To finish off this spontaneous chain of posts on Woodstock and antecedents (from Joe Cocker to Elvis, from Elvis to Roy Rogers), let’s do just one more – Country Joe McDonald’s “Fixin’-To-Die-Rag,” an object lesson in how to use language in multiple ways outside the scope of literal meaning. In fact, I tried it twice on my intermediate-to-advanced ESL (English as a second language) students for just that reason – once it was a hit, once it was a flop. Go figure. But let’s listen.
Friends, lovers, hippies, it’s a long way back to Elvis.
But the language. The only literal meanings in the clip come in the 10-second aside at the 2:00 mark. Everything else elapses via three essential language tricks:
Clichés, collocations, and idioms
My ESL students pretty quickly get that the song is ironic – that the words literally advocate support for the war (“Put down your books and pick up a gun / We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun”) but the speaker’s point is the opposite. But when they go through the irony line-for-line, it is still a learning experience for them to see how each phrase flips to its opposite meaning and how some of the flips can be quite serious and powerful (as when the speaker tries to energize parents with the upbeat thought that they could “Be the first ones on your block / To have your boy come home in a box”).
This brings me to the second trick – rhetorical frames. First, the playful tone that frames the whole song. It’s like a children’s sing-a-long (“one, two, three … five, six, seven …”). When up against content as heavy as “your boy come home in a box,” the emotional impact is amplified. The US government would like you to think this is a game, but Country Joe’s language tricks (which are really just an undoing of the GOVERNMENT’S language tricks) make it clear that this is NOT a game.
The second rhetorical frame is that of the all-American high school football game. The Fish cheer (“Give me an ‘f’ … give me a ‘u’ …”) and indeed the whole song can be seen as a kind of (mock-) pep rally. If the Man can’t distract you from the brutality of the war with the “children’s sing-a-long” veneer, maybe they can get you to think of the Vietnam war as a high school football game. Rah-rah-rah for our side. The rhetoric of the high school cheerleader. Not so in the hands of Country Joe. He takes that trivializing frame and turns it on its head. Is his inversion of the cheerleading rhetoric in the Fish cheer offensive? Absolutely. But this is not just a rebellious kid breaking the household rule. Country Joe’s point is that “your war is offensive – your turning it into a cheerleaders’ game is offensive – WE are offended by your war and your rhetorical tricks to make us comfortable with it. These are our friends coming home in boxes, so you’ll excuse us if we get a little offensive in this song.”
If the rhetorical framing is really just one expression of the overarching irony, my third and final language trick – clichés, collocations, and idioms – is really just one more aspect of the rhetorical framing. The entire text is composed of clichés, collocations, and idioms. Just look at the first 10 lines, with italics on the phrases the might be called clichés, collocations, or idioms:
Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
And it’s one, two, three,
What are we fighting for?
Don’t ask me, I don’t give a damn,
Next stop is Vietnam.
We could go on through the lyrics – pearly gates, tools of the trade, kingdom come, etc. – but why collocations, idioms, and clichés? Doesn’t that just show a lack of originality? When used gratuitously, yes. But this is far from gratuitous. It is part of the design. Country Joe is not interested in literal meaning but in emotional impact, and this is one way to get it. Collocations, idioms, and clichés are the things that localize language. They give you a house built of baseball, hot dogs, and mom’s apple pie. This is Americana in its most cliché form. Leave it to Beaver and Ozzie and Harriet. That’s the image the US government is using to sell you the Vietnam War. And Country Joe’s counterpoint is probably most anchored to the idiom, “I don’t give a damn.” After all, that’s the million-dollar question that Country Joe really wants to press on these 400,000 hippies: “What are we fighting for?” In 1969, no one really knew. And yet cousins and neighbors were coming home in boxes. This is the question Uncle Sam most wants you to look away from (“no, no, no, you shouldn’t give a damn about that”). So naturally that’s exactly where Country Joe, wordsmith, musician, counterculture icon, and smart-ass par excellence (who was already on an FBI watch list at the time of this clip, btw) goes to build his lyrical house.
Country Joe’s website: http://countryjoe.com/
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(Click covers for links)
Where’s Country Joe when you need him?
Hahaha. No shit, amigo!
This was a fine tutorial, quite thought-provoking.
When he said, “We’re all gonna die,” the
song was suddenly timely—except instead of protesting in the streets (which I did then and have done at other times since 2016), now we’re stuck in our houses.
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Thanks, Annie. Yes, Country Joe would have a hard time getting his protest off the ground in the age of coronavirus. Kind of takes the “Whoopie!” out of “Whoopie! We’re all gonna die!”
I loved this, and am glad some of your students got it. It’s so unpredictable, isn’t it, what will go over in the classroom and what will flop? I think I instinctively got most of the what you convey when I first heard it (in the movie–missed Woodstock), although it must not have been not very long after I arrived in the States. I feel that there was one element in there, which I was irony, but which felt like nihilism/despari. Oh, and I learned a new word: collocation.
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Yes, Josna, sometimes a lesson plan works great in the 10:00 class and then fails in the 11:00. Just gotta improvise and laugh at yourself (preferably in front of your students). Welcome to the world of collocations!
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