Review: Phil Ochs – On My Way (Micro Werks, 2010)
The folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s produced its share of recorded artifacts, reproduced on tape, vinyl, CD and most recently MP3, but it also held tightly to the tradition of live performance and the transmission of songs from one wandering minstrel to the next. Phil Ochs recorded his own share of treasured LPs, including his 1964 debut All the News That’s Fit to Sing and the seminal follow-up I Ain’t Marching Anymore, but in 1963 his songs were still heard only on stage in live performance. A couple of years ago, this reel of forgotten demo recordings turned up and was purchased at auction by Ochs’ brother Michael. Recorded at the Florida home of future Highwayman Roy Connors, the informal session finds Ochs running through his original material, including several key titles he’d later record for studio releases, in the hope of interesting other artists (in this case Connors’ Vikings Three) in playing or recording his songs.
Several collections of Ochs demos have been released under the Broadside banner, but these 1963 performances sport several key differences. When recording for Broadside, Ochs’ was laying out his lyrics for publication in a magazine, rather than selling his songs; he left out chorus repeats and often sang in a matter-of-fact fashion that made the lyrics clear but didn’t lean on the whole song’s craft. In contrast, these twenty-five self-penned compositions are being sold to fellow musicians. Ochs not only sings the songs as he would on stage, he speaks to the songs’ subjects, their chord structures, and to their recent reception by live audiences. Aside from the high quality of the performances and the number of rare Ochs originals, these recordings provide an unusual peek into the working musician’s back room where songs are taught and traded.
The solo format – Ochs and his acoustic guitar – was easy to record, and the balance of voice and instrument is excellent. There are some dropouts and a few rough spots in the tapes, but nothing that really detracts from the listening experience. What comes through loud and clear is Ochs’ devotion to his subjects, something he proclaimed directly in “I’ll Be There.” One might expect a topical singer of the early 1960s to sound quaint and dated in the twenty-first century, but Ochs’ themes, complaints and observations of social injustices and political realities remain sadly resonant in modern times. He excoriates greedy corporations (“The Ballad of U.S. Steel”), is disgusted by the impact of market economics on health care (“The A.M.A. Song”) and wonders about the prohibition of travel to Cuba (“The Ballad of William Worthy”). He rips songs from the headlines, lamenting the vicious death of a boxer, a cross-fire killing on the streets of New York City, and the hard times of a Kentucky coal miner’s strike.
Ochs could also be quite touching, singing nostalgic laments (“Time Was”) and lonely observations (“Morning” and “First Snow”), proclaiming his love of country, flaws and all, on a powerful early version of “The Power and the Glory,” and riffing on “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out” for the humorous “Once I Lived the Life of a Commissar.” This is a terrific package, documenting a folk troubadour early in his career, bursting with music that had something to say. In addition to the twenty-five songs, the tri-fold cardboard slipcase includes reproductions of two ads for the House of Pegasus concert run that brought Ochs to Florida in 1963, and liner notes by Michael Simmons. This is an important release for fans, and a terrific document of the folk-roots revival. It’s more spontaneous than Ochs’ studio albums, and though not as polished as his official live albums, the passion, craft and dedication that minted Ochs’ legend still burn brightly in these demos forty-seven years later.