Phil Ochs 1940–1976
American songwriter, singer, and musician.
Ochs was a major force in the folk music boom of the mid-sixties. His biting satirizations, offhand humor, and deep commitment to change made him one of the most important topical songwriters of that period. Only Bob Dylan was more popular among Greenwich Village songwriters and protest singers.
Ochs began writing songs during the early sixties while studying journalism at Ohio State University. He also began publishing a small radical newspaper called The Word, and the content of his songs paralleled its left-wing, journalistic approach. Ochs dropped out of school, went to New York, and recorded his first album, All the News That's Fit to Sing, in 1964. This collection of songs pointed the way to his future efforts, including "I Ain't Marching Anymore," "Draft Dodger Rag," and "There But for Fortune," Ochs became popular among American radicals, but his success came just as Dylan abandoned topical songwriting for rock, and Ochs's brand of songwriting did not gain a wider following. Still, his 1967 album Pleasures of the Harbor is generally regarded as his best, containing both tender ballads and stinging satire.
Ochs misjudged the timing of his comeback. In 1970 he played 50s rock 'n' roll at Carnegie Hall dressed in a gold lamé suit, and alienated the few fans he still had. This time, however, Ochs was a step ahead—the nostalgia trend was a few years away. He seemed to realize, however, that he could not escape his radical roots. He became depressed as he saw his brand of music dying and American youth becoming apathetic. His 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement pictured his tombstone, and implied that his spirit had died with the 1968 Chicago convention. In 1976, despondent over his lack of commercial success and his inability to create new material, he committed suicide. Ochs expressed the political feelings of many young people with special eloquence. His songs are still felt to be listenable and to have meaning due to the sincerity, conviction, and belief in a better society that Ochs brought to them. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 65-68.)
Bob Dylan is 21, Phil Ochs 22, Mark Spoelstra 23, Len Chandler and Tom Paxton 25, and Peter LaFarge is the oldest of the bunch at 32…. Besides their youth they have another thing in common: they belong to a whole new school of topical songwriter-performers that has emerged in American this past year or so and is today at a peak of song production. Much of their work is of a surprisingly high artistic quality, and according to some critics may be superior as music and poetry to anything of this nature we have witnessed before. (pp. 12-13)
[It] must be said here that they are by no means just topical songwriters. Actually, they are in the main extraordinarily gifted and versatile….
[Above] all, these are keen-minded young men greatly concerned with the world around them….
They all share basic similarities. They are unafraid of "controversial" ideas and are determined that what they say shall be heard. Although each has his own individual style, their music—as well as their uninhibited approach to subject matter—is deeply grounded in American folksong. They are artists, and when they tackle such issues as peace and integration what comes out are not cliches, but good poetry which hits you where you aren't looking. (p. 13)
Ochs gets most of his songs straight out of the day's headlines ("William Worthy", "The A.M.A.", "Ballad of Oxford, Mississippi"). His lyrics are...
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If Bob Dylan is the king of protest—and some might say he's already abdicated—Phil Ochs … is the president.
Still in his mid twenties, he has reached a position where Dylan can say of him: "I just can't keep up with Phil. And he's getting better and better and better."…
Unlike some other protesters, his attacks aren't safe and generalised. He chooses his targets well, and he hits them hard—so hard, that when in one recent song he invited the State of Mississippi to "find yourself another country to belong to" he got protests from outraged liberals who said that the people of Mississippi aren't all bad.
In spite of this, Phil sees himself as primarily an artist….
Phil's songs have a tremendous impact, not the least because his protest isn't against the same old safe subjects, the Bomb, race hate and so on. It's easy to be against them.
Pete Seeger said the chorus of "Lou Marsh" was the finest he'd ever heard in a topical song. And this is about the murder of a social worker who was trying to keep teenage New York kids from fighting.
It's the sort of song that takes protest out of the safe, never-never land of "them" and turns it savagely against the responsibility of the individual for the ills of today.
Karl Dallas, "Dylan Said It—'I Can't Keep Up with Phil'," in Melody Maker (© IPC...
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[Phil Ochs] has been especially effective in his talking blues, where his wonderful sense of humor has forced hostile audiences to laugh and even question their beliefs on such controversial topics as Cuba and Vietnam. Ochs' style is not poetic, it is, rather, straightforward and natural, well adapted to the understatement of the talking blues. (pp. 87-8)
["Talking Cuba"] is typical of Phil Ochs' work in its humor, and in the number of its versions—he is always rewriting and improving his songs. (p. 88)
His training as a journalist is an invaluable asset. Ochs' songs contain clearly stated ideas that are at times brilliantly merged with flowing tunes.
Perhaps the best example is "Links on the Chain." The central image is a chain that represents labor's strength. (pp. 88-9)
Josh Dunson, "Song Writer-Singers: Phil Ochs," in his Freedom in the Air: Song Movements of the Sixties (copyright © by International Publishers Co., Inc., 1965), International Publishers, 1965, pp. 86-9.
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Phil Ochs is one of those songwriter-performers who continues to hit where it hurts; who keeps trying for a clean knockout. It is true he writes "Changes," but in almost the same breath he turns out the Brechtian "Cops Of The World," one of the most scathing indictments yet of the brutal stormtrooper arrogance of Americans who contemplate themselves as the noble policemen of the globe….
In a sense Ochs is writing from the inside, as a representative of the social strata which has brought our present dilemma to pass. He is a modern type "folksinger," that is one with an urban, college campus background…. Once he got going, however, he went all the way; among his 200 songs, anti-war, anti-discrimination, anti-hypocrisy, are some of the bluntest that any songwriter has written in the sixties. And he keeps straight toward the goal he has set for himself, namely "to demolish some of the idiocies of our society."
Gordon Friesan, "Phil Ochs," in Sing Out! (© 1966 Sing Out! Magazine, Inc.; 505-8th Ave., NY, NY 10018; excerpted with permission), Vol. 16, No. 1, February-March, 1966, p. 3.
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Phil Ochs is possibly the most controversial songwriter in America today, not excluding Dylan. He can write the most vicious political songs, but gets angry at anyone who tries to turn songwriters into propagandists….
But he is not only a political oracle. There is a strong vein of lyricism in his work, too, that came out in the lovely song "The Pleasures Of The Harbour"….
Karl Dallas, "Phil Ochs—America's Fieriest Songwriter," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), September 17, 1966, p. 27.
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Phil Ochs was a journalism student when the idea of writing singing editorials occurred to him.
Although he has moved from bright and urgently topical songs into themes of more durability, such as "There but for Fortune," Phil perhaps made his greatest impact as a "troubadour of the New Left." His "living newspaper" was kept up to date in the early 1960s with fresh editions of "The Ballad of William Worthy," "Talking Vietnam Blues" and "I Ain't Marching Any More."
Phil was, for a time, very much a product of the New York Broadside school! of topical songwriting, speaking out on dozens of current issues with his joggy melodies, his biting and sarcastic lyrics and his tart wit. He found, at that stage, that much of what he had learned about journalism applied as well to the writer of topical songs—the need to keep on top of the news, to form clear opinions and to state them with an eye toward persuasiveness and interest-holding, and the deadlines, for even he was forced to admit that "nothing is deader than yesterday's newspaper."
But Phil Ochs, showing strong ability to shift the style and the content of his writing, is as alive as tomorrow's newspaper. Of late, his work has probed in the direction of greater psychological depth and evaluations of middle-class life.
Milton Okun, "Phil Ochs," in his Something to Sing About: The Personal Choices of...
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Ochs is one of the prime figures of the urban folk revival and one of the finest, most innovative songwriters of recent years. (p. 156)
Some months before Tom Paxton's Ramblin' Boy was released …, Phil Ochs's first album came…. The title was significant: All the News That's Fit to Sing, an allusion to the well-known slogan of The New York Times, "All the news that's fit to print." His style, from the moment that he starts playing, is incisive, sometimes cynical. At this time he had a lot in common with Tom Paxton who, expressing above all the right of the individual to be free, refused to be considered as the voice of any particular party or ideology. In the meantime, while individual and collective liberty are the objects of public mockery, he replies with his guitar.
With a voice often passionately angry, he sets about all the windmills that the press and public opinion seem to have missed. What are the principal themes of his work at this time? No surprises: war and racism. At this time the escalation in Vietnam was just beginning, and in "Talking Vietnam" … he excels in describing humorously what is not in the slightest humorous. A young GI who has profited vastly from his training tells how "maneuvers" is the word that they have been taught to use—very useful when they get lost. He then meets Syngman Rhee, Madame Nhu ("the sweetheart of Dien Bien Phu"), and the ghost of President...
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[The track on Ochs' first album, "All the News That's Fit To Sing,"] that attracted the most attention was "Lou Marsh," a sombre ballad relating the life and death of one Lou March, a New York Youth Board worker killed while trying to prevent a gang war.
Pete Seeger described the song's chorus as being the best he's ever heard in a topical song, while Sing Out magazine decreed that the album "will be as important in 1964 as Bob Dylan's 'Freewheelin'' album was in 1963."
It wasn't to be however, although it did bring Phil's work to the notice of other contemporary singer songwriters, and Joan Baez was later to take Phil's "There But For Fortune," and make that song his biggest success to date, in '65.
That same year saw the release of the second album "I Ain't Marching Any More," and the sardonic attitude of the first album had solidified into a deep-rooted hatred of the corrupt system and sick society all around him….
When Ochs finally [resurfaced], in late 1967, it was with a new record label,… a new batch of songs, and a totally new style, revealing a startling degree of musicality that's nowhere evident on [the] first three … albums.
Phil's liner notes to "Pleasures Of The Harbour," written in the form of a poem, serve as pointers to the new approach.
"… In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty," he writes, and certainly it's a...
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Phil's early songs, with humor, compassion, and anger, cut through conservative and liberal excuses for inaction. Often the songs would follow one after the other, three or four in a week, then a "dry period", and then some major event would happen and there was Phil, lying on the couch picking his tunes, matching lyrics, writing, rewriting and rewriting….
[The] songs Phil wrote came to reflect mass movements. The songs were better written and more incisive. Finally, the "Draft Dodger Rag" and "I Ain't Marching Anymore" became the adopted anthems of millions of students who knew they never would fight in the Vietnam War….
Phil learned what the labor movement was, and expressed his sense of betrayal at the Meany leadership in songs like "The Ballad of U.S. Steel" and "Links on the Chain". Yet Phil was sympathetic to working class people and their economic exploitation. Perhaps his understanding was expressed best in the "Automation Song".
Although from the beginning Phil was vulnerable to the pain caused by the stresses and false values of the music industry, on the whole those early years were good ones. Phil was filled with energy and hope. He was exhilarated at the enthusiastic response to each new song. He was delighted when the songs made for passionate arguments.
Josh Dunson, "Phil Ochs: 1941–1976," in Sing Out! (© 1976 Sing Out! Magazine,...
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The girl on the ticket line wanted "two tickets to the Bob Dylan concert." In fact the evening was a "Concert Tribute to Phil Ochs," and the irony would not have been lost on Phil. Even past the very end he didn't give the people what they wanted….
Phil killed himself. If you must gauge your life, I think a good standard would be your effect on your friends. Another, if you're lucky, would be your effect on the public at large. Phil's friends gathered onstage at New York's Felt Forum with a socialist vision and one more opportunity to say it out loud. There have been moments in which that vision seemed a safer bet, closer to fruition, sometimes almost inevitable—but few in which its risks were more clear. Fortunately for Phil, he and his friends chose each other so they would carry on….
It's very easy to overstate Phil's case: "Phil was a political prisoner killed by America"; "Phil was the '60s"; "Don't mourn for Phil—organize." But that's more exhortation. Phil was simply not a very happy guy, with a well-defined sense of the way things ought to be that would not let him alone. He was much more than a topical songwriter, though that would have been quite enough. Phil followed Dylan's lead and wrote statements which were both personal and universal. "Pleasures of the Harbor," "Changes," "Chords of Fame," "Flower Lady"—these are songs people have already forgotten, and which deserve better. His...
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Ochs was known as the troubadour of the New Left. He was the most radically committed performer of the Sixties, several steps beyond Jane Fonda and about on a par with Dick Gregory. He wrote topical songs of protest and was as happy singing them at the barricades as at Carnegie Hall. They were, as he well understood, a form of political theater. They could stir emotions and, under the right circumstances, provoke action. This is what he deeply hoped would happen.
Ochs wrote songs with lyrics worth listening to. They were simple and direct and made their point whether with a heavy or a gentle touch. Bluntly honest, three of his funniest songs were actually directed at the hypocrisy of his own audience. Outside of a Small Circle of Friends was a rebuke to those who make excuses not to get involved….
Draft Dodger Rag, written in the style of a Tom Lehrer spoof, depicts the dodger more as a cop-out artist than a hero….
Love Me, I'm a Liberal was an attack on the old Left that so irritated I. F. Stone that he rose to the microphone once and took Ochs to task for it. But nonetheless, Ochs's lyrics rang true:
I go to civil rights rallies
And put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy,
I hope every colored boy becomes a star.
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We can surmise from information available about him that Ochs was, among other things, stubborn, idealistic, dedicated, and naïve. We can surmise something similar from the recordings he left behind and from a big, new early-late sampler … called "Chords of Fame." Ochs had the qualities that seem to be essential for a person of his calling…. If we knew which traits were exaggerated or sometimes out of control in Ochs, we would know something. You can't tell from Ed Sanders' huge batch of liner notes, although they make the dedication clear enough and hint at other things. Something proved deadly, or some combination did, for, as the Seventies dragged on, imitating a second-rate Eisenhower era, Phil Ochs did commit suicide.
Naïveté? Was that it? It's a quality that attended his construction of melodies, and in that realm it served him well; Ochs didn't know a damned thing about music and he wrote some of the finest melodies the topical song ever had. Naïveté is sometimes in his lyrics, too, and always behind them in the presumption that "the movement" was ever that big to begin with. My guess is that it sustained him, this ability to believe, whether it gave out on him later—which would leave him defenseless—or not. He wasn't alone in hoping unreasonably for social change in the Sixties; I was doing it too, and could name a few others who were….
He bucked up against a closed system. I don't know that he...
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[One] feared that time had canceled [Phil Ochs's] art and greeted Chords of Fame with according trepidation. For he was a talking newspaper of sorts. Irreverent and angry, his were the quintessential topical songs, and timeliness was among their chief virtues. Also, one feared, among their chief limitations. Who wants yesterday's papers?
I do, it turns out. And so might you. Mostly because they aren't just yesterday's. Some of the cuts have merely antiquarian interest, but the overwhelming bulk of the album requires no apology….
[There] is an element of tending one's own garden in [the later compositions], but their apparent detachment from the affairs of the world is amply redeemed by the logic of their artistic development. Ochs wasn't an epic poet … but a lyric one. At the same time that Dylan was detailing stanza after stanza of Hattie Carroll's life and death, Ochs was deliberately dealing in fragmented images that suggested rather than insisted.
It was in hints rather than directives that he did his best work. Early, his method showed up in songs like "The Crabs Are Crazy," whose images made the landing of American Marines in Santo Domingo more an assault against nature than a simple political affront. Later on, during the California period, he explored the nexus of politics and personality—defining with his surgical wit the increasing disjunction between his ideology and his...
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