Jacques Vassal

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1966

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 Diem. The song closes with his presence at a television press conference, where he tells the assembled journalists that he doesn't have a country for which to give his life.

As was Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs was much affected by the Cuban crisis, and it inspired in him "Talking Cuban Crisis," another spoken blues with the same dazzling fire as "Talking Vietnam" and which is certainly every bit as good as the talking blues Dylan was producing at that time…. Pointing out that the only route to Cuba passes by the CIA, he puts into the mouth of the government the paradoxical concept: if you live in the free world, that's where you must stay!

For dramas on a more personal level, Ochs's voice becomes serious, as when he sings of the death of the crew of a submarine which foundered while on maneuvers ("The Thresher"), or when he evokes (in "Knock on the Door") the anguish of men living under a dictatorship, whether it be of the right or the left. (pp. 157-58)

But the best song of all on the album is certainly "Lou Marsh," the story of a young New York Youth Board street worker, who was accidentally murdered in a confrontation with four members of a street gang. Phil Ochs sets the scene to a throbbing melody of rare beauty. Spanish Harlem, fists, boots. And every shadow perhaps not empty.

Despite his corrosive humor, alternating with a genuine sense of drama, Phil Ochs, on the grounds of his first album (which acknowledges Woody Guthrie among others in "Bound for Glory") is vulnerable to criticism on two important points: one, that the quality of his tunes (with some brilliant exceptions, such as "Lou Marsh") and his guitar playing does not match the quality of his excellent lyrics and ideas; two, lacking the finesse that we have observed in the works of Dylan and Paxton, he moralizes sometimes with an oppressive flatfootedness. (p. 158)

[His] second album, I Ain't Marching Anymore , reaffirms all his good qualities and all his faults: humor ("Draft Dodger Rag," "Talking...

(This entire section contains 1966 words.)

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Birmingham Jam"), a sense of the dramatic ("In the Heat of the Summer" and a venomous indictment of the electric chair, "The Iron Lady"), a special humanitarianism, ("That Was the President," in memory of John F. Kennedy, and "Ballad of the Carpenter," in token of friendship for Ewan MacColl, met while the latter was touring the States); but also, unfortunately, examples of rather inferior moralizing ("Links on the Chain," "Here's to the State of Mississippi"), sometimes degenerating into a dubious pathos ("Days of Decision")….I Ain't Marching Anymore remains essentially an anthology of sung journalism—though thereby giving to both journalism and song a breath of fresh air, which both had much needed.

His third album …, while it confirms all the characteristics of Ochs that we have discussed, makes new ones evident. In the first place, its live recording (Phil Ochs in Concert) shows us to what extent he is an artist far more at ease on-stage than in the studio, because of the feeling of direct contact with his audience … and his remarkable talent as a comedian…. Another notable element in his evolution: though he remains, in direct contrast to Dylan, still interested in political and sociological subjects, he also has started to write songs on more lyrical subjects ("There But for Fortune," "Changes") and more personal ones, on topics such as religion ("Canons of Christianity") or death ("When I'm Gone").

To be a poet and lyricist or a political activist? This was to become the great dilemma for Phil Ochs, tossed from side to side in his public performances and his private life alike between these two opposing careers, a dilemma he found irreconcilable. (pp. 158-59)

[The title of Ochs' fourth album,] Pleasures of the Harbor, is in itself an announcement that Ochs has become concerned with more lyrical themes…. Ochs has made a definite decision to start anew, and to such effect that we have no hesitation in naming Pleasures of the Harbor as one of the most beautiful pop albums ever released by a singer-songwriter…. [The] title track, "Pleasures of the Harbor," is a visual description, almost cinematographic in its technique (the progression of the verses evokes in the listener a strange sense of traveling), of the adventures of a seaman between the docking of his ship and embarkation, adventures that you are invited to share. (pp. 159-60)

"I've Had Her" seems on the surface at least to be a résumé of the past love life of the author…. [(Translator's note): If one digs deeper into this song it is less a history a la Casanova but very much more an analysis of the mentality that considers Woman as merely a sex object. While one can sympathize with the disillusionment of the narrator, one has to realize that he has brought it upon himself through his own egocentricity. "I've Had Her" is one of those songs that is like an onion: one can peel away layer after layer and still find more beneath. The same is true in particular of one of the other songs in this album, "The Party," discussed below. P.B.]

Does all this signify that Phil Ochs has said good-bye to protest? Not at all. But his protest is now moving in directions that he has not previously explored. Quite clearly, Phil Ochs has realized that one must be more than a man of reason to be a good songwriter. His psychology has become more penetrating, and, no longer content to point to a single evil and set it up for our consciences to ponder, he seems to wish to attack the very roots of that evil: the mentality of the classes, of those who call themselves "the silent majority." Hence "The Party," which plunges us right into the heart of the superficial fashionable life…. (pp. 160-61)

Reviving the satirical verve that shone through his earlier successful spoken blues, Phil Ochs tackles in "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" the indifference that we show to our fellowmen…. At the end of each verse the question arises: should one do anything about it? But no, the excuses are rife: it would be useless, or the police are there for that, or even it would be bad form to spoil the game of Monopoly that's in progress…. (p. 161)

The lyricism of Pleasures of the Harbor reappears in "Floods of Florence" [on Tape from California] and perhaps more in the title track, "Tape from California," while with "The Harder They Fall" Ochs returns to his satirical vein. Moreover he never forgets the war ("White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land") and permits himself the declaration inherent in "The War Is Over." But he abandons any form of journalistic reference by which reason his work becomes universal rather than specific.

Released in the spring of 1969, Rehearsals for Retirement, with a very rock arrangement throughout, is a very successful but extremely depressing album. Ochs has been impressed very strongly by various of the events that have taken place in the world…. The title as much as the sleeve of Rehearsals for Retirement gives the impression of the last will and testament of a songwriter.

The songs themselves alternate between melancholy ("The Doll House," on which the imprint and even the complexity of Dylan is undeniable) and total disillusionment ("My Life," "The World Began in Eden but Ended in Los Angeles," "Rehearsals for Retirement"). A very moving ballad on the wreck of the submarine Scorpion (reminiscent of Thresher), "The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns," brings home to us exactly how far Phil Ochs has come since the days of All the News That's Fit to Sing. For all that, satire is not absent from the album ("I Kill Therefore I Am"); Ochs knows that he should remain faithful to his own aims but, at present, he is more interested in his own personal experiences ("William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed"). And then, finally, there is the revolutionary side to the album. (p. 163)

[Phil Ochs' Greatest Hits] is new proof of Ochs's indecision, though also of his sincerity. The title of Greatest Hits is no more than self-mockery on his part, irony that his records have never sold very well …, and satire on the American show-biz syndrome…. The general style of the disc, even on close listening, is hard to pick out (the more severe say that it is totally incoherent)…. [There] are … two high spots [on] the album. Firstly, an admirable five-minute ballad, accompanied by piano only, entitled "Jim Dean of Indiana." To a slow, hesitant tempo, with an infinite sadness and an incredible emotional range, this ballad recounts the life and death of James Dean. The subject is a good one and deserves to be so treated: Phil Ochs gives to the actor the homage he deserves. Secondly, a longish, classical influenced song called "No More Songs," an explanation and a key to Ochs's indecisions over the years, a belated apologia for the album. With a full orchestral score and Ochs's voice at its very mellowest, he explains that once he saw his dreams in song, but that now the dreams are dead and the songs are all gone. (pp. 164-65)

If he hasn't got the delirious vocabulary of Dylan or the stability of Paxton, Ochs has other fine qualities: in particular a sort of despairing energy which, even while he communicates emotions of the gloomiest nature (Rehearsals for Retirement, "No More Songs"), forces him to persevere along the bright highroad that he has followed: writing, singing, communicating, never hesitating to risk his safety by descending to the level of the street and, sometimes, arriving in prison. If there are heroes in modern American folkrock, then, like Len Chandler, Phil Ochs surely deserves to be so described.

And, when the chips are finally counted up, are not the indecisions and even the self-contradictions of Phil Ochs the mirror of that strange country in which he somehow survives? (p. 165)

Jacques Vassal, "The New Generation," in his Electric Children: Roots and Branches of Modern Folkrock, translated and edited by Paul Barnett (translation copyright © 1976 by Paul Barnett; originally published as Folksong: Une histoire de la musique populaire aux Etats-Unis, Editions Albin Michel, 1971), Taplinger Publishing Co., Inc., 1976, pp. 149-83.∗


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