On August 15th 1969 Joe McDonald was pushed off onto a relatively small wooden stage surrounded by a sea of around two hundred thousand people. The seasoned musician would later say: “I was scared”. Simply wanting to fill time in between sets, backstage personnel had handed “Country” Joe a forgotten Yamaha FG 150 acoustic guitar with a rope around it for a strap. As Joe started his band’s popular anti-Vietnam War song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” he had changed the beginning cheer from F-I-S-H to F-*-C-K. This completely improvised performance would prove to be one of the greatest moments in Woodstock history, and its popularity would show the ever growing frustration of the American public with the Vietnam War.
After “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-To-Die Rag” appeared as the title song to Country Joe & The Fish’s second album, it sold well for a year. Even getting into the top 40 chart. It wasn’t necessarily a popular song but was one of those songs that everyone knew. In its satirical message was a feeling that most Americans could relate to. Of course it was more popular to the hippy subculture, but it was also able to resonate with many every-day Americans.
The Vietnam War was considered the first televised war, in that: the American public got to see actual hostilities and their consequences. By the time Country Joe sang that fateful song at Woodstock, American media had been thoroughly introducing the public to the war (and the Tet Offensive) for 3 years. This is what gave his performance at Woodstock such potency. Due to the fact that the song itself wasn’t necessarily popular, but the idea and the way in which, and passion for said idea, was sold by McDonald to a war weary nation that was all too aware of the grotesque form that the Vietnam War was in. After the Vietnam War America would enter into a new era of conflict that had a new more transparent dialog with its public.
War was no longer that distant thing fought by heroes against villains. It was in America’s living rooms, in its minds. It was fought by people… against people… for the people.