Classic Tracks: Country Joe & The Fish "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"

Oct 1, 2011 9:00 AM, By Blair Jackson


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Country Joe & The Fish, 1967, clockwise from front: Joe McDonald, David Cohen, Gary

Country Joe & The Fish, 1967, clockwise from front: Joe McDonald, David Cohen, Gary "Chicken" Hirsch, Barry Melton and Bruce Barthol

In the public mind, the most famous version of Country Joe McDonald’s Vietnam War protest song, “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin-to-Die Rag,” is the one in the film Woodstock. Asked by festival promoters to kill some time between sets that afternoon in August 1969, McDonald picked up an acoustic guitar that was lying backstage and went out and played a solo set, closing with the already-famous obscene variation on “The Fish Cheer” (“Gimme an F…”) and then going into his anthem. The song galvanized a large swath of the massive crowd and, when the movie came out in the spring of 1970, became one of the most-loved parts of that epic film as a follow-the-bouncing-ball sing-along.

But the reason it was already well-known by the time of the Woodstock festival is that the song had already appeared as the lead track on Country Joe & The Fish’s second album (titled I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die) in November 1967, so it was already ingrained in the counterculture. The song itself dates back a couple of years before that, when McDonald was playing folk music around Berkeley, Calif., as part of the Berkeley String Quartet and a loose aggregation called the Instant Action Jug Band.

Engineer Ed Friedner in the 1960s

Engineer Ed Friedner in the 1960s

“I wrote ‘Fixin’-to-Die Rag’ in the summer of 1965 after I had been discharged from the U.S. Navy for several years,” McDonald wrote in 2000. “It just popped into my head one day and I finished it in 30 minutes. I did not have a conscious purpose in mind, although I had been working on another song about the Vietnam War called ‘Who Am I?’ for several days, so I had the war on my mind. [‘Fixin’-to-Die’] attempts to put blame for the war upon the politicians and leaders of the U.S. military and upon the industry that makes its money from war—but not upon those who had to fight the war, the soldiers. The song attempts to address the horror of going to war, with a dark, sarcastic form of humor called ‘GI humor.’”

McDonald’s song—the melody of which he adapted in part from a 1920s tune by Kid Ory called “Muskrat Ramble”—is filled with wry commentary and sarcasm: It calls for draftees to “put down your books and pick up a gun/We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”; for Wall Street to get into the act because “there’s plenty good money to be made/Supplying the Army with the tools of the trade”; and, most darkly of all, for parents to “pack your boys off to Vietnam” and “be the first one on your block/To have your boy come home in a box.”

The famous chorus goes: “And it’s one, two, three, what are we fighting for?/Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn, next stop is Vietnam/And it’s five, six, seven, open up the Pearly Gates/Well, there ain’t no time to wonder why/Whoopee! We’re all gonna die.”

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