Country Joe McDonald is no Woody-Come-Lately.
It’s not just that the music of Woody Guthrie has loomed over his life since he was a child, or that he made his first Woody Guthrie tribute recording more than forty years ago, or that he has spent the past ten and more years polishing a solo theatrical presentation of Guthrie’s life, writings and music, but Country Joe, in his steadfast yeoman work using music to defeat Fascism (and other scourges on the earth), has been carrying out the mission of Woody Guthrie in his life and work.
The filmed performance of the Country Joe show, “Tribute to Woody Guthrie,” that took place September 2011 at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley captures McDonald in full stride, along with an actual accompanying cast, a small amount of scenery, and more of a show than he ever before mounted around the basic material that he has been refining and perfecting since he first did the show in 2001.
McDonald sees a lot of himself in Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie, Joe’s father came from Oklahoma, both Midwestern farm boys who married East Coast intellectuals. He remembers the 78 RPM records of the Dust Bowl songs around his house growing up. He knows that his greatest work, “The Fish Cheer” and “Feel Like I’m Fixin’ To Die Rag,” lives and breathes in the spirit of Woody Guthrie.
After spending his life playing music for audiences, McDonald has sharpened his abilities onstage beyond some guy with a guitar and a few songs. His apparent informality before an audience disguises a knowing entertainer with a message in every song, a lesson in every performance, hidden behind caustic dry wit and self-effacing, unassuming directness. He is not so widely admired as many who are not his equal.
This Guthrie project has given McDonald a vehicle for his many gifts. He has always excelled as a story teller and Guthrie’s life lends McDonald a subject he can really make his own. He sings Guthrie songs. He sings songs about Guthrie. He sings songs written by Guthrie’s children. He reads from Guthrie’s writing – both his public prose and his private letters. Woody is alive in his hands for ninety minutes. It is part history lecture, part song fest, part séance.
McDonald is the man for the job because, more than any other of the stars of Woodstock, McDonald has stayed true to the code. He has taken his guitar and songs wherever they could be sung, bringing music to people who wanted it like a doctor in the ghetto. He was there at strikes, protests and picket lines as much as nightclubs and rock concerts. He was the people’s rock star with his own booth at the Berkeley farmer’s market. Honest, humble, unbought, unbossed.
Woody Guthrie would have understood Country Joe in a heartbeat.
Joel Selvin, writer