On topical music and the power of song, nearing the 34th anniversary of Phil Ochs’ death
On September 11, 2001, as I beelined south through Manhattan to get to my girlfriend-at-the-time, trying in vain to absorb what I just saw go down (literally), to make sense of it all in whatever immediate way one can contemplate such a behemoth moment, the chorus which appeared in my head was one by Phil Ochs:
Here is a land full of power and glory,
beauty that words cannot recall.
Her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom,
glory shall rest on us all.
In retrospect, I recognize it’s a strange thing to think in such a context. But that’s where my brain went.
The song from which it comes is, in my opinion, one of the finest assertions of patriotism and loyalty to the American Movement since Woody Guthrie penned “This Land Is Your Land.”
In the weeks following 9/11, as life returned to whatever level of normalcy can come when there are soldiers patrolling 14th Street, people roaming around in gas masks, and traffic not allowed below Canal, I spent a lot of time at open mic nights and whatnot, listening to my songwriter friends try to capture the moment in song. I thought a lot about the kind of song Phil would have written in such a moment, and couldn’t shake the sentiment of “Power and the Glory.” Particularly as time plodded on ever farther, politics and wars took us down paths which, let’s just say, didn’t please me. Those last two lines of the chorus stuck with me.
I’ve read criticisms of Phil’s work which placed it below that of his contemporaries because he was, perhaps, too topical. It’s a frequent complaint about what people refer to as “protest” music or “topical” music (Ochs preferred the latter designation), that songwriters tend not to make those songs universal and timeless. Dylan, for example, captured a somewhat similar sentiment more timelessly with “Blowin in the Wind,” putting the onus on all of us to answer his series of complicated, rhetorical questions. But, if pressed, I’d call “Power and the Glory” the better song. In the words of Pete Seeger, “Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple.” Dylan raises questions; Ochs answers them. Simple.
(Not calling Dylan a fool, by any stretch, but it goes without saying his work is slightly more complicated than Ochs’. Do with that what you will.)
There’s a school of thought which contends trying to make a song timeless – rather, trying to make it anything – is a disservice not only to one’s audience, but also to the song itself. Consider a conversation about something like Civil Rights. Sure, the topic is far-reaching and implies things far beyond the here and now; but in discussing such a thing with an individual, perhaps the most present argument will be the one which sways them one way or another on the topic. Decades later, that argument may appear outdated but that doesn’t mean it was any less powerful when it was made, or any less necessary.
I would also argue there’s no such thing as protest or topical music, since pretty much anything someone could possibly have to say in a song is timely in some context, and topical. (And I don’t mean this purely in the sense of the face value of lyrics, as there’s something current and I’d daresay topical about Lady Gaga’s scat – or whatever the hell that is – in “Bad Romance.” Feel free to chew on that one in the comments.) Further, saying what’s on your mind – whether it be love, loss, or upset with the actions of your government – isn’t really protesting anything; it’s honest. The songs Ochs wrote about the pursuit of justice can just as easily be called love songs, as anything. I’d question anyone who believes dissent is rooted in anything other than great love and passion.
But this is not a blog about socio-political issues; it’s about the memory of Phil Ochs who, had he managed to survive the things which drew him toward his end, would turn 70 this December. Friday will be the 34th anniversary of the day Ochs hanged himself. Though I never saw him perform, much less met him (being born a year after someone’s death inhibits such things a bit), I’ve always had a certain kinship with his work. I miss some of the cultural references, but not the point. His work was urgent, as was the time in which he lived and worked.
Music, like any art form, gives us an opportunity to share the unsharable, the discussions which perhaps would be out of place or inappropriate for a dinner party or a casual conversation over coffee. It turns our minds on to ideas which might feel touchy or offensive if a stranger brought them up out of nowhere. This is as true of love songs as political discourse and dissent. Ochs seemed to understand that moreso than many of his contemporaries, even, and to approach it with a certain disregard toward legacy. It didn’t quite matter whether his songs survived him and remained timeless for generations to come. That wasn’t the point. Of course, it turns out topical songwriters to this day look to his work for inspiration, and continue to evolve his material to fit present events. (Look up “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” and you’ll find several variations re-worked in the folk tradition, with added verses and switched-up lines which could apply to the present day.)
I can’t pretend to know how that fact would delight Ochs now. But, I can recommend a couple of my favorite Phil Ochs songs to anyone so far unfamiliar. And, to those with less time on their hands to go reading other articles, I can share the video below of him performing “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” As I alluded to above, this would be one of those topical songs I’d sooner call a love song. It tells the story of the American Movement as if it were the story of one man who has, through so many violent mistakes, learned the lesson to stop going to war and try some other route. Of course, Ochs doesn’t tell us what would be a better way to solve our differences – he recognized such an enormous idea would be beyond the capacity of a songwriter. Peace is not the journey of a single person, but a pursuit we must focus on together. But, like so many of his songs, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” isn’t aimed at sweeping change; it’s aimed at subtle redirection. The more people Ochs could turn around with such an assertion, the more people may be headed in the same direction. Change one small thing and watch the ripples.
It’s somewhat of an obsession of mine whether a song can change the world, and I’ve asked several songwriters that very question. The most interesting answers to me always indicate something along the lines of, a song can change someone’s mind. Music is, after all, quite literally a force – sound is forced air; music is organized sound. So, given the opportunity to physically alter the flow of air around you, as a songwriter, isn’t that quite an opportunity? I’ve always thought so, but there are discussions on this site which would indicate there are several who might disagree. At any rate, Ochs took advantage of his opportunity to re-steer anyone who might open their minds long enough to hear his music. And this love song to his country is just one example:
Considering all his work continues to make me wonder what Ochs would have done with 9/11, and how he’d have responded to the years which have followed in its ripples. I only ever wrote a single song about my experience, and watched as history unfolded with few songwriters on the large scale wrangling some universal sentiments into song. Steve Earle gave it a go (quite well, in my opinion, but probably not so well to folks on the opposite end of the ideology spectrum than me). Ani DiFranco did her thing. Surely numerous lesser-known artists took their work there, but I’ve yet to see another songwriter as dedicated as Phil Ochs. And, I’ve yet to hear another song which so adequately discusses the things on which we can all agree, the changes we all desire, as well as “Power and the Glory.”