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Music

Revisiting Country Joe and The Fish's essential anti-war satire

No song embodies the peaceful spirit of the counterculture more than Country Joe and the Fish’s anti-war satire, ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’.

Written by the band’s frontman, Country Joe McDonald, it is a classic totem from the age of all things flower-power. The song enjoyed two releases, one on the 1965 EP Rag Baby Talking Issue No. 1 and the other, which saw the track cultivate a considerable level of fame, came via the band’s second album of the same name as the track, which dropped in November 1967.

Country Joe’s dark humour and playful lyrics made it one of the most well-known tracks that protested the Vietnam war. It was sung across the western world as people protested the illegitimacy of the bloody South Asian conflict. Although it was a powerful record, which upon release in 1967, spread like wildfire throughout countercultural circles, it was Country Joe’s live versions where its direct sentiment truly came to the fore. 

Usually, the song was preceded by Joe’s zany chant ‘The Fish Cheer’, which spelt out ‘F-I-S-H’ before jumping into the track. However, Joe would adapt the cheer as time went on and would gain notoriety for what became known as ‘The Fuck Cheer’, which resulted in the band being slapped with a US television ban in 1968. Indicative of the age, the establishment was shocked by the cheer’s vulgarity, whereas the younger generation applauded its uncompromising attitude. 

The song and Country Joe would be written into the history books after he performed it at the movement’s spiritual gathering, Woodstock Festival in 1969. Joe performed it to a huge crowd of over 300,000, who sung the dark lyrics back in unison, a defiant show of strength by the longhairs. 

Per an account by Country Joe himself, “the rag” was written in under half an hour, as he specifically reflected on the escalating violence in the Vietnam war. Reflecting his madcap genius, whilst writing the anthem, he also composed another track, ‘Who Am I’, which explored the increased US military involvement in the war. Countercultural in every sense of the word, the first pressing of Rag Baby were sold at UC Berkley, underground stores and teach-in’s, slowly spreading the anti-Vietnam message through grassroots campaigning. 

At the time, the lyrics were political dynamite. A damning indictment of the military-industrial complex, American politicians and corporations for starting the Vietnam war, the song took the concept of a protest song to the next level, in the way that Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove did with this idea in film. 

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The lyrics wasted no time in criticising the war and conscription, which is something that many in the younger generation, even if not a hippie, were against. The use of satire allowed Joe to reflect on the casualties of war, with the following line perhaps the most cutting in the whole song: “Be the first one on your block, to have your boy come home in a box”. 

The song’s chorus makes a claim for being the catchiest of the era, and Joe’s sardonic lyrics have given it a universal appeal. It can be attributed to any subsequent conflict, not to mention those America involved itself in during the first few years of the 2000s. Joe wrote: “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!”.

Famously, the album version augmented this idea by naming all the other stops that the American government would be pursuing war in, such as Nicaragua and El Salvador, something that came to fruition, even if it was by proxy. This is a testament to Country Joe’s incredible perception.

A damning indictment of the Vietnam war and the US government’s enthusiasm for armed conflict, ‘I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag’ remains as pertinent today as it was over 50 years ago.

Watch Country Joe’s iconic performance of the track at Woodstock below.