hope and pray, if they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Viet Cong.
"Come on, mothers throughout the land, pack your boys off to Vietnam. Come on, fathers, don't hesitate. Send your sons off before it's too late. You can be the first one on your block to have your boy come home in a box."
Q. Now was there any further conversation that you can recall?
A. Yes, there was a lot of conversation. The Abbie Hoffman said that he liked the song very much. I said that I would try to -- I said that I thought that it was a good idea to try to do something positive to counter-balance all the negative political vibrations. We asked Jerry Rubin where the festival was going to be held. Jerry Rubin said it was going to be held in the park. My manager, Ed Denson, asked if permits had been secured and explained that it was very necessary for the bands involved that they have permits, because without a permit it would probably be impossible to get a good P. A. system, a good stage, and organization established so that a concert could actually happen, and that if there were no permits, the bands involved would probably get arrested. There would be police action, and we wanted to avoid that at all costs.
Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman then both agreed. They said that they were in the process of beginning to start work towards getting permits that we could do what we wanted to do in a legal way.
I then suggested that we get lots of other bands to participate. Jerry Rubin asked if it were possible for me to contact other bands and talk to them and possibly try to get some support for a Yippie! festival in Chicago.
I said that I would do that, that-- then I asked them to further elaborate on the festival.
Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman talked about the possibilities of getting famous movie stars, famous Black entertainers, famous political figures, to come, getting people to provide medical assistance, because in every gathering of large people there is a need for medical assistance, to get food so that everyone would have food, to try to secure permission for people to sleep in the parks or in the beaches close by, and we eventually were convinced in his conversation that there was a real possibility of putting on a positive musical festival and celebration for life in Chicago, and the conclusion of our discussion was that we would put our support behind the festival to be held in Chicago at the time of the Democratic Convention.
Q. Do you remember, approximately when you next saw Jerry Rubin?
A. Yes, I saw Jerry Rubin at Stony Brook about two weeks after our meeting at the Chelsea Hotel.
Q. Who else was present, if you know names.
A. Tuli Kupferberg of the Fugs, and all the Fugs were there. A lot of just people working in the Yippie! Party were there, students, I believe some students from the campus, themselves, and a lot of police were there, too, all lined up in a row, refusing to let us in.
Q. Can you describe how people that came to you were dressed, or some of them?
MR. SCHULTZ: Objection. What happened there is not relevant to this proceeding.
THE COURT: Sustain the objection.
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, one of the claims is that the Yippies-- the term "guerrilla theatre" has been used by Mr. Schultz and Mr. Foran on many occasions. We are trying to indicate what guerrilla theatre is and how the Yippies utilized it, and Stony Brook is one place, just before Chicago, when they did.
MR. SCHULTZ: If they will talk about Chicago, we have no objection, but not whatever this is at Stony Brook.
THE COURT: I sustain the objection.
BY MR. KUNSTLER: Do you remember what the next time that you saw Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin was, after Stony Brook?
A. Yes, I met with Abbie Hoffman. Jerry Rubin, Ed Sanders, Nancy, my wife Robin was there, at Jerry Rubin's apartment in the East Village in New York.
Q. Do you know approximately when that was?
A. Towards the end of April.
Q. In 1968?
A. Yes.
Q. Would you state what was said by whom?
A. Jerry Rubin asked me: how I was doing in getting response for the Yippie! Festival. I informed him that since our original meeting at the Chelsea Hote1 I had talked to people and I had talked to other bands, and I found that they were constantly relating to me stories of orders in Chicago for the police to shoot on sight in regards to the racial riots of that month, that at least two thousand civilian vigilantes were being authorized as deputies to arrest all trouble makers around the convention, that the National Guard was being assembled to prevent people from getting close to the convention hall, that the sewers of Chicago were being prepared as dungeons to put demonstrators in, that generally the vibrations around Chicago were very, very uptight and getting worse, that there was a possibility of incredible brutality, maliciousness, and fascistic type tactics on the part of the police force, and that I was having a hard time getting people to be responsive to the possibilities of anything positive happening in Chicago during the Democratic Convention.
Jerry Rubin then asked me if I had any ideas about other types of people that we could have come to the convention.
I suggested circus performers, jugglers, clowns, the Harlem Globe Trotters, and many other things of that nature - positive groups and entertainment groups that could possibly show up in Chicago.
Q. Now, Country Joe, I ask you whether you came to Chicago during Convention Week?
A. Yes. It was just a few days before the beginning of the convention and it was on Friday because we played on Friday and Saturday. We arrived Friday on the afternoon.
Q. Where did you play?
A. We played at the Electric Theatre, an establishment owned by Aaron Russo.
Q. At any time on Friday or Saturday did you have occasion to meet with Jerry Rubin or Abbie Hoffman?
A. Yes, I met with both of them at the Electric Theatre on Saturday.
Q. Would you state what was said and who said it?
A. Abbie Hoffman said to me "Are you going to be in the Festival?" I said to Abbie Hoffman, "No, I was not going to be in the Festival because the vibrations in the town were so incredibly vicious that I felt it was impossible to avoid violence on the part of the police and the authorities in Chicago." I felt that my group's symbolic support of the Festival had to be withdrawn because there would be a possibility that people would follow us to the Festival and be clubbed and Maced and tear-gassed by the police and that the possibility of anything positive or loving or good coming out of that city at that time was impossible, and that I had no choice but to withdraw my support.
Q. Did they say anything about that, either one?
A. Abbie Hoffman said that perhaps I could come down to the park and see what was going on there because there hadn't been very much violence at all and it looked as though it might be very groovy. I said that I would try to come down the next morning, that would be Sunday morning, I would try to come down Sunday morning and see, but that I doubted very, very much if we could support or participate in the Yippie! festival.
Q. Did you get down on Sunday to Lincoln Park?
A. No, I did not. We left. We left in a hurry.
Q. Country Joe, the question is what happened to you? Don't do any supposing about anything, just what happened to you, if anything.
A. I performed two sets for the audience at the Electric Theatre. I left the Electric Theatre and on the way out was insulted by some of the people standing outside, drunk motorcyclists.
Q. And what happened?
A. They insulted us, we tried to be polite and avoided a violent conflict and went to our car, got in our car, drove to the Lake Shore Hotel on the Lake where we were staying, got out of our car, walked into the lobby of the hotel. We were followed by three men about my age, with crewcuts, what I would say straight looking with slacks and shirts, who were drunk. One of them began yelling about having served in Vietnam and wanted to know how I could walk around the streets looking like--
MR. SCHULTZ: I object, Mr. Kunstler stated that -- he assured the Court this was relevant. The witness has explained it now for three or four minutes and I see no relevance.
THE COURT: He got down to the Lake Shore Drive Hotel and he is telling about some drunken man. That is nothing that happened to him.
MR. KUNSTLER: Well, an incident in a moment will happen to him.
THE COURT: He may continue.
[Judge Hoffman leans over -- he is interested in what happened to Country Joe]
Q. Then what happened?
A. Then I attempted to get into the elevator with my organist, David Cohen, and I was struck in the face by this person, my nose was fractured. My organist attempted to get out of the elevator to get to a phone to call the police. He was then struck in the face. They scuffled about in the lobby. Then all three of them ran out the back door. The police were called, newspapers were called, I was taken to the hospital by the police, and they fixed my fractured nose the best they could.
MR. KUNSTLER: The witness is with you.
MR. SCHULTZ: Thank you, Mr. Kunstler.
MR. KUNSTLER: My pleasure.
Q. You don't mind if I call you Mr. McDonald, do you Mr. McDonald?
A. No, sir.
Q. Mr. McDonald, you said that on a particular occasion you told Rubin about shooting to kill. Do you remember that in your testimony?
A. I hate to say that I said something that I didn't say -- the way that you are wording it -- Perhaps you could word it a different way.
Q. What did you say?
MR. KUNSTLER: Your Honor, he wants to finish to answer to the question.
BY MR. SCHULTZ: What did you say about shoot to kill?
Q. I said that there were very negative responses from my friends and people in what is termed the underground youth community in response to Mayor Daley's order to the police to shoot to kill as far as rioters were concerned in the ghetto of Chicago in the riots of April.
Q. Did you tell Rubin that what the Mayor said was to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone who was in the process of throwing a Molotov Cocktail at a building?
A. Yes, I did.
[Schultz tries to trip up Joe - Mayor Daley's shoot to kill order was given on April 15th]
Q. That is how you put it, right? Now, by the way, when was that conversation?
A. That conversation was in Jerry Rubin's apartment about a month - no two months after - it was April, late April.
Q. About when in April was it, please?
A. If you take the month and divide it up in four parts, it is in the third fourth.
Q. Did they (Hoffman and Rubin) tell you that during the time they were negotiating with the authorities to get permits, some of the things that Hoffman said in his writings and orally were that during the convention the people would fight the police? Did they say that?
A. Gosh, that's really a strange question. Perhaps you could say it again.
Q. I am asking you as to whether or not Rubin and Hoffman told you that when they were negotiating for permits during that period one of the things that they were stating was that people would fight the police during the convention?
A. They couldn't say that because that would be a lie, you know.
Q. No, I am asking you whether or not one of them said that he had said that or written that?
A. Of course not.
Q. Or that they had said that there would be public fornication during the convention week out in the parks?
A. Your Honor, I deal in words, that is my job. I write songs. I have been doing that for about ten years. Certain words have certain connotations and multi-meanings to them, and in the world that I live in, in what is probably called the hippie underground, when we refer to fornication, we are not really referring to the actual sexual act of fornication at all times; we are referring to a spiritual togetherness that can be done without physical contact at all.
Q. Let me ask you this way: did they tell you when they were negotiating with public officials that they told the public official that people during the convention would fuck in the parks? Did they tell you that?
A. I get arrested for saying that.
Q. Did they tell you that that is what they were doing in their negotiations, these were some of the things that they said?
A. That is ridiculous.
Q. They did say that, didn't they?
A. What did -- I don't want to trap myself. What did you say?
Q. You are not being trapped, I am asking you --
A. What did you say to me?
Q. I am asking you whether or not either of them told you that when they were trying to get permits and negotiating with the city?
A. This question implies that they did say that, doesn't it?
Q. They didn't, did they?
A. Well, doesn't it imply that, though?
Q. Yes, it does.
A. Well, for me to answer that question is for me to acknowledge the fact that you made an statement that is rational.
Q. Now I am asking you the question -- are you done?
A. Yes, I am done.
Q. I am asking you the question as to whether or not either of them told you that that is what they had said to city officials?
A. Your Honor, that is a leading question, I mean, really --
THE COURT: You may answer it, sir. I order you to answer the question. Read it to the witness.
[question read]
A. I can't remember that ever arising.
Q. Did Abbie Hoffman offer to pay you, by the way, for your playing in the park?
A. We made it known to him that we would do everything for free.
Q. You made it known to him, did you not, that the other musicians, if you could get them, were going to do it for nothing, without cost, isn't that right?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. Did you tell him that some of the other musicians were going to charge?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. Did you tell him that you were arranging with the other musicians for them to do it for nothing?
A. No, I never said that.
Q. Did you discuss with him what the other musicians were going to charge if they were going to charge?
A. No.
Q. Did you discuss payment of the other musicians with either Hoffman or Rubin?
A. I don't discuss money with my friends.
MR. SCHULTZ: Oh, I have no more questions, your honor.
THE COURT; You have no more questions?
THE COURT: Is there any redirect examination of this witness?
MR. KUNSTLER: I don't think so, your honor.
THE COURT: All right. You may go.
[witness excused]

I requested my FBI files and was sent this. I appealed for more than this and my appeal was denied. These two pages of my files document a phone call from San Francisco to Chicago via Washington D.C. at the time period of the Chicago trial validating our fears that the Country Joe and The Fish phone in San Francisco was indeed taped by the FBI.



H  O  M  E

Summer of 65

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:



             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
               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. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Veterans and Joan Baez

                                                  VETERANS AND JOAN BAEZ

         During the Vietnam War, I always thought that the group that made the most sense was the Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW). After all, they actually had been to Vietnam and participated in the fighting. They spoke from personal experience. Most people in the Peace Movement or supporting the war had no experience in the war and had never been to Vietnam.  

            Because I felt my family had been betrayed by the left wing, which never offered us support during the Un-American investigation and when my father lost his job, I had no love of the left.

            I was also at this time a U. S. Navy veteran, having served three years in the Navy Air Force. I enlisted after graduation from Arroyo High School in l959 in El Monte, California. I was walking by a Navy recruitment office and saw a poster that I liked. It was a picture of a sailor standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier holding a flag in each hand. The wind blew through his hair and whipped around the flags and his uniform. I thought I would look very good doing this and that girls would really like me. I was 17 years old.

            I think that I also was interested in proving that my family was patriotic. The whole FBI-congressional investigation into my family and their left-wing sympathies and the local publicity when my father pleaded the 5th Amendment and refused to cooperate had left a bad taste in my mouth.

            I did accomplish this: I served three years in the U.S. Navy Air Force. I did boot camp in San Diego, played in the Drum and Bugle Corps there, learned Air Traffic Control in the Navy School at Olathe, Kansas, served one and one half years at Naval Air Station Atsugi Japan in flight operations and six months on a gunnery range in Ibaraki Prefecture at a little village called Mito, and received an honorable discharge as a third class petty officer just before my 21st birthday in 1962.

            I didn’t hate the Vietnamese Communists or the American soldiers fighting the war. They were all just people fighting for their lives who had very little control over their lives. I hated the brass, the leaders of all sides who sat in comfortable offices and gave orders to workers. I hated the bosses in and out of uniform who really cared more for theory and philosophy than the rank and file, government officials of the left and right. I felt very comfortable with the working class Vietnam Veterans while most of the Peace Movement did not. I always helped them when I could and paid my own expenses to do so.

            In 1971 I gathered with a small group of people in a living room in Berkeley to watch a just-finished 16mm black and white film documenting an event where Vietnam Veterans confessed to what they felt were “war crimes.”  The event was called the Winter Soldier Investigation and the film was called the Winter Soldier Film. There were expenses from the making of the film that needed to be paid off. It was decided that Joan Baez and I would give a concert in San Francisco at the Cow Palace to help pay off these expenses and finish the film.

            I had never met Joan Baez before the concert. My family had attended a concert in Pasadena once to hear her sing. My father fell asleep and later said she “had a screechy voice.” He said the same thing about a relative of his who would sing at family events during his growing-up years. My sister and her husband Charles Montgomery had Joan’s first Vanguard folk albums when I lived with them after I got out of the Navy. I had listened to them many, many times. I liked those albums a lot. I later saw her perform at Big Sur at Esalon Institute. I wrote about that in a very angry way in my little magazine Rag Baby. But I had never had a conversation with her.

            The Cow Palace was full that day, probably due more to Joan than me, to say the least, as she was a big star. The setup was that we both were onstage together and took turns singing. We were both solo with acoustic guitars. She did some of her songs and then said to the audience, “I know you have heard some bad things about him but he is a nice guy so please give him a chance,” and then I got my turn to sing. Then we had an intermission.

            During the show I could hear some Vietnam Veterans in the stands yelling stuff. At intermission a Nam vet, Mike Oliver, came into my dressing room very upset because no one had announced what the benefit was for and that there was an upcoming demonstration against the war right there in San Francisco. He pleaded with me to tell the people. I agreed.

            After the intermission, back onstage, when it came time for my turn to sing, I told the audience about the Winter Soldier Film and the upcoming demonstration against the war. As I was talking Joan walked across the stage smiling and stood beside me as I talked and ground her boot into mine so that it actually hurt. To the audience it looked like a friendly gesture. Then she walked back to her microphone.

            At the end of the show the promoter Barry Olivier brought an enormous bouquet of flowers up onstage and gave them to Joan. The crowd cheered. She bowed and walked across the stage past me and threw the whole thing into my arms and went to her dressing room.

            Days later Michael Olivier called me to tell me the benefit showed no profit at all due to lots of expenses. I called up Joan and asked her how it could be that we filled the Cow Palace and made no money for the Winter Soldier Film. She yelled something to me about being condescending and hung up the phone. I called Michael and told him what happened. A few days later he called to tell me that Joan had given them $30 thousand, which paid for the production of the film. Joan never mentioned the incident to me.

            This passive-aggressive technique seemed to be her style. Years and years later, at the Bread and Roses Benefit Concert at the Greek Theatre on the University of California Berkeley campus to benefit her sister Mimi Fariña’s organization that brought music to those who could not get out, she drew blood.

        We were all in the dressing room area below the main level. There was a little room used as a dressing room. It was the only place you could get privacy. About 20 minutes before my set, Joan locked herself in that room and put on her “Bob Dylan” costume. I tried to get in to get ready for my set ...but no luck. Then she of course made a surprise appearance as Bob Dylan.

            After the show we all gathered for a group shot for Newsweek magazine. I was behind her in the group and put up two fingers in the old devil horns trick. Joan just reached up and grabbed my hand and dug her fingernails into my palm. To the camera it seemed again a loving gesture between old friends. When it was over I looked and she had drawn blood.

            I don’t mean to go on and on about the woman but I think my interaction with her was startling to me and memorable because I thought we had such a lot in common. At the Hollywood Bowl Woody Guthrie concert, Pete Seeger was lobbying to have the ensemble close the show singing I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag. During rehearsal I asked Joan if that happened if she might join in and do the “Fuck” cheer with me, as she had just been sharing some amazing facts with me about her sex life. “No,” she replied. “Joe, that would ruin my image.”

            Joan was a pacifist and married David Harris who went to jail for years rather than accept military service and kill. I was not a pacifist but did not feel that the killing in Vietnam was accomplishing anything. Joan and her sisters had a poster out with the words “Girls say no to boys who say yes,” implying that girls should not have sex with men who go into military service.

            I was ex-military and in fact did like having sex with girls at the time of the concert. I was married to Robin Menken and had a two-year-old daughter, Seven Ann. These issues seem trivial today but were quite emotional then. I do feel to this day that the Vietnam War America fought was wrong and that the soldiers who fought it were not to blame. I still feel that the Peace Movement was wrong to not embrace military personnel back then and today also. Many pacifists supported military personnel and also many military personnel were homosexual. Joan herself was to come out as a bisexual later on so the whole don’t-have-sex-with-boys thing seems a bit off now.

            But the fact is Joan did something. She was one of the only visible women who took a stand on the war and that is to her credit. It was such a divisive time that it is hard for us to imagine now.