TRUE TALES OF THE FISH: Country Joe and the F***

Country Joe McDonald does not over-estimate his place in the pantheon of Voices of a Generation, as a leader in the Peace Movement of the 1960s, as a martyr for the cause of free speech in America, as a counter-culture hero for the great censorship debate that would lead us into a new golden age.

The thing that got him into the most public trouble was not opposition to the Vietnam War – not his great sarcastic anthem The Fixin’ To Die Rag. It was much simpler:

“I was paving the way for people to say ‘fuck.’ It’s exactly that.”

What Country Joe is talking about the infamous “Fish Cheer.” As the emcee of “Heroes of Woodstock” at the Edmonton Rock Music Festival in Hawrelak Park on Saturday, McDonald recalls his band Country Joe and the Fish used to have the crowd spell out the letters F-I-S-H. One day, drummer Gary “Chicken” Hirsh suggested that they change it to F-U-C-K. They had a band meeting “and we all agreed this was a good idea.”

So did the audience at the 1968 Schaefer Beer Music Festival in Central Park in New York City. People loved it. Organizers, sadly, did not and banned Country Joe and the Fish from the event for life. Moreover, Ed Sullivan’s people were there checking out the band, which was booked to perform on the television show in a couple of months and had already been paid a $2,500 advance. Ed’s people said: keep the money, the gig is cancelled.

Undaunted, the band did the Fuck Cheer a few months later in lovely Worcester, Massachusetts – whose police department immediately alerted their law enforcement counterparts in Boston, where the band was booked to play the next day.

“We were met with 100 uniformed police officers with guns and clubs and mace, a police captain and two paddy wagons,” Joe says. “They told us that if we did the Fuck Cheer we’d get arrested. We had a meeting and we decided we didn’t want to get arrested. Then the band broke up.”

Country Joe’s troubles weren’t over. On top of a famous live recording of the Fish Cheer/Fixin’ To Die Rag that was banned from radio airplay, his solo career was hampered by the fact he was banned from public performances in several municipalities, and also because of a warrant for his arrest on the charge of “leading the crowd in a lewd, lascivious and wanton cheer.” He was tried, found guilty and fined $50. The conviction was overturned on appeal.

And what have we learned from all this?

“I guess the lesson is that you shouldn’t say ‘fuck’ in any language,” Joe says. “It’s a $250,000 fine in the US. Maybe in Edmonton, Canada, you can say ‘fuck’ on radio and television all the time.”

He is assured this is in fact true, at least on cable, but urged to check the fine print in his performance contract should he plan to pull out the Fuck Cheer in Edmonton. After all, the gig is in Hawrelak Park. There are children around. Oh, please, won’t someone think of the children?!