He started his career busking on Berkeley, California's famous Telegraph Avenue in the early 1960s. His father is Worden McDonald, of Scottish Presbyterian heritage. His mother was the late Florence Plotnick (McDonald), the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants, who served for many years on the Berkeley city council. Both of his parents were active in progressive politics. As of 2007, Country Joe still lives in Berkeley.
Country Joe has recorded 33 albums and has written hundreds of songs over a career spanning 40 years. He and Barry Melton co-founded Country Joe & the Fish which became a pioneer psychedelic rock band with their eclectic performances at The Avalon Ballroom, the Fillmore, Monterey Pop Festival and Woodstock. Their best-known song is his "The "Fish" Cheer / I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-To-Die Rag," a black comedy novelty song about the Vietnam War, whose familiar chorus ("One, two, three, what are we fighting for?") is well known to the Woodstock generation and Vietnam Vets of the 1960s and 1970s. He is also known for "The Fish Cheer" which was a cheerleader-style call-and-response with the audience where Joe spelled out "fish" ("Give me an F!").
The cheer was on the original recording of the I-Feel-Like-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die, being played right before the song on the LP of the same name. The cheer became popular and the crowd would spell out F-I-S-H when the band performed live. During the summer of 1968 the band played on the Schaefer Beer Festival tour. Gary “Chicken” Hirsh suggested before one of the shows to spell the word “fuck” instead of “fish.” Although the crowd loved it, the management of the Schaefer Beer Festival did not and kicked the band off the tour for life. The Ed Sullivan show then canceled a previously scheduled appearance by Country Joe and the Fish and told the band to keep the money they had already been paid in exchange for never playing on the show. The change of the cheer from “fish” to “fuck” would continue at most of the band's live shows throughout the years, including Woodstock and the Isle of Wight Festival.
Joe went on to have a long solo career with key albums including:
In 2003 McDonald was sued for copyright infringement over his signature song, specifically the "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" chorus part, as derived from the 1926 early jazz classic "Muskrat Ramble", co-written by Kid Ory. The suit was brought by Ory's daughter Babette, who held the copyright at the time. Since decades had already passed from the time McDonald composed his song in 1965, Ory based her suit on a new version of it recorded by McDonald in 1999. The court however upheld McDonald's laches defense, noting that Ory and her father were aware of the original version of "Fixin'", with the same section in question, for some three decades without bringing a suit until 2003, and dismissed the suit. In 2006, Ory was ordered to pay McDonald $750,000 for attorney fees, and had to sell her copyrights to do so.
In 2004, Country Joe re-formed some original members of Country Joe and The Fish as the Country Joe Band – Bruce Barthol, David Bennett Cohen, and Gary "Chicken" Hirsh. The band toured Los Angeles, Berkeley, Bolinas, Sebastopol, Grants Pass, Eugene, Portland and Seattle. They then made a 10-stop tour of the United Kingdom and played at the Isle of Wight and London. Following that came the New York tour which included a Woodstock reunion performance followed by an appearance at the New York State Museum in Albany. Returning to the West Coast the band played in Marin and Mendocino Counties, the World Peace Music Awards in San Francisco and at the Oakland Museum as part of an exhibit on the Vietnam War.
In the fall of 2005, political commentator Bill O'Reilly compared McDonald, a Navy veteran, to Cuban president Fidel Castro, remarking on McDonald's involvement in Cindy Sheehan's protests against the Iraq War.
McDonald's daughter, Seven, is a columnist for the LA Weekly. He has two other children, Devin and Tara.
Calendar, Best of the Walnut Creek Journal -- Country Joe McDonald; Baha'i Celebration; and an Introduction to the Ruth Bancroft Garden
Oct 18, 2012; Best of Walnut Creek MEETINGS -- Mt. Diablo Genealogical Society -- 1:15 p.m. Oct. 19. Discovering your family stories is an...