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Fascinating "Collaboration"
War War War
Country Joe McDonald
(from the poetry of Robert W. Service)

Most people these days, if they know Robert W Service's name at all, know him as the author of either "The Cremation of Sam McGee" or "The Shooting of Dan McGrew" (or both); both ironic and very funny pseudo-epic pieces from his time in the Yukon.

But there is another side to Service's work; he was a war correspondent and ambulance driver in World War One, and he wrote some truly harrowing poetry inspired by the experience.

And from those poems, Country Joe McDonald has chosen eight (and a ninth -- "The March of the Dead" -- from the Boer War), setting them to a perfectly-realised sparse acoustic accompaniment featuring just 12-string guitar, harmonica and a touch of organ, which sets off Joe's slightly nasal, somewhat reedy voice excellently.

The standout piece is "The Ballad of Jean Desprez", a nine-and-a-half minute account of reprisals and counter-reprisals in a small French village; Jean Desprez is a nine year old peasant boy who finds himself in the middle of events beyond his control or even comprehension, and proves in at least one way equal to the moment. It builds to an inevitable, tragic-heroic conclusion.

Other songs:

"The Munition Maker" -- a man who has become "rajah-rich" through arms sales... but who knows "...there are no pockets in a shroud..."

"War Widow" -- bitterly ironic little ditty that explains how war is a Good Thing because it keeps the population down (resonates with Joe's own "Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die Rag" -- "War's good business, invest your son!")

"The Man from Aphabaska" is a trapper from backwoods Canada who's an "exhibition sniper" in the trenches, holding his fellow poilus spellbound with stories of the wilderness.

"The Twins" summarises the lives of twin brothers, one of whom is a Good Soldier, one of whom is a shirker and profiteer. Guess which lies in the Potter's Field?

Brilliant, spare and moving.

More than worthy of your attention.

{Originally posted 6 December 2003}
"More than worthy of your attention?" Yes -- especially in 2005.

This album came out originally during the latter part of the Viet Nam war -- Joe McDonald was a Navy vet who did two Viet Nam tours before coming home to write songs such as the "Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag" and to work against that war. I served a year at the Naval Communication Station at Cam Ranh Bay, Viet Nam.   After i was discharged, i took part in some demonstrations and protests against the war, myself.

My step-son-in-law is currently in Baghdad, serving in a unit that has, proportionally, taken higher casualties than almost any other.

I think it's time to dust off some of the old songs and symbols and signs and make ourselves heard again.