A Songwriter Recalls the Origins and Impact of an Antiwar Anthem
After serving in the Navy, Joe McDonald moved to Berkeley, California, as the anti-Vietnam War movement was beginning to pick up momentum. He recorded "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die-Rag" under the name "Country Joe and the Fish"; the song gradually became an anthem for the antiwar movement, particularly after McDonald performed it at the Woodstock festival in 1969.
I rolled into Berkeley in the summer of 1965 at the end of the Free Speech movement and the beginning of the really visible anti-Vietnam War movement. I fell into a very rich cultural and political scene, and began working on some songs for an anti-Vietnam play by Nina Serrano. One day, I sat back, strummed a few things on my guitar, and this song just popped into my head really quickly.
I'd formed this skiffle band and a few months later in October of 1965 we recorded the "Fixin'-to-Die-Rag." … We pressed a hundred of those discs and sold them for about fifty cents. I sold a few copies at the second Berkeley teach-in on the Vietnam War…
"Fixin'-to-Die" was hated by top brass and the prowar people who were safe. It was also hated by some of the rank-and-file, but as the years went on and the war went on, I don't think there were many military people from that era who disliked the song. I was surprised to find out that it was sung and played in Vietnam by American soldiers. And years later I also met Phil Butler, who was a POW in North Vietnam for seven years. He told me Hanoi Hannah [the English-speaking propaganda broadcaster for Radio Hanoi] used to pump the song into the Hanoi Hilton [Hoa Lo Prison]. The North Vietnamese thought it fit for their party line. Phil told me when they played "Fixin'-to-Die-Rag" the prisoners would smile and hum along. It was a morale booster for the American prisoners. The Vietnamese never understood that. The French-educated Vietnamese who were running the Communist party during the war thought that they understood Americans because they had studied Jeffersonian democracy, but the song contains something which I think is unique on this planet – an American sense of humor…
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;
There ain't no time to wonder why,
Whoopie – we're all gonna die!
Interviewer | Christian G. Appy
Interviewee | Joe McDonald
Rights | Used by permission of Chris Appy. For on-line information about other Penguin Group (USA) books and authors, see the Internet website at: http://www.penguin.com.
Item Type | Oral History
Cite This document | “A Songwriter Recalls the Origins and Impact of an Antiwar Anthem,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed May 26, 2020, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1013.