Noel Coppage

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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 underestimated it by much more than I did, but it does appear that he didn't veer off into other subjects as, say, Paxton did, nor did he develop the kind of patience we've seen in Seeger or in such veterans as Norman Thomas. It appears that Ochs chose to go on being a public man after it was demonstrated that the best way for certain kinds of thinkers to defend themselves against the Seventies was by becoming private men. People seemed to be considerably more self-centered than Ochs wanted them to be.

Yet he was incisive. He had an instinct for seeing all the way through a piece of folly and could—at least during his productive period—make you see it too, with only a few short words. The songs in "Chords" represent only an inkling of the subjects he tackled, but they do include his last one, Here's to the State of Richard Nixon….

The question, though, is will it last? Will Ochs be remembered? I think so. We have an unofficial historical category for characters like Ochs. Woody Guthrie and Jimmy Rodgers are in it. Remembered as artists? Or politicians? Nobody can quite say for sure, and maybe it doesn't matter. The protest song is a great and cherished cultural thing of ours, and Ochs did quite a lot with the protest song. He did a little, mostly by accident, with the form and a lot with content. In such songs as I Ain't Marchin' Anymore and Outside of a Small Circle of Friends he transcended current events by concentrating on them. He told us about the Sixties. He did it by sticking his head into the fray and keeping it there, being what they called at the time hip to it, at God knows what cost to himself.

The substance of some of his reports may be lost in time—much of it is already dated—but his natural affinity for melodies and his ability to tell the larger truth now and then should bring some of these songs back again and again.

Noel Coppage, "Phil Ochs and the Death of Innocence," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1977 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 38, No. 4, April, 1977, p. 104.

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