The Legacy of Phil Ochs
By Sandy Carter
In the past three decades, the turbulent era known as “the 1960s” has been so worked over by the mainstream media that its become almost impossible to recall that these were years in which all of society’s fundamental relations of power were being questioned and assaulted. Not by everyone. But by a very vocal, idealistic, activist minority. It was this portion of the “60s generation” that the songs of Phil Ochs represented and inspired.
With his clear, youthful voice, satiric wit, righteous performance style and directly stated topical songs, Phil Ochs challenged his audience to political action. Although his vocal range was limited and his guitar playing rudimentary, Phil Ochs sang and wrote with such a passionate sense of conviction and integrity that he became one of the leading voices of the folk/protest boom of the early 1960s.
In the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Phil Ochs sang the news of struggle addressing events and issues related to the civil rights, anti-Viet Nam, student, and labor movements. More than just a reporter, however, Ochs was a singer of ideas posing a critique of an entire social order. Unfortunately, as the movements of the 60s lost their momentum and deteriorated, Phil Ochs also lost his way. At the age of 35, disillusioned and depressed, he hanged himself on April 9, 1976.
Although he enjoyed a devoted following among more radicalized music listeners and was widely appreciated by his songwriting peers, Phil Ochs never made the crossover to pop scale popularity and in the decades since his death his musical legacy has gone almost completely unappreciated. The recent release of Rhino Records three-CD package Farewells And Fantasies: The Phil Ochs Collection, however, provides an absorbing and comprehensive overview of Ochs social and musical vision.
Spanning Ochs’ 12-year recording career (1964-1975), Farewells And Fantasies features 53 tracks (four previously unreleased) and a respectfully designed CD booklet, including photographs from brother Michael Ochs’s Archives, introductory remarks by Ochs’s daughter Meegan, and insightful commentary by writers Michael Ventura, Mark Kemp, and Ben Edmonds. Stirring and revelatory, sad and tragic, Farewells and Fantasies traces the rise and fall of an artist dedicated to the notion of popular music as a weapon of social change, but who in the end came to see his life and songs as useless.
Here’s a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh, her power will rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all, on us all
Listening to any of Phil Ochs’s early material, one is immediately struck by an air of optimism and innocence that seems so distant from the mood of the late 1990s. Tunes (all on disc one) such as “What’s That I Hear,” “Power And The Glory” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” are the sounds of heroic, naive youth waking up to the contradictions of American democracy. Like many young people growing up in the 1960s, Phil Ochs took seriously American ideals of freedom, equality, and justice for all. But he was also becoming aware of the nation’s hidden history of class struggle, imperial foreign policy, and racial oppression. In retrospect some of his lyrics may seem rhetorical, artistically dry, and less than subversive, but Ochs’s earnest, unequivocal protest stripped away the head-in-the-sand fantasies of the 1950s. More importantly, Ochs’s topical songs urged listeners to heed “the sound of freedom callin'” by joining a struggle to make the U.S. live up to its ideals.
As he stated in a 1965 interview with the folk magazine Broadside: “It’s not enough to know the world is absurd and restrict yourself merely to pointing out that fact…It is wrong to expect a reward for your struggles. The reward is the act of struggle itself, not what you win. Even though you can’t expect to defeat the absurdity of the world, you must make the attempt. That’s morality, that’s religion, that’s art, that’s life.”
According to Michael Schumacher’s recent biography, There But For Fortune: The Life Of Phil Ochs (Hyperion, 1996), there was little in Ochs’s early life indicating a passion for politics. Born December 19, 1940 in El Paso, Texas, Ochs lived with his mother, Gertrude, sister, Sonia, and brother, Michael, in the Southwest while his father, Jack, served as a doctor in World War II. On returning from the war, his father was diagnosed with manic depression and put away for two years at a Long Island hospital to receive psychiatric treatment. Following discharge, his father began pursuing an erratic medical career that had Ochs living in New York and Ohio before being sent off to high school at the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia where he graduated in 1958.
Phil Ochs’s parents had never shown any particular interest in politics, and at the time he entered Ohio State University, Ochs’s primary enthusiasms were movies, country music, and rock and roll. Through his roommate, Jim Glover, he was introduced to the dust-bowl ballads of Woody Guthrie and the politically inspired folk music of Pete Seeger and The Weavers. This interest quickly rubbed off on Ochs, as did the influence of hours of political debate with Glover, whose father was an avowed Marxist. Soon enough, Phil Ochs was helping organize campus dissent against ROTC and the student government, while writing opinion articles for the student newspaper. With Glover on banjo and himself on guitar, Ochs began singing topical songs in local clubs in a folk group the duo dubbed the Singing Socialists (later changed to the less controversial Sundowners).
And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here
Following a falling out with Glover for failing to practice one of the group’s new songs, Ochs began performing on his own and eventually landed some dates at Farragher’s Bar in Cleveland. There he attracted a following while opening for national touring acts such as Judy Henske, the Smothers Brothers, the Greenbriar Boys, and Bob Gibson, who encouraged Ochs to take a plunge into the exploding folk scene in Greenwich Village. Arriving in New York City in 1962, Phil Ochs quickly established himself in the vanguard of folk boom performers that included Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen, Dave Van Ronk, and an exploding sensation named Bob Dylan.
Although Ochs befriended Dylan and became a strong advocate of his work, the relationship between the two songwriters was highly competitive. Their verbal sparring about who wrote better songs became increasingly nasty in the wake of Dylan’s critical and commercial success. Like other singer-song-writers in the Village, Ochs envied Dylan’s glory. But conflicts between the two also stemmed from artistic differences. As Dylan’s immense talent and ambition pushed him beyond the canons of orthodox folk music and topical protest, Ochs remained an activist-folksinger.
Reviewing their performances at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964, and siding with Ochs, Broadside’s Paul Wolf described the differences between Ochs and Dylan as “meaning vs. innocuousness, sincerity vs. utter disregard for the tastes of the audience, idealistic principle vs. self-conscious egotism.” On the other side, Dylan’s cutting tongue summed up critical sentiments of the Ochs school of songwriting. In arguments, Ochs could hold his own with anyone, but the stinging charges from Dylan–“You ought to find a new line of work,” “Why don’t you just become a stand-up comic?,” “You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist”–were complaints that followed Ochs throughout his career.
While many movement activists and folk fans appreciated his straight-forward, outspoken leftist reportage, critics complained of the lack of strong poetic imagery in his lyrics, mediocre melodies, simple guitar technique and spare, undramatic vocals. For his part, Ochs, according to Schumacher, remained a huge admirer of Dylan’s work and accepted the fact that his own style might take awhile to reach a broad audience. Nonetheless, he would not alter his approach, for as he put it, “One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.” To those that contended topical songs were artless and soon to be forgotten, he responded, “Many topical songs written now will work their way into our oral tradition and become a permanent mirror of the folkways and social issues of our time.”
In a few years, Ochs would bend in Dylan’s direction toward more poetic and personal writing, but through the mid-1960s he was a clearly defined New Left troubadour churning out provocative “consciousness raising” songs about racist violence in the South (“Too Many Martyrs,” “Here’s To The State Of Mississippi”), the Harlem riots of 1964 (“In The Heat Of The Summer”), the inadequacies of Liberal politics (“Love Me, I’m A Liberal”), the Viet Nam War ( “White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land,” “We Seek No Wider War,” “Draft Dodger Rag”), migrant farm labor (“Bracero”), US imperialism (“Santo Domingo,” “Cops Of The World”), church politics (“Canons Of Christianity”) and the whims of fate (“There But For Fortune”).
Though “protest music” managed a few mainstream breakthroughs (Peter, Paul and Mary’s version of Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind” and Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction”) in the 1960s, Ochs’s music was far too political and unadorned to receive radio play. Joan Baez, in September of 1965, gained her first Top 50 hit with a cover of “There But For Fortune,” but by then Dylan had scandalized the folk world by strapping on an electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival earlier that summer and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were in Ochs’s words “raising the quality of Top 40.” Although Ochs continued to steer his own course, he showed a definite interest in exploring fresh musical ideas. As he told one interviewer, “I’m at a point in my songwriting where I give more consideration to the art involved in my songs rather than the politics.”
This shift in direction did not mean that Ochs was becoming any less “political.” He remained an activist singer playing his overt protest songs at clubs, demonstrations, and rallies. But as the times grew more confrontational, he was looking for expression “that can turn me inside out with the communication of feeling.” In 1967, on his fourth album, Pleasures Of The Harbor, Ochs employed a bold fusion of pop, jazz, classical, and avant-garde sounds to texture his perspective on a bleak society degenerating into chaos and apathy. Although the songs make reference to all sorts of social maladies, Ochs now seemed to be documenting a personal struggle with fear and despair.
Folk purists and fans of Ochs’s spare guitar-voice albums, railed against Pleasures Of The Harbor as a capitulation to ego and commercialism a la Dylan. The album, however, climbed no higher than 168 on the Billboard charts and Ochs’s politics still leaned far to the left. The changes in his music, though, did reflect a turning point. While he was hopeful and committed to radical social change, Ochs’s songs would increasingly focus on themes of American decadence. According to his biographer, Schumacher, the street clashes between protesters and police at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago further darkened his outlook.
In the aftermath of the convention, Ochs’s songs showed more traces of cynicism, doubt, and isolation. More and more he questioned his sense of purpose. It did not help that as he probed these emotions on more personal and musically adventurous albums, Tape From California (1968), Rehearsals For Retirement (1968), Greatest Hits (1970) and Gunfight At Carnegie Hall (recorded live in 1970; released in 1975), he found his music less accepted.
The painter paints his brushes black
Through the canvas runs a crack
The portrait of the pain
Never answers back
Material from this latter period of Ochs’s career stretches over the last half of Farewells And Fantasies and these recordings are certainly his most disturbing and least satisfying. Ochs’s experiments with various rock, country and classical arrangements too often cluttered and overwhelmed his songs. His strain for poetic imagery, as evidenced on “The Doll House,” seemed both empty and pretentious (“The flower fled from my feet/Tom Sawyer voice through the hole of the key/Landed so gently/The castles cover the cave/I had no choice, the visions were brave/And the phantoms were friendly).
Nonetheless, his so-called “personal period” produced some of his most visionary songs about social and moral decay (“When In Rome” and “Pretty Smart On My Part”), a 22-verse salute to labor hero Joe Hill (not included on Farewells And Fantasies), a catchy, bouncy ditty denouncing cynicism and apathy (“Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends”), a delicate, touching meditation on the loss of beauty and dreams (“Flower Lady”), and a classic warning about the lure and corruption of success (“Chords Of Fame”).
Despite these flashes of brilliance, it is clear, following the emotional arc of disc three of Farewells and Fantasies, that we are hearing a life winding down. The signs are more subtle on “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns,” a harrowing tale of a sunken nuclear submarine, but on “No More Songs” (“Hello, hello, hello/Is there anybody home?/I only called to say I’m sorry/The drums are in the dawn/And all the voices gone/And it seems there are no more songs”) and “Rehearsals For Retirement” (“The days grow longer for smaller prizes/I feel a stranger to all surprises/You can have them, I don’t want them”) speaks openly of his surrender and defeat.
With the breakdown of popular political struggle and his increasing anguish about the direction of society, Ochs lost his muse and began a decent into numbing depression, alcoholism, drugs, violent rages and paranoia. With his recording career effectively over in 1970, he fought to regain hope and a sense of mission with travel to Europe, Chile, the Far East, and Africa (where his vocal chords were badly damaged in a mugging). Upon his return home, Ochs’s political juices would be temporarily revived. In 1973, he organized “An Evening With Salvador Allende” as a Madison Square Garden benefit for refugees fleeing Chile and in May 1975, he celebrated the end of the Viet Nam War at a concert at Central Park.
His depression would always return. In his gruesome account of Ochs’ final years, Schumacher details how he went so far as to inhabit a persona named John Train to live out his most destructive impulses. Though he eventually discarded the Train personality, Ochs could not escape his feelings of futility. His life and the world were finally too much bear.
Like other young people of his time, Phil Ochs was swept up by the passion, events, and ideas of an intoxicating, singular historical moment. His most memorable songs are ones that embody that era’s audacious rebellion and idealism. Most of these songs, however, have limited popular appeal. Partly, this is due to the limits of his voice and music. But there is also the controversy around his politics. Ochs once said, “A protest song is a song that’s so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” Accordingly, he loaded his songs with history, ideas, questions, and news, while making it bluntly obvious which side he was on. Today, as in the 1960s and 1970s, his point of view remains threatening and outside the frame of mainstream political discussion.
Contrary to those who deplore the mix of politics and topicality in popular music, his tunes are neither mere memories or time bound documents of by-gone concerns. Though he could write songs that were “poetic” and “personal” (listen again to his tender masterpiece “Changes”), what Phil Ochs did best was to challenge indifference and injustice. In the end, he couldn’t live without the sense of these challenges being answered. But as Farewells And Fantasies reminds us, what he left behind is an enduring call to change the world.