Phil Ochs was a folksinger and songwriter in the 1960s and 1970s. He sang about the issues of the day with a strong political point of view. Ochs was a progressive, a liberal, or a leftist and he made no bones about it. Some of his songs were straight protest songs. In others Ochs used wit and sarcasm to get his point across. He performed live anywhere there was a cause, be it union rallies or anti-war protests. Ochs life was cut short prematurely by hist own demons, but I'm sure you'll find that his entire career was the true embodiment of the moral compass.
Ochs' career began in Greenwich Village in 1962 as a 22 year old. He performed at small venues as part of a community of folksingers who would regularly get together and review the new songs they had. Ochs gathered material for his songs from what went on around him - the civil rights movement, labor union struggles, and politics. He considered himself a journalist as much as a folksinger. In 1963 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival with such greats as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Joan Baez. There he performed "Too Many Martyrs" - a story about the murder of civil rights leader Medgar Evers.
The country gained a killer and the country lost a man
Too many martyrs and too many dead
Too many lies too many empty words were said
Too many times for too many angry men
Oh let it never be again
Who can argue with a song about a civil rights leader killed in cold blood by a white segregationist? For a contrast in styles, he then sang Talking Birmingham Jam, a sarcastic treatment of the events in Birmingham, Alabama where protesters were subdued with fire hydrants and attack dogs.
Well I've seen travelin' many ways
I've traveled in cars and old subways
But in Birmingham some people chose
To fly down the street from a fire hose
Doin' some hard travelin'
From hydrants of plenty
They said, "If you don't like to live this way
Get out of here, go back to the U.S.A
Live with all them Russians and New York folksingers"
I don't think Phil Ochs was welcomed too warmly in Alabama after writing this song.
Obviously the country was in tremendous grief after the assassination of President Kennedy. Ochs was particularly saddened as Kennedy represented the best hope for progressive change at the time. He wrote a beautiful song "That Was The President" which really captured the country's sadness.
The bullets of the false revenge have struck us once again?
As the angry seas have struck upon the sand?
And it seemed as though a friendless world had lost itself a friend?
That was the President and that was the man.
It's not only for the leader that the sorrow hits so hard
There are greater things I'll never understand
How a man so filled with life, even death was caught off guard.
That was the President and that was the man.
Wouldn't we all like to be able to turn a phrase like "How a man so filled with life, even death was caught off guard"
Phil Ochs churned out song after song faster than he could get them recorded. There were no fillers. He sang about what he saw happening in the world. There were no love songs, or songs about light subjects. Every song was either deadly serious, humorous, or biting satire. Appropriately his first album was titled "All The News That's Fit To Sing".
In the period around 1964-1965 Ochs became friends with the much more commercially successful Bob Dylan. Ochs idolized Dylan and wanted his friendship very much but also wanted his fame and success. Dylan for his part always saw Ochs as an inferior songwriter and more of a journalist than a songwriter. In fact, Dylan's songs were more accessible. Everyone could enjoy songs like "Blowin' In The Wind" and "The Times They Are A Changin'" even though Dylan put forth a strong point of view. Many of Ochs' songs made people uncomfortable. Even the most anti-war listeners would hear "Is There Anybody Here" and squirm a bit.
Is there anybody here who thinks that following
the orders takes away the blame
Is there anybody here who wouldn't
mind a murder by another name
Is there anybody here whose pride is on the line
with the honor of the brave and the courage of the blind
I wanna see him
I wanna wish him luck
I wanna shake his hand, ganna call his name
Put a medal on the man
Phil Ochs sang exactly what was on this mind. He relentlessly played live shows no matter what the travel and no matter what the pay. He would choose benefits for causes like labor unions over shows that would pay him better because he wanted his songs to be heard by the widest audiences possible and he believed in the causes. The cause of segregation and racism was one of the most prominent. After the 3 civil rights workers were murdered, he offended the entire state and probably the entire south with his song "Here's To The State of Mississippi"
Here's to the people of Mississippi
Who say the folks up north, they just don't understand
And they tremble in their shadows at the thunder of the Klan
The sweating of their souls can't wash the blood from off their hands
They smile and shrug their shoulders at the murder of a man
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of
As the Vietnam War escalated into high gear, many of Ochs' songs took up the anti-war theme. He appeared at countless anti-war rallies and his songs cut through all of the confusion about war. Perhaps the anthem of the anti-war movement was the song "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore"
For I've killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying I saw many more dying
But I ain't marchin' anymore
It's always the old to lead us to the war
It's always the young to fall
Now look at all we've won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all
In contrast Ochs also came up with the satirical anti-war "Draft Dodger Rag".
Ooh, I hate Chou En Lai, and I hope he dies,
One thing you gotta see
That someone's gotta go over there
And that someone isn't me
So I wish you well, Sarge, give 'em Hell!
Kill me a thousand or so
And if you ever get a war without blood and gore
I'll be the first to go
Liberals and progressives loved his music and no doubt he had no fans on the conservative side. But as a liberal when you thought you were safe and could feel comfortable listening to Phil Ochs, he's come with a song like "Love Me, I'm A Liberal." In the introduction to the live recording, you knew Ochs was going after you as a liberal.
In every American community, there are varying shades of political opinion. One of the shadiest of these is the liberal. Outspoken on many subjects. 10 degrees to the left of center in good times. 10 degrees to the right of center if it affects them personally
I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I'd lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
I cheered when Humphrey was chosen
My faith in the system restored
And I'm glad that the Commies were thrown out
Of the AFL-CIO board
And I love Puerto Ricans and Negroes
As long as they don't move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal
Wow. If you were a typical left-winger going to a Phil Ochs show you would have expected to hear protest songs aimed at the government, racists, and narrow minded right-wingers. With Love Me, I'm a Liberal he was addressing you, the liberal. He would get under your skin, and you knew he was right. Liberals could be just as narrow-minded and hypocritical as conservatives. The song is dated but it's been updated with the same theme by the Dead Kennedys.
In 1967 Ochs left Electra records, moved to California, and began work on a new album. Many folksingers including Dylan were adopting a "folk-rock" sound which mixed in electric guitars. The Byrds were another band that achieved success with a mix of folk and rock. Ochs could have followed in that direction and probably achieved more commercial success. Instead he chose to experiment with classical sounds on songs like Pleasures of the Harbor and a rollicking piano on the sarcastic "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends". The latter song in the typical Ochs style was a devastating parody aimed at everyone who refused to care about their fellow citizens.
Oh, look outside the window
There's a woman being grabbed
They've dragged her to the bushes
And now she's being stabbed
Maybe we should call the cops
And try to stop the pain
But Monopoly is so much fun
I'd hate to blow the game
The song was banned in many places from the radio because of its mention of smoking marijuana.
Phil Ochs continued his activism, holding numerous "War is Over" which went along with his song that simply declared the Viet Nam war to be over. He participated in the protests at the Democratic convention in Chicago, where riots occurred 8 men were arrested and charged with conspiracy to incite a riot. Ochs testified in defense of the men and recited the lyrics to "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore" as part of his testimony.
Unfortunately for his cause, the anti-war movement was split between moderates and radicals, allowing Nixon to win the 1968 election and continue the war for 7 more years. Ochs continued to evolve musically and continued to show up for causes, but his output of songs slowed, as he suffered from severe depression and alcoholism. He was deeply disillusioned by Nixon's presidency, the CIA involvement of the coup in Chile, and the continuation of the Viet Nam war. When the war finally ended on April 30, 1975, Ochs and others held a hastily planned "War is Over" rally in Central Park that included Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Harry Belafonte, and Odetta.
Ochs' personal struggle intensified after the end of the war. His behavior was erratic and his alcoholism was out of control. While the end of the war should have been a time to celebrate, for Ochs it meant there was nothing to protest anymore. He was diagnosed with manic depression but he refused to be hospitalized. Family and friends tried valiantly to help but he was emotionally a wreck and on April 9, 1976 he took his own life.
Phil Ochs is remembered as a singing journalist who continues to influence folksingers and progressive activists. A number of tributes have been written for Phil Ochs, including Harry Chapin's "The Parade's Still Passing By"
You weren't no leader you were more like a bleeder
Who was trying to cry for us all
You weren't no sage but your sense of outrage
Sounded like a curtain call
His music continues to be played everywhere. Family members travel around the country continually and organize Phil Ochs song nights, where local musicians make a night of singing his songs and paying tribute to Phil. See the resources section where you'll find a variety of videos of Phil Ochs songs and tributes.
It's fitting that one of his saddest and poignant songs is "When I'm Gone"
There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
Any you won't find me singing on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here