The "Fish" Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag
|"The 'Fish' Cheer/I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"|
1968 U.S. picture sleeve
|Song by Country Joe and the Fish from the album I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die|
|Recorded||July 1967 – September 1967|
|Writer(s)||Country Joe McDonald|
"I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag" (also known as "The Fish Cheer") is a song by the American psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish, written by Country Joe McDonald, and first released as the opening track on the extended play, Rag Baby Talking Issue No. 1, in October 1965 (see 1965 in music). Musically structured in traditional ragtime, "The Fish Cheer"'s dark humor and satire made it one of the most recognized protest songs against the Vietnam War. Accordingly, critics cite the composition as a bona fide psychedelic rock song, and a classic of the counterculture era.
"The Fish Cheer" saw a more commercial release on the group's second album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die, which was distributed in November 1967. The song has been the topic of controversary and fame for the band since its release. An altered version of the rag that was performed in live performances, known as "The Fuck Cheer", subjugated Country Joe and the Fish to a television ban in 1968, for the vulgarity, but was applauded by concert-goers. In addition, the song was a favorite among the hippie culture, and was featured in McDonald's set list at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Decades later, McDonald had a lawsuit filed against him for allegedly infringing on the copyright of Kid Ory's tune, "Muskrat Ramble". McDonald denied these allegations and the suit was later dropped.
Composition and Rag Baby
Although the song achieved national notoriety when it was included on Country Joe and the Fish's second album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die, it was first composed and distributed two years prior. In 1965, Country Joe McDonald founded and edited for a local counterculture magazine in Berkeley, California, which he called Rag Baby - a Bay Area adaptation of the folk magazine Broadside. McDonald published four editions of the magazine, and sought to incorporate musical influences to support Rag Baby's left-wing message. To accomandate the issue, McDonald was inspired to distribute a "talking issue" of the magazine, an extended play called Rag Baby Talking Issue No. 1. In June 1965, an early incarnation of Country Joe and the Fish recorded an acoustic version of "The Fish Cheer", the later debut album track, "Superbird", and two other songs by local folk musician, Peter Krug at Arhoolie Records Studios, under the guidance of record producer Chris Strachwitz. According to McDonald, the rag was written in under 30 minutes with a conscious purpose of reflecting on the escalation of the Vietnam conflict, while he composed another song, "Who Am I", which was also relating to the US's increasing armed involvement. About 100 copies of the EP were pressed on McDonald's independent label and, were sold at Sproul Plaza in UC Berkeley, during a Teach-in, and in underground stores that stocked Rag Baby.
The song's lyrics are about placing blame on American politicians, high-level military officers, and industry corporations on starting the Vietnam War. McDonald composed "The Fish Cheer" in the summer of 1965, just as the U.S.'s military involvement was increasing, and was of intensively opposed by the young generation. It expresses discontent towards the process of conscription, through the use of dark humor, and culminating in a reflection of casualties of the war, as hinted in the satirical invitation to "be the first one on your block, to have your son come home in a box". In addition, the song features a signature chorus:
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,
Whoopie! We're all gonna die!
Album version and "The Fuck Cheer"
After a brief stint performing as a duo in Berkley, McDonald and Melton recruited more members and eventually signed a recording contract with Vanguard Records in December 1966. Inspired by the live performances of Bob Dylan and The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, the group became fully intertwined in electronic rock, and recorded a new electrified version of "The Fish Cheer" in Sierra Sound Laboratories, in February 1967. Initially, the song was going to be featured on Country Joe and the Fish's debut album, Electric Music for the Mind and Body, but record producer Sam Charters insisted that the track remain off the record. When the controversial composition, "Superbird", was not banned from airplay, "The Fish Cheer" was placed as the opening to their second album, I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die.
The song was a popular attraction in the band's live performance, and, in the summer of 1968, the first instance of slightly altered version known as "The Fuck Cheer" appeared in New York City at the Shaefer Summer Music Festival, among a crowd of nearly 10,000. Drummer Gary "Chicken" Hirsh suggested that the opening chorus spell out "fuck", which was positively received by younger listeners, and led to unexpected radio exposure of the album version on both alternative radio stations and AM radio. Although Hirsh has never explained why he made the change, writer James E. Perone has speculated in his book Songs of the Vietnam Conflict that it was a "rebellious counterculture political act demonstrating free speech rights in the mid-1960s". However, executives from The Ed Sullivan Show were present at the concert, and barred Country Joe and the Fish from their scheduled appearance and any future performances on the show.
On August 16, 1969, the second day of the Woodstock Festival, McDonald made an unexpected solo performance of "The Fuck Cheer" at the conclusion of his set list, after Ritchie Havens. McDonald was augmented with a Yamaha FG 150 guitar that he found and holstered with a rope. According to McDonald, "I went on with my guitar and it was like 'Here is this guy who's going to sing' but no one paid any attention. 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 if I went back on and did the cheer and he said yeah. So I went "Give me an F!", and they all yelled "F!" The audience receptively responded by cheering the "F-U-C-K" chant along with McDonald. The performance was featured on the Woodstock film, which included sing-a-long lyrical subtitles of the "The Fuck Cheer".
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, recorded by Louis Armstrong and His Hot Five in 1926. In 2005, a court dismissed the suit, holding that the Ory estate had waited too long to make the claim. If the action had been successful 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 filed. McDonald would have also been barred from ever performing the song again without the possibility of further damages.
Covers and features
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. It was also included as a bonus track on a reissue of his 1969 album Young vs. Old.
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.
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.
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!"
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).
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