Good question. While actively in the throes of an existential crisis, I continue to wade through life, searching for an answer that might never reveal itself. Less than thrilled with the results of an Internet search, I pressed on and discovered a disquieting website (www.existentialcrises.com ) that simply presented a black page with the words “you are alone.” Lovely. Undaunted, I persevered and wallowed briefly in the not-so-uplifting lyrics penned by James Rado and Gerome Ragni for the “great American tribal love rock musical”—“Hair.”
As the song (music by Galt MacDermot) poses the questions:“Where is the something? Where is the someone, that tells me why I live and die?,” the answers continued to elude me, so I picked up the phone and called Country Joe McDonald (www.countryjoe.com ) while he was en route to the event gallery at Bethel Woods (www.bethelwoodscenter.org ), to ask him. While the show that Country Joe is currently touring (A tribute to Woody Guthrie) is about (among other things) the Great Depression, he assured me that it has nothing to do with the sort of depression I am currently experiencing, so I (gratefully) became momentarily sidetracked by our conversation.
My list of questions for Country Joe proved helpful, and our chat covered a wide range, including his years with The Fish, their appearance at Woodstock, the antiwar movement of the ‘60s and the current political climate. All that aside, this tour is all about Guthrie, this being the 100th anniversary of his birth, and how his songs, lyrics and stories still reverberate, shedding wisdom, humor and pathos along the way.
“My dad was a lot like Woody,” Country Joe said, “and Guthrie’s music was a part of our household growing up. This show is called a tribute because he was one of my heroes in the same way Will Rogers was—both men were considered ‘unmanageable’ personalities, and neither one ever achieved a lot of commercial success—so I can relate.” With the song from “Hair” still playing in my head, I considered the lyric that suggested I “follow the children,” wondering aloud if there is “an answer in their sweet faces,” and asked Country Joe if he thought apathy reigned supreme with today’s youth.
“Absolutely not,” he responded, going on to say that he thinks “children are more knowledgeable today” than the generation before them. “I find that if you skip a generation...” he momentarily mused, before moving on. “As far as my audience is concerned, a lot of folks don’t know that during the war in Vietnam, I worked mostly with vets, and have spent the past 30 years talking with military families and staff. Not a single person involved with today’s antiwar sentiment has ever contacted me to participate in what they are doing... and that’s okay.”
While hardly hiding from his history as a “voice of a generation,” Country Joe concentrates his efforts these days on sharing the Woody Guthrie experience with a new generation, unwilling to allow Guthrie’s legacy to flag. Although his new album (“Time Flies By”) does address issues that threaten society’s past and current comfort zone (ecology, industry, big brother and big business), Country Joe has no complaints. “I’ve had a very interesting, wonderful life” he said. “My kids are happy, I’m happy and consider myself a lucky guy.”
Unable (or unwilling) to not refer to the anthem he created, the “Fixin’ to Die Rag” (“and it’s one, two, three—what are we fighting for?”), Country Joe acknowledged his contribution to the mindset of hippies everywhere, but suggested that in many ways “nothing has changed. These issues are part of our ongoing history,” he said, recommending that we go ahead on ahead. “Keep it simple, don’t get sucked in,” he said. “Woody is as relevant today as 100 years ago: think globally, act locally.”
Armed with some uplifting and sage advice from an (IMHO) fascinating man and consummate entertainer, I glanced at the lyrics one last time. “Follow the river, follow the wind song” seemed apropos as I made my way to the Delaware Youth Center (www.delawareyouthcenter.org ) in Callicoon, to participate in the kick-off for “Rollin’ Down the River,” a series of concerts benefiting Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (www.damascuscitizens.org ). The afternoon was filled with wonderful music, children’s laughter in the air and community spirit in abundance. Uplifted, I made my way home after stopping for a brief respite on the banks of the beautiful and endangered Delaware.
Slipping a CD into the player, I allowed the song to wash over me as I drove through the glorious countryside. “Where do I go?” the lyrics asked “Follow my heartbeat, follow my hand... where will they lead me?” Unsure, I sang along. “Down to the gutter, up to the glitter, into the city, where the truth lies.”