Country Joe McDonald arrived at Woodstock a couple of days before he and his band, The Fish, were set to play. He wanted to sit on stage and watch the other acts perform.
But one of the bands, Santana, was late to arrive at the famed 1969 rock festival. So organizers asked McDonald to fill in solo on acoustic guitar.
"I didn't have a guitar so they found me one, and asked me to just sing some songs," he said.
McDonald had just returned from Nashville, where he had recorded a solo album of country music and Woody Guthrie songs.
"So I sang a few of those songs, and nobody really paid attention to me," he said.
McDonald said he walked off the stage and asked his tour manager if it would be OK for him to sing "The Fish Cheer" and his Vietnam song ("I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"). The tour manager agreed.
"The Fish Cheer" starts with McDonald calling to the audience, "Give me an F!" The audience responds in kind. McDonald then exhorts the audience to "Give me a U!" You can guess the rest.
"I went and did the 'Cheer' and they all started paying attention to me. I sang the song and much to my surprise, they started standing up and singing along," he said.
McDonald was unaware just how iconic the Vietnam song's chorus — "One, two, three, what are we fighting for?" — would become to the war protest and for a generation of music fans.
The folk singer-songwriter will perform at "An Evening with Country Joe McDonald: Reflections on the Summer of Love and Woody Guthrie" Wednesday, Nov. 15, at the Majestic Theatre. The show is part of Oregon State University College of Liberal Arts' American Strings Series. A question-and-answer session will be led by Bob Santelli, OSU director of popular music and performing arts and founding Grammy Museum executive director.
McDonald, a Southern California native who still lives in the area, started playing the guitar when he was 10 and also played the trombone in his high school marching band. He was influenced by everything he heard on the radio, from gospel and rhythm and blues to country and jazz.
"I came up to the San Francisco area in the summer of 1965 and met a guy, and we started playing together as a duo," McDonald said. "We made a little record with some other people, and invented the name Country Joe and the Fish."
He founded the group with Barry "The Fish" Melton as an acoustic band. The band went electric when Bob Dylan and others did.
Country Joe McDonald and the Fish signed a record contract with Vanguard Records in 1966, after an audition in Berkeley, California.
The psychedelic rock band released two albums, "Electric Music for the Mind and Body" and "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die" in 1967. That June they performed at the Monterey Pop Festival during the "Summer of Love."
McDonald said he didn't know his 30-minute performance at Woodstock in 1969 was being recorded for a documentary film and album.
"A couple of months later, Michael Wadleigh flew me down to Los Angeles and showed me the clip of me singing that song and the movie. I was pretty blown away," he said.
Did McDonald think that song would go on to become such a famous Vietnam protest anthem?
"I had no idea. It took many years for me to realize that had happened, actually," he said.
McDonald said the song was a part of the band's repertoire but wasn't a highlight of their concerts before Woodstock.
"But because of the movie it became a touchstone for the Vietnam War," he said. "It was unique in its attitude and not blaming soldiers for war."
Country Joe McDonald and the Fish broke up in 1970, and he moved on to a solo career.
McDonald, a veteran who enlisted in the Navy at age 17, worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War in the 1970s and '80s. He performed at the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., sang at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, and helped to build the Berkeley Vietnam Veterans War Memorial.
McDonald said he wrote 20 to 22 songs about the Vietnam War, including the album "Vietnam Experience" in 1986.
He said he enjoyed spending time with other veterans.
McDonald released 36 albums in more than four decades as a touring folk and rock musician. Almost two years ago, he released his latest work.
"I made a rock 'n' roll album. It's called '50.' Fifty years had passed from the first album to this album," he said.
At his performance, McDonald says he will play Woody Guthrie songs with a mix of spoken word and, of course, his Vietnam song.
The 75-year-old said he pretty much considers himself retired these days.
"It's a special thing to fly up to Corvallis," he said.