#1046: Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine by Country Joe & The Fish

Peak Month: August 1967
5 weeks on Vancouver’s CFUN chart
Peak Position #5
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ #98

In 1942 Joseph Allan McDonald was born in Washington, D. C. He was raised in the Los Angeles, California, suburb of El Monte. His parents, Florence and Worden, were members of the United States Communist Party and began to have difficulties with the authorities during the McCarthy years. In his home Joe was raised as what was termed at the time as a “red diaper baby.” The El Monte Legion Stadium was on the circuit for music groups of the era and Joe went to hear most of them. In the fall of 1965, Country Joe and the Fish was the creative fusion of a political device, necessity and entertainment.

On the Berkeley Campus the Free Speech Movement set up demonstrations to protest the Vietnam War at the Oakland Induction Center. This included arranging for entertainment before and after the march to the Center. Joe McDonald had recently recorded an Extended Play (EP) including two under the name of Country Joe and the Fish. This disc is considered to be the first self-produced recording to be used by a band as a form of promotion. It contained the original recorded version of the anti-war anthem “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag”.  The group was a loose collection of friends and acquaintances, performing mostly jug band-flavored material, most of it Joe’s.

The origin of the name came from the band’s manager, Ed Denson, who coined the phrase drawing from Mao’s saying about “the fish who swim in the sea of the people.” The Country Joe part referred to Joe’s parents having named Joe for Joseph Stalin, whose nickname during World War II was “Country Joe.”

The Fish were regulars at the Jabberwock coffee house on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, and at both the Avalon and the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. They also were self-promoters and in the weekly Berkeley Barb they took out a 52 week 1/4 page ad letting their fans know their upcoming concert dates, even if they were in Canada.

In December 1966 a contract was signed with Vanguard Records and they began to work on their first album, Electric Music For The Mind and Body. The anti-war “Fixin’ to Die Rag” was planned as a track on the album. However, Vanguard’s president Maynard Solomon worried it would become a “thorn in their side and prevent the band from getting any single play on the radio.” “Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine,” was released as the band’s first single from the album. It only made it to #98 on Billboard Hot 100, but became a staple of American college radio. It was a psychedelic song about a reclusive, intense, esoteric woman who is unpredictable and obsessed with death. The song’s abstract lyrical content caught on in Vancouver and the song climbed to #5.

Country Joe & The Fish - Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine 45 (Vanguard Canada).jpg

She hides in an attic concealed on a shelf
behind volumes of literature based on herself
and runs across the pages like some tiny elf.
Knowing that it’s hard to find
stuff way back in her mind,
winds up spending all of her time
trying to memorize every line.
Sweet Lorraine, ah sweet Lorraine.

Sweet lady of death wants me to die,
so she can come sit by my bedside and sigh,
and wipe away the tears from all my friends eyes.
Then softly she will explain
just exactly who was to blame
for causing me to go insane
and finally blow out my brain.
Sweet Lorraine, ah sweet Lorraine.

Well you know that it’s a shame and a pity
you were raised up in the city,
and you never learned nothing ’bout country ways.
Ah ’bout country ways.

The joy of life she dresses in black,
with celestial secrets engraved in her back,
and her face keeps flashing that she’s got the knack.
But you know when you look into her eyes
all she’s learned she’s had to memorize,
and the only way you’ll ever get her high
is to let her do her thing and then watch you die.
Sweet Lorraine, ah sweet Lorraine.

Now she’s the one who gives us all those magical things,
and reads us stories out of the I Ching.
Then she passes out a whole new basket of rings,
that when you put on your hand
makes you one of the Angel Band,
and gives you the power to be a man,
but what it does for her you never quite understand.
Sweet Lorraine, ah sweet Lorraine.

Well you know that it’s a shame and a pity
you were raised up in the city,
and you never learned nothing ’bout country ways.
Oh ’bout country ways, oh ’bout country ways
yeah about country ways, oh country ways…

Electric Music… and the follow-up album, I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die, stayed on Billboard‘s album charts for about two years. The tracks included the song “Janis” that was about the one year relationship Country Joe had with Janis Joplin after his first marriage dissolved in 1966.

Country Joe & The Fish continued to tour the “ballroom” circuit and colleges around America. They appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival and the film Revolution. In the summer of 1967, they were offered a series of gigs on the East Coast. They accepted and took with them a “light show.” This included rear-screen projections of images, slides and liquids, containing colors swirled in water and oil. This created paisley patterns on a screen suspended behind the band resulting in a virtual “psychedelic” experience. The New York City show at the Cafe Au Go-Go was the first time a light show had been brought to New York. By 1968 the band released a third album, Together. They toured Europe that fall and recorded their fourth album, Here We Are Again, in 1969.

In August 1969, Country Joe and The Fish were a last minute addition to the line-up at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair at Yasgur’s Farm in the village of White Lake, New York. The music festival became iconic and changed Joe’s career. The roads to the festival were clogged. The weather was terrible and due to the estimated 500,000 people who showed up, it was highly unfeasible for the performers to get to the farm, never mind get to the concert stage. On the opening Friday most performers were either trapped at their hotel, or trying to get to the stage area. It happened that Joe had found his way down to the stage to see what was going on. By coincidence, he was offstage at the precise moment Richie Havens ended his set. A guitar was found, a set was organized and after four or five songs, he decided to “do the Rag,” which he had intended to perform with the band later in the festival.

As an introduction to the “Rag” on The Fish’s second album, the band shouted in high school cheerleader fashion, “Gimmie an F, gimmie an I …” then “What’s that spell? What’s that spell?” etc. and the audience yells “FISH.” All very innocent, and a way for the audience to remember who was performing. But in the Summer of 1968, at the Shaefer Summer Festival in Woilman Rink in New York’s Central Park before about 10,000 people inside and about 10,000 people outside the fence, drummer Chicken Hirsh suggested altering the cheer to “gimmie an F-U-C-K”.  Also at Central Park that night were a number of executives from the Ed Sullivan Show. They had asked the band to appear on the show prior to Christmas. The following week they signed the contract, and sent in the agreed upon performance payment in full with a request: please don’t appear on the show — keep the money. They were also never invited back to the Shaefer Beer Festival. Back at Woodstock, when Joe yelled “Gimme an F!” at the end of the cheer the sound of half a million people at Woodstock yelling “fuck” was astounding as it was hard to believe. It was as if a rather large cross-section of America’s youth was telling their government and “the establishment” to “get stuffed.” Things were never the same, in more ways than one.

The band split up after six years in 1971. Country Joe continued to write and record, and has released 36 albums since his start as a solo artist in 1969. He appeared at Vancouver’s Chan Center in June 2006 in connection with the World Peace Forum and for Iraq War protesters at Camp Crawford near then President George W. Bush’s get-away in Texas.

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