With the current fervor for social transformation in the air, it’s a good time to cue an odd-sounding idea at the hidden core of the 1960s social transformation (click for link):
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)
Per my last post, describing Joe Cocker’s band at Woodstock (1969) as remarkably contemporary in sound and appearance and Elvis (in the 1962 clip) as a character from a bygone era (despite his intrinsic merits), I received a good-natured complaint that I underestimated Elvis’s own ability to shock and rattle the culture of his day. He was not just some 1960s “square” holding onto the old ways.
Guilty as charged. Or half guilty. I will now do Elvis the service I did to Joe Cocker and the Woodstock generation in the previous post. I’ll post the famous theme song from one of the most popular TV shows of 1952, followed by a re-post of the clip with Elvis singing the #1 song of 1962.
From The Roy Rogers Show (1951-1957, song by Dale Evans, released 1952)
Elvis in Girls, Girls, Girls (1962)
In this context, one can see Elvis as all-round provocative to the Roy Rogers generation that preceded him. That’s my half-guilty part. But I claim half-innocence as well, insofar as the central thesis of my previous post still stands: If you stumbled upon a festival in the park today, Elvis, however risqué he may have been to his elders, would cut an odd and outdated figure on the stage, whereas Joe Cocker’s band would fit right in.
Now, as microscopically scanning others for flaws so that we might sit in public judgment over them has become the #1 national pastime (at least in the US), I hereby submit myself to your judgment. Innocent or guilty of misrepresenting my case?
P. S. For those of you following this choppy musical path from 1952 to the Woodstock generation, note that Janis Joplin recorded a version of “Happy Trails” to send to John Lennon shortly before she died in 1970.
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(Click covers for links)
You always hear about rapid cultural change in the 1960s. Is it true? Is it measurable?
Here are two clips:
- The #1 song of 1962, set in a film clip that captures the cultural moment in all its imagery
- A song from 1969, set in a documentary clip that also captures the cultural moment in all its imagery
You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can read on for mine 😊
The culture shifted more in those 7 years than it has in the 50 years since. Why do I say so? Because if you look at the dress, the haircuts, the sound on that Joe Cocker stage, these guys could pop up at any outdoor festival today and not be out of place. Elvis, though – I love Elvis, I’ve been to Elvis’s house in Tupelo – but culturally, Elvis seems a million miles away in this clip compared to the Woodstock scene.
P.S. If you are wondering what the hell Joe Cocker is saying (and can’t remember the Beatles original), try this “misheard lyrics” version:
(Click covers below for links)
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