John Berendt

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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.
       But don't talk about revolution
       That's going a little bit too far.
       So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal….

A single verse from White Boots Marchin' in a Yellow Land laid bare the war in Vietnam better than fifty editorials in The New York Times:

     The comic and the beauty queen
       are dancing on the stage.
     The raw recruits are lining up
       like coffins in a cage.
     Oh! We're fighting in a war we lost
       before the war began.
     We're the white boots marching in a yellow land.
                                             (p. 112)

Pleasures of the Harbor was Ochs's most successful album. The music had matured and the songs were more subtle and subjective. Ochs's talent was growing, and he was using more sophisticated musical arrangements….

For all the promise of the album, there were two songs in it that, more than the others, revealed a brooding hopelessness deep within him. Cross My Heart tells of beautiful dreams turning into nightmares and pleasures becoming instruments of destruction. I've Had Her conjures up desperate dreams of beauty, love and fulfillment and then dashes every one with the refrain, "I've had her; she's nothing."…

Chicago had been the crest of Ochs's career….

After Chicago it was downhill, both for the movement and for Phil Ochs, with only temporary upturns on the way….

Partly out of desperation, he reached back, before the Sixties, to his musical roots in the country-and-western songs he used to memorize from the radio. He felt renewed….

If Ochs had pursued this new direction, toward blue-collar music, it is possible he would have developed something important. He wrote two excellent country-and-western songs for his next album, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, but the final cut was prophetically titled No More Songs. He just couldn't do it anymore. (p. 134)

John Berendt, "Phil Ochs Ain't Marchin' Anymore" (copyright © 1976, Esquire Publishing Inc.; used by courtesy of the magazine), in Esquire, Vol. LXXXVI, No. IV, October, 1976, pp. 110-12, 132-36.

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