Phil Ochs Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.)