February 18, 2011

Country Joe brings Florence Nightingale’s legacy to life

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

Nurses have a friend in the music business, I discovered recently. Country Joe McDonald, who many will remember as the creator of one of the most famous anti-Vietnam war anthems, has become enamored with nursing angel Florence Nightingale and her dedicated, compassionate and intelligent successors.

McDonald, who inspired 300,000 Woodstock Festival revelers in 1969 with his "I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag," today sings the praises of nurses who carry on the tradition begun by Nightingale in 19th century Europe.

He has developed a comprehensive Florence Nightingale Web site and a 50-minute live show that incorporates the story of Nightingale and of the many who have followed in her footsteps, especially in times of war. In the road show, McDonald performs four original songs of tribute to nurses.

Country Joe at Nightingale's grave in East Wellow, England. Photo by David Bennett Cohen

Nightingale marshaled female forces to care for war victims

An upper-class Englishwoman, Nightingale (1820-1910) embarked on an aggressive nursing mission in her early 30s. In 1854, she essentially forced the English army to allow her and 37 other women to take care of wounded soldiers on the Turkey battlefront in the Crimean war. At first the army rejected the women’s help but relented and welcomed the nurses when the casualties became overwhelming.

The first action Nightingale took was to clean up the hospitals and the patients to prevent unnecessary deaths from infections. After the war, she implemented sanitary measures in English hospitals and applied her mathematical skills to collecting data and showing how by insisting on sterile environments nurses could save lives.

Nurses stand by soldiers in war

McDonald, who co-founded the 1960s rock band Country Joe and the Fish, became interested in Nightingale when he went to a 1981 seminar about the problems of Vietnam veterans in Berkeley, California. His eyes were opened to the contribution of nurses throughout history, and he realized that nurses who cared for the war-injured had not been adequately recognized.

“One speaker was a Vietnam War nurse named Lynda Van Devanter who was the first Vietnam War nurse to ‘come out’ and speak for women in the military. As a member of the audience I was stunned at the realization that I was also guilty of ignoring women in the military in my writings,” relates McDonald, who joined the U.S. Navy in 1959 but did not see action.

After the seminar, he looked up nursing in the encyclopedia and found a biography of Florence Nightingale, considered the founder of modern nursing. Next he went to the now-defunct Holmes Bookstore in Oakland, California, and bought an autographed copy of Sir Edward Cook’s Nightingale biography. McDonald devoured all he could find about Nightingale's life and work — and was hooked.

“I visited Florence Nightingale's home at Embley (England) along with her gravesite at East Wellow, her summer home Lea Hurst (in Derbyshire, England), the Selimiye Barracks Hospital in Turkey (scene of the care of the Crimean War victims), and Kaiserswerth in Germany (where she graduated from nursing school). I began work on a major film treatment of her life. I am still working on that film treatment and am still a student of her life,” he writes on his Web site.

Singing praises to the lady nurse

One of McDonald’s tribute songs, “Lady of the Lamp,” recalls Nightingale’s nightly walk among the mass of war injured during the Crimean War. Carrying a lamp, she covered a four-mile route as she checked on patients lying on cots 18 inches apart. Legend has it that the soldiers kissed her shadow as she passed.

McDonald has also penned and performed three other songs, “The Girl Next Door (Combat Nurse),” “Clara Barton,” and “Thank the Nurse.” “The Girl Next Door” is the closest to McDonald’s Vietnam War protest message, with the lyrics pondering the “why” of war. The song begins:

She grew up in America, just the girl next door

Never thought to question what we were fighting for

They sent her off to war and showed her death and pain

And the girl next door will never be the same.

You can see the similar sentiments in McDonald’s spirited and passionate “I Feel Like I’m Fixin’ to Die Rag:”

Well come on all of you big strong men, Uncle Sam needs your help again,

He got himself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam,

Put down your books and pick up a gun, we're gunna have a whole lotta fun.


and its 1,2,3 what are we fightin for?

don't ask me i don't give a dam, the next stop is Vietnam,

and its 5,6,7 open up the pearly gates. Well there aint no time to wonder why...WHOPEE we're all gunna die.

now come on wall street don't be slow, why man this's war a-go-go,

there's plenty good money to be made, supplyin' the army with the tools of the trade,

just hope and pray that when they drop the bomb, they drop it on the Vietcong.

Affinity for nursing runs in the McDonald family

The last song “Thank the Nurse” pays tribute to the everyday nurse who does the hard work of standing by the sick night and day. The lyrics are timeless but apropos for today. Joe McDonald should know about a nurse’s daily work: His wife Kathy McDonald is a labor and delivery nurse at Kaiser Permanente (KP) Oakland, California, and his brother Billy is a nurse practitioner at KP in nearby Richmond.


Thank the Nurse that's nursing you.

The one that nursed you through.

Thank the Nurse that's nursing you,

For saving your life....for saving your life..


"Country Joe's Tribute to Florence Nightingale and Nursing," debuted at the Berkeley Fellowship of Unitarian Universalists in 2009. Joe continues to take the show on the road and will perform March 2 at Emporia State University in Emporia, Kansas. Audio clips of his songs and the lyrics are available online.

McDonald’s Web site has an educational bent, and teachers can find encyclopedic quality facts about Florence Nightingale and her legacy. Visitors to the site can even access a YouTube video that has an 1890 audio of Nightingale speaking. She recorded a segment for an English cancer prevention campaign in which she said: When I am no longer even a memory — just a name, I hope my voice may perpetuate the great work of my life.”