Hailing from Berkeley, California, Country Joe and the Fish were one of many acts to emerge from the San Francisco area’s influential folk/rock ‘n’ roll/psychedelic scene of the mid- to late-1960s.
The group, which evolved from an outfit called the Instant Action Jug Band, featured Joe McDonald, David Cohen, Bruce Barthol, Chicken Hirsch and Barry “Fish” Melton. Country Joe and the Fish’s brief but influential recording career blended folk, blues, rag-time and hard-edged rock — the highlight of which was 1968′s I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die, featuring a title track that would become one of the decade’s signature anti-war anthems.
Appearing at the legendary Woodstock Festival in 1969, Country Joe and the Fish took the massive crowd by storm with their memorable audience participation chant, aka “The Fish Cheer”: “Give me an F! Give me a U! Give me a C! Give me a K! What’s that spell?!” By 1970, however, the group had disbanded. A 1977 reunion produced a single Fantasy Records release, but then abruptly ended.
Even at the height of Country Joe and the Fish’s fame, however, Melton had already issued his debut solo album, Bright Sun is Shining for Vanguard. He also recorded for Columbia Records before becoming an attorney. The 65-year-old remains active in music, even while continuing to practice law, having formed the Dinosaurs with former members of the Jefferson Airplane, Riders of the Purple Sage and Big Brother and the Holding Company.
In this SER Sitdown, Melton talks with us about Country Joe and the Fish’s meteoric rise, Woodstock, the impact of the 1960s — and, of course, “The Fish Cheer” …
BEVERLY PATERSON: How did you come to be signed, at the last minute, to play at Woodstock?
BARRY MELTON: It really wasn’t the last minute that we were signed — more like the last three weeks before the festival took place. We didn’t even know if we’d be able to do Woodstock because, quite frankly, the money wasn’t that good. But, as it began taking shape as an event, we felt that despite the monetary offer, we’d be there.
BEVERLY PATERSON: How would you describe the experience?
BARRY MELTON: To put Woodstock in context, I think people give it more importance in some respects than it had at the time — because it was only one of two festivals of that era that got recorded on film. The other was the Monterey Pop Festival, and we played that also. Throughout that period of 1967-70, the pop festival emerged as the place, as an event of its time. Monterey was the first of those festivals that I played at, and Woodstock was the last of that type of festival I played at, with a multiple number of acts over a multiple number of days. But sandwiched in between, there were 30 or 40 others! And each one had its own distinguishing characteristic. Woodstock, though, was the biggest and also the last. Its size was another thing which distinguished it from all other festivals of this era, that three years or so. Probably the one thing that did festivals in was that it cost the county so much money, the counties that held these festivals, and they didn’t want to get stuck with a million-dollar bill. After Woodstock, people had to apply for permits in order to have festivals of this sort, or the county just wouldn’t allow it.
BEVERLY PATERSON: How much flack did “The Fish Cheer” receive?
BARRY MELTON: It depended on where we were, and how conservative the place was that we were in. We had everything from threats of arrest to actual arrest. It was just a phenomenon of the 1960s, in the great rock ‘n’ roll tradition. I guess probably the biggest deal about the ’60s was the phenomenon of rock ‘n’ roll and, coincidentally, it was also the largest generation of young people that America had ever seen. It is unlikely that there will ever be such a large generation of young people like that again.
BEVERLY PATERSON: Country Joe and the Fish’s first recordings came out as EPs on Rag Baby.
BARRY MELTON: Right. The first one came out in September of 1965. Joe was publishing a magazine called “Rag Baby,” with his friend Michael Beardsley, and decided to put a talking issue out. Because Joe and I had played together in the Instant Action Jug Band, he wanted me to play guitar on this record he wanted to do, which I did. There were three cuts on that record. On one side, there were two songs by Country Joe and the Fish. One song was called “Superbird,” and that was just Joe and myself. The other song was called “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die,” and that was Joe, myself, Carl Schraeger I believe playing bass and Michael Beardsley — the co-publisher of the magazine — sang some vocal harmony. On the other side of that record was a song written by Peter Kruge called “Fire in the City,” which is a matter of historical interest — because it was later recorded by Jon Hendricks, the jazz singer, backed up by the Grateful Dead!
BEVERLY PATERSON: Did that Jon Hendricks/Grateful Dead recording make it onto an actual record?
BARRY MELTON: It’s on record somewhere, but I don’t know which one. In any event, there’s a tape of it existing somewhere.
BEVERLY PATERSON: What was the story behind “Superbird”?
BARRY MELTON: At the time, Joe and I were working on a play called “MacBird,” that was a parody on Lyndon Johnson.
BEVERLY PATERSON: Did the play ever develop?
BARRY MELTON: It played around here for a while, before disappearing into obscurity. It was a political play, and had its place and time.
BEVERLY PATERSON: Let’s talk about your debut album, Electric Music for the Body and Mind.
BARRY MELTON: That record was made at the very same studio where we did our EPs. We were recording in Berkeley at Sierra Sound. In order to make the album, the studio had to go out and buy a four-track tape recorder, which was a big deal in those days. This was the first four-track in the East Bay! We actually began in an era before multi-track recording. So, our first album was made on a Scully four-track, which was new on the market at the time. There were no eight tracks in town; it wasn’t until after our record was made that the first eight track came to San Francisco. The first one was owned by the Kingston Trio, and installed at the Columbus Towers. Our second album, I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die, on the other hand was cut in New York City at Vanguard’s 23rd Street studios. That was cut on an eight track. By the time we went to eight-track recording, we were into the modern era by definition, because we were now able to do more than one take of the vocals, while isolating other things out.
BEVERLY PATERSON: How do you compare your live performances to your records?
BARRY MELTON: Recording back then was fairly live. Both our first two albums were fairly live, and even our third album was recorded fairly live. You just didn’t have very many tracks in those days.
BEVERLY PATERSON: Country Joe and the Fish played at a lot of anti-war demonstrations. Can you tell me about some of them?
BARRY MELTON: In the beginning, we played the demonstrations, and sporadically throughout the career of the band, we did. One demonstration I remember really well happened right here in San Francisco. We had some hundred thousand people march down Market Street. We ended up playing at Kezar Stadium at the end of the march.
BEVERLY PATERSON: Were there a lot of arrests?
BARRY MELTON: No, none at all!
BEVERLY PATERSON: Do you feel that what went on in the ’60s was worth it? What has been its impact?
BARRY MELTON: The anti-war demonstrations, those were definitely worth it — because the Vietnam War did actually stop. In a short-term perspective, there was some influence, though I don’t know if we changed politics at all. I think the impact of ’60s culture has been enormous. Because of what happened in the ’60s, things like the ecology movement, the women’s movement, the gay rights movement, consciousness, health food — all of those things were born in that time. … Before the ’60s, consciousness was not even there. Nobody discussed things like ecology prior to that. Although we may not be doing all that well to keep our fragile environment, to keep it balanced, nevertheless, there was been an outgrowth. The concept of equal rights for woman was not discussed before the ’60s in the context that we think of today. … The ’60s was kind of a push forward. A lot of what we were doing back then was a little radical for this country, but there were other things we did that were absorbed right into the cultural mainstream. Any time there is a chance to move the country forward — and I have a tendency to believe this country does not slowly progress, but sort of wobbles around and then moves forward all of a sudden — it is important.