The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag

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"The 'Fish' Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"
Song by Country Joe and the Fish
Released November 1967
Recorded July 1967 – September 1967
Genre Psychedelic rock, ragtime
Length 3:44
Label Vanguard
Writer Country Joe McDonald
Producer Samuel Charters
Country Joe and the Fish, Woodstock Reunion, 7 September 1979

"The 'Fish' Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" is an anti-Vietnam War protest song by Country Joe and the Fish from their 1967 album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die. It is sometimes referred to as the "Vietnam Song".

History[edit]

Writing and recording[edit]

"I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" was written by Country Joe McDonald in 1965, supposedly in less than 30 minutes.[1] He wrote the song for an anti-war play, and, within 60 days, had it recorded in Berkeley, California at Arhoolie Records' studios. McDonald stated, "...we'd recorded it and were selling it at a Teach-in for 50 cents for a 7-in EP".[2] The EP McDonald mentions is called Rag Baby: Songs of Opposition , and 50 to 100 copies were produced.[3] This version was meant to be more folk-orientated compared to the psychedelic version released by the band that added more electronic instrumentals.[4] It was due to be released the same year as the group's first album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, but Vanguard Records vetoed it. The song eventually became the title track of their second album (both albums released in 1967) after Vanguard noticed the reaction to the first album and the track "Super Bird" was not banned.[5]

The first known instance of the F-U-C-K cheer version came in New York at the Shaefer Summer Music Festival in 1968. In front of nearly 10,000 people, "Chicken" Hirsh suggested the band change the cheer from "F-I-S-H" to "F-U-C-K".[6] No one, as far as the band knows, asked why the band decided to change the beginning, but from that point it became standard. Executive producers from The Ed Sullivan Show were present. The band was booked to perform for the show, but after the festival it was cancelled; the band was still paid as if they had performed.[7]

Woodstock performance[edit]

Country Joe gave an unexpected and unplanned solo performance of the song on the stage of the 1969 Woodstock Festival, as a stop-gap between two other performers. He used a Yamaha FG 150 acoustic guitar, left lying around the back of the stage, with a rope used as a makeshift strap. In the Woodstock: Now & Then documentary, he said that he was unprepared and used the excuse of not having a guitar to try to not play, and the Yamaha was given to him. He then said he couldn't play without a guitar strap, at which time the rope was tied to the guitar.[8]

Country Joe reported being paralyzed by stage fright given the sheer size of the audience,[9] but then noticed that most of it was not paying any attention to him. McDonald explains, "I played 'Janis' and 'Tennessee Stud' and then I walked off the stage. I asked my tour manager if he thought it would be OK to go back on stage and did the cheer and he said yeah. So I went..."[2] He managed to gain wide and steady attention by giving his "Fuck Cheer".[5]

The song was never a big hit, but was nonetheless well-known, and in the Woodstock film the audience can clearly be heard singing along. In that 1970 documentary, a sing-a-long style bouncing ball follows the lyrics subtitled on-screen. Country Joe further taunted his audience by saying:

These insults were welcomed with applause.

Copyright lawsuit[edit]

In 2001, the heirs of New Orleans jazz trombonist Kid Ory launched a lawsuit against Country Joe McDonald, claiming that the music of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" constituted plagiarism of "Muskrat Ramble", a number by Ory[10][11] recorded by Louis Armstrong & his Hot Five in 1926. A 2005 judgment ruled in McDonald's favor, claiming that Ory had waited too long to make the claim. If the claim had been passed, Country Joe McDonald would have been required, under law, to pay $150,000 for each live performance of the song in the three years since the lawsuit was issued. McDonald would have also been barred from ever performing the song again without the threat of further fines.[12]

Music and lyrics[edit]

The guitar accompaniment uses G chords, the secondary dominant A chords, and E chords. It is usually played with a capo on the 2nd or 3rd fret, so that the effective tonality is B (like in the studio version), or A (in the live version).[13] Musically, the song is very similar to the old jazz standard "Muskrat Ramble" (see above section). To add to the dark humor of the composition, the band utilizes several sound effects generated from horns and kazoos.[14]

The song begins with a "Fish Cheer", in which the band spells out the word "F-I-S-H" in the manner of cheerleaders at American football games ("Give me an F", etc.).[15] The "Fish Cheer" later gave way to the "Fuck Cheer", winning widespread approval from audiences and disapproval from others.[5] In 1970, Country Joe was arrested for giving the "Fish Cheer" in public, and was charged with obscenity.

The text of the song is an ironic invitation for young and able men to join in the Vietnam War. It culminates in urging parents to send their children to war as soon as possible, so as to have a chance to be "first on the block" to see their son coming back "in a box". It also features a signature chorus of:

The album version ends with the sound of several light machine guns firing and a final explosion, evoking the dropping of another atomic bomb.

Covers and features[edit]

Pete Seeger covered the song in 1970. There were initially plans to release his version as a single, and indeed some copies were sent out to DJs, but according to Seeger, distributors refused to handle it, and it was never officially released. It eventually found its way onto the internet.[16] It was also included as a bonus track on a reissue of his 1969 album Young vs. Old.[17]

McDonald performed part of the song while playing a folksinging hippie named "Joaquin" in the Tales of the City TV miniseries.[18]

The song was regularly broadcast into Hỏa Lò Prison (the "Hanoi Hilton"), in North Vietnam, to American prisoners of war by their captors. The prisoners later reported it actually boosted their morale as they sang along.[19]

The Passion Killers, comprising several members of the band Chumbawamba, covered the song with modified lyrics on their 1991 single, "Whoopee! We're All Gonna Die!", as a protest against the first Gulf War.[1][20]

Japanese band Omoide Hatoba included a 40-second-long cover on their 1992 album Black Hawaii, with the title reading "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fix-in-to-Die Rag." Sung by Public Bath Records' David Hopkins, it consists of the intro, first verse, chorus, and the chorus starting to repeat when Seiichi Yamamoto cuts it off by shouting "Next!"

Swedish rock singer Svante Karlsson (sv) covered it in 2003 on his album Autograph. This version features a solo performed by legendary guitarist Albert Lee.

The song has been featured in the films Woodstock (1970), More American Graffiti (1979), Purple Haze (1982), and Hamburger Hill (1987), and the HBO miniseries Generation Kill (2008). It was also featured in the TV show The Wonder Years, in the season 2 episode, titled "Walk Out" (1989).

It was referenced on the 2008 edition of the AP United States History exam.[21]

See also[edit]

References[edit]