#1098: Not So Sweet Martha Lorraine by Country Joe & The Fish
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.
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.
Vancouver first heard Country Joe and The Fish on March 26, 1967, held at Ceperley Meadow in Stanley Park. Country Joe was headlining Vancouver’s first Be-In. The Georgia Straight’s Charlie Smith references former Straight writer, Dave Watson, who wrote in 1997: “The Be-ins were more than just free concerts. They served as an opportunity to gather as a community, a means of keeping in touch, an annual general meeting for people who felt they were onto something that mainstream society wouldn’t give them credit for. The rest of the year, you might be a freak, some weirdo with long hair, the subject of derisive jokes, but at least at the Be-in you knew you weren’t alone. At the beginning, there was no industry to design, package, and market some form of channelled rebellion for you and your peers. That came later.” A CBC documentary about the Be-In phenomenon, featured Dr. James Tyhurst commenting on the psychological aspects of the hippie movement. He said in the documentary: “you put on these weird clothes, you put on way out stuff (video of people wearing flowers in their hair is show as he says this), and the ordinary person is frightened of it. Because they see these kids walking around in this strange, wacky, gear, painting their hair and doing things that just aren’t done.”
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.
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. In 1982, Country Joe was one of the performers at the Vancouver International Folk Festival in Jericho Beach Park. 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.
February 13, 2017
Bill Belmont, Country Joe MacDonald bio, Country Joe.com
Patrick Sauer, “Country Joe’s Obscene Truths,” New York Times, October 10, 2017
Mike Ragogna, “Woodyfest: An Interview With Country Joe McDonald, and Introducing the Bolts,” Huffington Post, July 13, 2012
Country Joe MacDonald, 1982 Vancouver Folk Festival Artists, Vancouver International Folk Festival
Charlie Smith, “Country Joe McDonald May be Back for Vancouver’s 50th Anniversary Be-In,” Georgia Straight, June 29, 2016
Human Be-In, CBC documentary, Spring, 1967
John Mackie, “This Week in History: 1967 A hairy horde descends on Stanley Park for an Easter Be-In,” Vancouver Sun, March 24, 2017.
“C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY,” CFUN 1410 AM, Vancouver, BC, August 19, 1967.
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