Woodyfest: An Interview With Country Joe McDonald, and Introducing the Bolts

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A Conversation With Country Joe McDonald

Mike Ragogna: Country Joe McDonald, how are you today?

Country Joe McDonald: Doing well, Mike. Thank you.

MR: Wonderful. Let's just jump right in by talking about Woodyfest, which is the Woody Guthrie Folk Music Festival, where you'll be performing.

CJMcD: That's right.

MR: Now, this is for KNBO-New Bo Neighborhood Radio, which is a neighborhood radio station that's trying to get off the ground, and there's going to be an event on July 14th from noon to nine at which Country Joe will be performing along with Dave Moore, Rob Lumbard, Pigs and Clover, and the Evan Stock Band. Part of the benefit for this event will be helping a local, low-power radio station. Do you have any thoughts on the local, low power radio movement?

CJMcD: Well, I've been involved with many causes and organizations, and what I've learned is that you can't make people get on board. If it's popular, it satisfies a need, and if people appreciate it and want it, it'll be a success. But you have to be ready for the fact that what you want may not be what others want. I mean, I've thrown quite a few parties that nobody came to. (laughs) It sounds depressing, but you have to learn from it. You can't make people, in this case, listen to your radio station. It has to be something that you enjoy and they enjoy. Though, it sounds like this station has all of the elements to be something that people will enjoy.

MR: Now, it's in association with Woodyfest, celebrating Woody Guthrie's 100th birthday. What are your thoughts about Woody Guthrie's music?

CJMcD: I grew up with Woody Guthrie. I first heard him when I was about 6 years old, I guess. My parents had 78 RPM records, the records that were around before vinyl records, you know? They had Woody Guthrie singing songs on those 78s when I was a kid, so I just grew up with his music.

MR: How much did that influence your own material through the years?

CJMcD: It was the kind of music that I grew up with, which was primarily social and political music, with that country influence, along with listening to some Pete Seeger and that kind of music. There was a lot of different music that influenced me through the years. I tell all about this in a new 90-minute, one man theatrical piece that I'm doing. It includes thirteen songs and a lot of spoken word stuff that was taken from Woody's column in the People's World Newspaper, and from his biography Bound For Glory. There are also some things from my father's biography, who was also born in Oklahoma and was a refugee and rode around in freight trains and that sort of thing during the depression. So, I explain a lot of that in the context of that performance, which I've been doing for about eleven years. I didn't actually put one together for this year. It's been very popular much to my surprise. But in 1969, I recorded a Woody Guthrie album in Nashville quite by accident. We went there to record a country western album for Vanguard Records. The session musicians there were so good that we were supposed to take three days to record this album, but it only wound up taking a day and a half and we had already paid for the extra time. So, we thought we would record a Woody Guthrie album. His second wife, Marjorie, said that she thought it was the best performance of Woody Guthrie music she'd ever heard, probably because we had traditional country western set musicians and they could play that stuff well.

MR: Would you then classify your music as politically conscious?

CJMcD: Well, it is part of what I do. Woody was also a singer and songwriter who is noted for one particular song, as am I. But when he and Cisco Houston were in the Merchant Marines, they went into the studio in two days and recorded 135 songs. None of them were originals, they were all folk songs and popular music of the day. He also had a radio show and was a part of a country-western band. He was a very versatile performer and also very prolific. It's a genre that I grew up with, and I don't think many of my peers did. My parents were left-wingers and we had a lot of that music in the household. I also listened to rhythm and blues, and progressive jazz, all kinds of music, and I've written all kinds of music as well, some of which is considered the psychedelic rock and roll music of the sixties. I'll be bringing all of that to this festival in Iowa. Though I have to admit that I live in California and we don't really know much apart from the East and West coasts. Iowa is somewhere in the middle there. (laughs)

MR: Well, it'll make a nice road trip for you. (laughs) Are you fond of road trips?

CJMcD: I despise traveling now, but I've been doing it for 45 years. I also did it for fun when I was a kid. But I loathe traveling now. I just want to stay at home. But I am making the supreme sacrifice to come to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, to do the Guthrie show. And I'm also getting paid to do it, so that's an incentive. (laughs)

MR: You know, there's a large portion of the benefit circuit that expects musicians in particular to donate their earnings back to the cause. I kind of have a problem with that because many artists--I'm not talking about superstars-- aren't really paid very well, you know?

CJMcD: I've got no dog in that fight, really. But over the years I've done tons of benefits--maybe more than anybody else. In the beginning, myself and the band would do everything for free. As a matter of fact, when I was working with Vietnam Veterans Against The War, I paid all of my expenses to work with them. Later on, in the seventies, I found out that people were charging to do benefits and I felt like sort of an idiot. I still do things for free occasionally if they're local and close to my heart, but it's two flights to get there and two to get back for the Iowa gig, and it winds up being a 16-hour day from the time that you leave your door. Plus the added hassle that taking a plane now is like taking a city bus; it's not a fun experience. Anyway, I don't mean to whine and cry about it. (laughs) That's what I do for a living and I've done it for a long, long time.

MR: (laughs) Joe, I wanted to ask you about quite possibly one of the most outrageous things that I have witnessed on television, and that was when Bill O'Reilly compared you to Fidel Castro over your involvement in the Cindy Sheehan protests. Can you talk a little bit about that for us?

CJMcD: You're the second person that I've spoken to that actually heard that show. I was doing working on Veteran stuff. It took the city of Berkley 10 years to recognize Vietnam Veterans, so we were working hard on that. The story is very sad actually. I wanted to have Bill Mitchell, whose son was killed in Iraq at the same time as Sheehan was, as a featured speaker at an event. It turned into World War III. There were people in Berkley that were against it, and it got crass and a little harsh. I had been in charge of putting this together for a couple of years. Bill O'Reilly then decided to compare me to Fidel Castro. So, I sent him and email asking him what branch of the service he was in and he never got back to me. Anyway, about two or three years later I was doing a show in New York and he showed up in the audience. The show was something called Hippie Fest. You know, a lot of those conservative commentators often retreat to the excuse that they're entertainers and that the comments they make are meant as entertainment, even comedy, no matter how horrible or outrageous their statement is.

MR: Wonderfully responsible.

CJMcD: There he was in the second row of the audience while I was doing my set, and I got the chance to tell the audience of about 20,000 people what he'd said about me on his show. I also mentioned that I was in the Navy and honorably discharged and he had never served as far as I knew. So, in the spirit of comedy and fun, I was going to dedicate "The Fish Cheer" to him that night. (laughs) Now, he was surrounded by 20,000 people who were, I'm sure, yelling obscenities at him. He hasn't mentioned me on his show since. (laughs)

MR: Having seen his show, I'm sure on one hand he was infuriated with you for doing that. But on another equal level, I'm sure he couldn't have been happier, right?

CJMcD: I have no idea. I don't know what drives those people. The one thing that I know about them is that they're very rich, because I know a bit about (redisduals) and how all of that works. That man is making a lot of money.

MR: I'm sure. Fox has to be paying him well. So, you do quite a bit of work with Veterans and Veteran organizations, is that right?

CJMcD: I have done quite a bit of work with them, yes.

MR: Looking back at Vietnam and looking at how we handled Iraq, how do you feel the nation's attitude around these two conflicts differed?

CJMcD:: Well, I'm just a musician and I don't think I'm qualified to speak in too much depth about the two. But I will say that the big problem, really, when you're talking about war is that the military family and community has grown smaller and smaller with automation. In World War II, pretty much every family had someone who was in the military. I was in the military, and I will say God bless those civilians who have any idea about how the military actually works. One thing that has changed over the years, as a result of the work of myself and others, is that soldiers are no longer blamed for war any longer. People are always saying, "Support The Troops," and that also happened to be a song on my new album, and that can really be an empty statement. Military service members are workers just like anyone else, and they deserve decent pay and compensation for their injuries and a lot of times, they just don't get it. A large part of that is due to the fact that civilians have no idea how the military works. It seems that people now love fake more than they love real things. People love the Kardashians, but they do nothing. They're just famous and rich. Those also happen to be the people that the media talk to about war. No one talks to the Veterans. Isn't that weird? What's that about? Personally, I think it's about guilt. For the first time ever this year, before the 4th of July, I saw an article in the paper about PTSD and how that holiday is a nightmare for our Veterans. All the explosions and fireworks are terrifying. In an era in which we love and support our Veterans, why do we scare the hell out of them every year on that day? To make us feel better?

MR: I never thought of that.

CJMcD: Very few people do.

MR: Musically, though, you've made a couple of pretty big political contributions with your songs, "The Fish Cheer," and, "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag." Years and years later, "The Fish Cheer" is still a song that resonates with the culture and so many people know it. How do you feel about that?

CJMcD: Well, it was hard on me because that song was kind of bad for box office. The "Fish" was changed to the F-word and then it was put into Woodstock, the film. I mean, that word has now become such a big part of the culture. You'll see a fifteen-year-old girl walking down the street talking on her cell phone saying it. In the sixties and seventies, when that started, you couldn't even put an abbreviation of that word in print. Very recently, I was reading Vanity Fair and I read an article with Danielle Steel, the author, and when asked what her favorite word was, she responded with that word. I thought, "Oh, my God." But that has become a part of the working class language. You can bet that a lot of the Veterans I meet use the F-word every other word.

MR: Right. How about yoiur "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag"? How do you feel about that one all these years later?

CJMcD: Well, I think it's still relevant and well-loved by people in the service. It's made its way into the service. Pete Seeger was playing for Colin Powell on the steps of the Library of Congress and he sang it. He's the only other guy that has sang the song, and he sings it regularly. But Colin was looking pretty serious during that song. Pete actually said to Colin that he hoped he wasn't offended, and the general told him he was just remembering all of his friends who died in the war. My point is that left, right and center, the people that know about war have identified with that song and that's an honor to me. I don't change it because it is a touchstone for our generation to remember. It also has a great rock 'n' roll attitude that I love. It says that you'll do the job because you have to, but you're not happy about it.

MR: Getting back to Woody Guthrie and the Woodyfest that you'll be performing at later this week, what do you feel are some of the best lessons and legacy that he's left through is music?

CJMcD: Well, I think that Woody Guthrie embodies the American dream for working class people. He had a hard life, but he maintained a positive attitude and didn't run away from the truth and he also managed somehow to be entertaining. His song, "This Land Is Your Land," has become something of a national anthem for the United States, and I think he would be amazed by that because he was despised and hated for a part of his life. Now he's considered a patriarch, and an embodiment of the American dream. I think he would be astounded by that.

MR: I don't know how you'll feel about this, but I view you as one of his legacy's the torch bearers.

CJMcD: I suppose I am. I mean, I do a show about him and it's pretty popular. I've recorded an album with Arlo's brother, Jody Guthrie, as well. He's a singer and songwriter. I don't think it's too good to romanticize people, though. I actually just reread Seeds Of Man, Woody Guthrie's novel, which has a lot of eroticism in it. Woody's widow and son, Marjorie and Arlo, actually asked me to put music to an erotic lyric that they had back in 1970, which wasn't really done at that time. It's fun, though. My father was an Oklahoma guy like Woody Guthrie...a real cowboy. So, I just kind of channel my dad when I'm doing the show. I think of Woody more like an uncle. (laughs)

MR: Joe, do you have any advice that you'd care to share with new artists?

CJMcD: Well, this is a strange era to be a songwriter, singer, and performer like I am because people look up to and admire people who perform other people's music. But if this is what you want to do, all you have to do is do it. That's it. Get yourself an audience, satisfy that audience, and continue to do that. That's all there is to it. You're also going to have to work at it. It's work. Even Janet Jackson's first concert wasn't in a stadium. Ninety-nine percent of people in this business have to work at it, and they have to do it every day. For most people like myself and Woody Guthrie, we didn't have a choice. We just did it and couldn't stop doing it. And we were surprised that we were actually making a living doing it. (laughs) But you won't find out if it's your calling until you've done it and you've succeeded at it. Then go ahead and do it. There's an audience for everybody. It happened about 15 years ago that the mix got so incredible that there isn't a genre to describe every type of music anymore. But you need an audience, and you've got to go out and get them. That isn't something that a manager, an agent, or a record label can go out and get for you. I mean, it won't fulfill you in life, but I've at least avoided having a real job for a very long time. (laughs)

MR: (laughs) Joe, thank you so much for taking time out of your schedule to chat with us.

CJMcD: Mike, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

KNBO New Bo Neighborhood Radio
July 14th, 2012, noon to nine
New Bo Beach
12th Avenue & The Tracks SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Transcribed by Evan Tyrone Martin


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In the last 12 months, The Bolts have landed music licensing spots on MLB, MLB All-Star Game, MLB World Series, NASCAR, UEFA Soccer Championships, Delta Airlines, television shows, Degrassi, and Necessary Roughness, branded marketing strategic partnerships with You Rock Digital Guitars, SurfSET and Hello Music. Additionally, The Bolts' single "Walk Away" is featured in a new SoBe commercial, which stars Sports Illustrated cover supermodel Kate Upton. Over 4 million combined YouTube hits for this commercial:

The Bolts first experienced local success in 2007 when the band landed five demo songs on the local rock radio station, KROQ, after being together less than four months. Soon after, the band started winning local battles of the bands and other competitions, eventually leading them to earn the title of Orange County's "Best Pop Artist" from the OC Music Awards. The band has opened for Honor Society, Third Eye Blind, Allstar Weekend, David Cook and appeared on local TV morning shows NBC Los Angeles, KDOC and Good Day LA. With the release of their 2 EPs entitled, Fall and Winter, followed by their official full-length release, The BOLTS, they won't be "just another band from LA" for very long.

And here's a premiere/exclusive of their new single "This Boy/Surfer Girl":

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