Thursday, February 05, 2009

Country Joe McDonald, "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die"

I've seen bits and pieces of "Woodstock" countless times, in large part because my Dad used to watch it regularly, either on tape or when it appeared on TV. I've seen the entire movie, all the way through, maybe once. It's just so bloody long and after thirty minutes you more than get the point, so it's a film that's best absorbed in mini-doses, or at least until your favourite artist or performance comes on screen.

Country Joe McDonald's "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" is a song that I had always semi-dismissed as one of those goofy hippie clapalong tunes. I appreciated its catchiness and slick humour, but, for lack of a better description, I didn't take the song seriously. To me, it might as well have been a drunken folk ditty or a children's poem. So, while catching parts of "Woodstock" on TV this past weekend, I was bit surprised to find myself getting a bit emotional during Country Joe's performance, particularly during this particularly fantastic, "Spartacus"-like moment about 2:00 into this clip, as the camera pulls back and shows the entire crowd gradually rising to their feet, a portrait of one singer and thousands of his fans as they slowly win over ten times that number.

That moment that wasn't only about enjoying oneself by singing and clapping and stomping in a field, it was also a political statement. Lots of people complain that the protest song has all but disappeared. Political turbulence is a constant, so why won't musical artists stick out their necks anymore, and even on the odd occasion when someone does try to take a stand, why does the music not make a long-lasting impact on the record-buying public? The answer, as evidenced by this short clip of Country Joe's performance, couldn't be any more clear. The crowd at Woodstock bought into his message because the threats were real. Three million American soldiers served in Vietnam, and over 50 000 of them died. Of course, the draft was then in effect. This wasn't something taking place half a world away that could be safely ignored at home -- when you know it could be your ass getting shipped off to the jungle at the drop of a hat, you pay attention to the issues at hand and keep a careful track of what is going on. You remain devoted to the cause as long as there is a threat to your personal health, safety and sanity. You don't show up the latest cause du jour on your campus in order to feel like a local hero rebel MF who is ready to take on The Man, only to forget about the whole thing three weeks later once CNN loses interest.

This is why the current day protest movement is vacuous and empty, this is why it has lost the power to induce meaningful change, and this is why no musical artists will waste their time taking a stand for anything. Why would a government official or a musician choose to take a risk when nobody will be paying attention by the end of the month? In such a climate, these movements will remain artistically bankrupt as well. Humour, irony, sarcasm -- the sorts of literary devices that make for quality poetry with a deeper, subtler richness of meaning -- are off the table when the audience has only a superficial understanding of the relevant issues. Or in other words, they won't get the jokes. Thus, every protest descends into silly catchphrases and the types of automaton talking points that people rightfully abhor when they're trotted out on conservative news shows. "Bring home the troops from X." "Stop the violence in Y." Attempt anything more complicated than that and you risk going over the audience's head completely.

And who wouldn't get worn out after a few weeks of 100% serious messages with 0% fun? South Park's Mr. Mackey is a caricature for a reason. "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die" is ghoulish and fun, something that the modern protest movement can't afford to be without confusing its many transient constituents.

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