Sunday, October 2, 2011

October 2: Country Joe And The Fish, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag"

Artist: Country Joe And The Fish
Song: "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag"
Album: I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die
Year: 1967

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Studio Version) (will open in new tab)

CLICK HERE TO LISTEN (Woodstock Version) (will open in new tab)

There are certain moments throughout the history of music that are able to remain iconic regardless of the passage of time.  In almost every case, such recordings so perfectly represent a time, place, and cultural mood that they in many ways define an entire generation, though the song itself may never even reach sales charts.  While there are may periods in history where such songs seem to be more prevalent than others, there may have been no bigger a "boom" of these recordings than during the tail-end of the 1960's.  Fueled by the massive changes in culture, as well as the ever-present existence of the Vietnam War, countless artists were able to make their name by bringing a combination of unique, perhaps quirky musical approaches, along with strong messages of the empowerment of youth.  Though they are certainly best known for one song in particular, there are few bands that better represent the eclectic, almost mysterious nature of music at the time than Country Joe And The Fish.  Pulling together sounds from all across the musical spectrum and forming some of the most mind-bending and revolutionary new sounds, the band pushed the limits on what could be done musically, as well as deploying some of the wildest vocals and lyrics ever recorded.  Though it does not represent the full range and ability of the band to a great extent, there is no question that Country Joe And The Fish's 1967 song, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" remains their best known, as well as one of the most important songs in all of music history.

Truth be told, there are two very different versions of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" that can be found, as everything but the melody and lyrics are unique in the studio recording of the song, and that made at the Woodstock Music And Arts Fair in 1969.  Within the studio recording, one can experience just what a heavily experimental a band lived within Country Joe And The Fish, as from the moment the song begins, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" is more akin to carnival-style music than it is to the more traditional notion of popular music.  It is the way that this version seems to bounce all over, fusing together some of the most creative musical arrangements ever recorded that define the true meaning of the psychedelic sound, and on some levels, this recording remains the definition of "psychedelic rock."  Within the orchestration on the studio recording of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," one can easily feel the essence of the entire cultural movement of the late 1960's, as the song certainly fit perfectly into festivals as seamlessly at it would have at an "acid test."  However, while the song itself may seem almost silly in its sound, the talents of the musicians is unquestionable, and it is this jovial tone in their playing that when combined with the lyrics, turns the song into what may be the greatest example of sarcasm ever captured on tape.  The juxtaposition that the music creates with the heavy, biting lyrics is absolutely unparalleled, and it is this pairing that turned "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" into an outright anthem for an entire generation.

Yet it would be the later, live incarnation of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" that would push the song to a truly legendary status, and yet the performance from Woodstock has in it countless lesser-known points that add to the overall mystique of the track.  The recording was not taken from the bands' scheduled performance slot, which is why only Country Joe McDonald and his guitar can be heard on the song.  As legend has it, Country Joe played the song in between two other acts, and he was extremely hesitant to take the stage.  Handed a guitar that was not his own, using a piece of rope as a strap, McDonald has spoken many times since of how difficult it was for him to take the stage without any preparation.  It was due to this almost stage fright that led him to the now-iconic opening, where he changes the letters of "The Fish Cheer," unknowingly creating one of the most definitive moments in all of music history.  Later in this live performance, McDonald scolds the massive crowd's inability to sing with volume, as he yells, "...listen people, I don't know how you expect to ever stop the war if you can't sing any better than that. There's about three hundred thousand of you fuckers out there. I want you to start singing!"  This statement has also lived on as something far larger than the song itself, and it is the pure, honest, and completely unguarded manner that McDonald delivers this entire performance that has cemented "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" as one of the most iconic songs ever recorded.

As the decades have passed, a number of artists have borrowed in part or full from "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," and yet the original recordings manage to still stand far above all other imitators.  One can make the case that this is due to the fact that the later recordings did not have the same "world reality" surrounding them, as it is the frustration and urgency within Country Joe And The Fish's take that makes it such a stunning experience.  However, the sentiments found within the lyrics of "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag" are without question just as relevant today as they were more than four decades ago, and this is a testament to what an exceptional writer lived within McDonald.  Yet one can also see it as somewhat tragic that in all the years that have passed, society as a whole seems to have learned nothing; and yet one can also make a case that the artists of today are no longer doing their "jobs."  The fact that such perfectly crafted songs of protest are far beyond a rarity in modern society suggests that the purpose of "music as defiance" has been lost on the current generation, and it is almost impossible to imagine something as moving as the Woodstock version of the song ever occurring again.  It is this reality that cements what a historically significant moment lives within the song, and there may be no better a protest song ever written than Country Joe And The Fish's unforgettable 1967 recording, "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag."

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