Thursday, May 17, 2007
The last time folk rock legend Country Joe McDonald played Big Sur was back in 1967. With former bandmate Barry Melton, his band Country Joe and the Fish performed in a field right off Highway 1 facing the Pacific, which was spread out before them like a giant blue blanket. That day, the band ran its equipment on a generator. McDonald remembers that there were hippies dancing around everywhere. “It wasn’t like a commercial gig,” he says. “It was like a happening.”
Of course, that’s not the only time that McDonald has performed in Monterey County. There was a little gig at the Monterey Fairgrounds the same year called the Monterey Pop Festival. There, Country Joe and the Fish played the two-day concert alongside artists including Jimi Hendrix, Otis Redding and Janis Joplin.
McDonald remembers listening to a lot of great music that June weekend. He also says that his get-up sticks out in his mind. McDonald wore a helmet, a psychedelic shirt and had his face painted with flowers. Also, the rocker wore a beaded necklace and a leather pouch that was handmade for him by Janis Joplin, who was his girlfriend at the time. “It was the time when people were pretending that they were Indian scouts,” he jokes about the attire.
This Friday, McDonald returns once again to perform a special tribute concert to folk icon Woody Guthrie at Big Sur’s Fernwood.
McDonald says that he first developed the show in 2001 after being asked by the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas to do a performance to coincide with the exhibit This Land Is Your Land: The Life and Legacy of Woody Guthrie.
Since then, he has done the Guthrie tribute sporadically. The show features McDonald doing Guthrie’s material, including “This Land Is Your Land,” and other numbers about Guthrie, like Barry Marris’ “Every Time His Songs are Sung.” McDonald says he doesn’t do any of his own hits, like his anti-Vietnam War tune “I Feel Like I’m Fixing to Die Rag.”
The Guthrie tribute is more than just music. McDonald says he also reads some of Guthrie’s letters and newspaper columns, as well as sections from his own father’s autobiography. (McDonald’s dad grew up in Oklahoma near Guthrie’s birthplace.)
“It’s a theatrical piece,” McDonald says. “It’s about Oklahoma, me and Woody Guthrie.”
McDonald recalls that while growing up, he was introduced to Guthrie’s music through his parents. “I took it for granted, the way you take for granted nursery rhymes,” he says.
McDonald says that most likely Guthrie was a subconscious inspiration for some of his work in Country Joe and the Fish. As that group started to disband, McDonald’s affection for Guthrie fully surfaced when he covered songs by the folk icon on his 1969 album Thinking of Woody Guthrie.
A few years later, McDonald was approached by Marjorie Guthrie, Woody’s widow, to put music to the lyrics of an unfinished Guthrie song titled “Woman at Home” for a Guthrie tribute concert at the Hollywood Bowl in 1975. McDonald says the family was trying to show another less known side of Guthrie’s songwriting. “It was new sexy erotic stuff that they wanted to introduce the public to,” he says.
McDonald feels that Guthrie’s music is still relevant today for one reason: “It’s hopeful,” he says. “And the objective of it is good.”
COUNTRY JOE MCDONALD performs his Woody Guthrie Tribute 9pm on Friday, May 18, at Fernwood, located 24 miles south of Carmel on Highway 1, Big Sur. $20/advance at fernwoodbigsur.com; $25/at the door. 667-2422.