Woody Guthrie lives through Country Joe McDonald
Anyone who has seen director Michael Wadleigh’s groundbreaking 1970 documentary "Woodstock," which captured the 1969 music and art fair in Bethel, N.Y., knows Country Joe McDonald.
He’s the guy who led the audience of more than 300,000 to scream out the "F" word in the "Fish Cheer" just before launching into the anti-Vietnam war song "I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag."
However, that three-and-a-half-minute bit only showed one small side of the former leader of the psychedelic band Country Joe & the Fish.
"Most people know me because of ‘Woodstock,’ but people are surprised to find that I’m a military veteran," said McDonald during a phone call from his home in Berkeley, Calif. "I joined the Navy when I was 17, but people, thanks to that song, tend to think of me as anti-military."
Many people also don’t know that McDonald grew up in a family that was once a member of the American Communist Party.
"At one time, we were investigated by the FBI," he said. "People are shocked to hear that."
When McDonald plays the Egyptian Theatre on Saturday, Sept. 8, the audience will see and hear another side of the singer and songwriter when he brings his "Tribute to Woody Guthrie" to town.
The concert is comprised of Guthrie’s songs, McDonald songs and other songs and stories that emerged out of Oklahoma during the Depression Era.
"It all started back in 1969, when I went to Nashville and made an album that consisted of Woody Guthrie songs," McDonald said. "The album came as an accident because I had gone to originally record a country and western album. We completed that project so quickly that I dreamed up the idea to do a Woody Guthrie tribute album, because nobody had done one at that time."
Fast forwarding to 2001, McDonald, who just completed a new CD called "Time Flies ," was contacted by the John Steinbeck Center in Salinas, Calif.
The Center celebrates the late author Steinbeck who wrote novels about the Oklahoma Dust-Bowl refugees, which Guthrie sang about.
Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962 and his book, "Grapes of Wrath" won the Pulitzer Prize in 1940.
"They were getting ready to show Woody Guthrie exhibit called ‘This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie’ that featured all his memorabilia coming from the Smithsonian Institute," McDonald said. "They asked me to do a live show to promote the arrival of the display, so, I put together a tribute made up of the songs that I liked that he sang and songs that were about him by his son Jody."
McDonald thought the show would be a one-time thing.
"This is the 11th year that I have been performing the Woody Guthrie Tribute, much to my surprise," he said.
Thanks to his parents’ record collection, McDonald grew up listening to Guthrie’s music, which helped when pulling together a set list for the show, he said.
"I didn’t really work too hard at it," McDonald said. "I just picked the stuff that I thought was interesting and had the verses and melodies that I liked. All the songs in the show are, to me, amusing and entertaining."
Still, while he was putting the songs together, McDonald noticed some common concerns Guthrie had with his era that some people have with the present day.
"I didn’t (choose the songs) from a scholarly perspective," he said. "There was no agenda of why I picked the songs that I picked. However, there are a lot of moral, political and ethical messages that come out in the show, because he dealt with a lot of those subjects in humorous and profound ways in his songs."
McDonald also began seeing parallels between his and Guthrie’s lives.
"My father came from the same era and region that Woody sang about, and he had that Oklahoma sense of humor," McDonald said. "Woody also was unpredictable and unmanageable, but he had a certain image. He was unmarketable in many ways.
"I relate to him in those ways, because I’m a little bit of that, also," he said. "The image of Country Joe is well known, and my notoriety is based on a protest song that still rankles people today. Combine that with the ‘F-cheer’ and that makes me unmarketable in many ways."
Still, the McDonald saw the differences between himself and Guthrie from the get go.
"Woody was incredibly prolific and he wrote a lot of stuff that I don’t particularly like, a lot of it could be called propaganda," McDonald explained. "He probably was a lousy husband and father, but at one point of his career, he and his friend, Cisco Houston recorded 135 songs in two days."
Although McDonald has performed his tribute show more than 70 times, he still doesn’t know who the real Woody Guthrie is.
"He was middle class and after the Depression wiped him out, he became working class," McDonald said. "He’s kind of the embodiment of the American Dream, and he’s also become a legend and, in some cases, something that is unreal.
"I can relate to that, because there is that image of me that people have seen, but they don’t know who I really am."
Country Joe McDonald will perform a "Tribute to Woody Guthrie" at the Egyptian Theatre, 328 Main St., on Saturday, Sept. 8, at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $18 to $30 and available at http://www.Parkcityshows.com . For more information, visit http://www.countryjoe.com.
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