Singer, songwriter, activist
Phil Ochs was a man of apparent ironies and contradictions. To many, he was radically un-American; his left-wing politics inspired death threats and an F.B.I, file 410 pages long. Yet, he was a patriot, a man who John Poses of Spin described as “the uncompromising patriot, the rebel with causes,” who loved the U.S. and was determined to see that it live up to the ideals upon which it was founded. He admired John F. Kennedy and quintessentially American actor John Wayne, but also Fidel Castro and Latin American revolutionary leader Che Guevara. Throughout the sixties he feared his dedication to left-wing politics would get him killed; but in the end, it was he who killed himself.
Ochs was arguably the greatest of the sixties protest singer-songwriters. Leon Wieseltier of the Washingtonian stated that “it was he who was the most brilliant and serious and moving and funny singer of the ‘60s, the movement’s most intelligent contribution to American popular music.” At root an activist and journalist, he lived by the words of union organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, who said “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and is repeated over and over.” According to Wieseltier, Ochs. “was never, in his criticism of the United States, uninformed or unsophisticated.” He studied papers and journals and was committed to communicating what he learned, and righting the injustices he saw. In the words of Spin’s Poses, he was “an astute, acerbic journalist who knew rhythmically and lyrically how to couch his sarcastic wit in meter.” Nonetheless, Ochs was not simply a singing journalist; he was capable of writing beautiful, lyrical songs, combining, in Rolling Stone’s words “a poet’s soul with the gutsy bravado and knife-point writing of a seasoned press hound.” British folk musician and political activist Billy Bragg has said, “America has yet to produce another songwriter like him.”
Discovered Folk Music in College
Ochs’s upbringing in New York and Ohio was rocky. His doctor father suffered from manic depression. In and out of hospitals, Jacob Ochs was unable to maintain a medical practice. Ochs was a particularly dreamy child who often appeared to be in another world; his favorite escape was the movies. As a teenager he attended Staunton Military Academy in Virginia—an unusual place for a future leader of an antiwar movement. In The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, Ochs’s brother, Michael, told Irwin Stambler that Phil “probably decided to go [to Staunton] because of the way the movies portrayed military schools and an identification with John Wayne.” During high school Ochs took up the clarinet and his teachers
For the Record…
Born Philip David Ochs, December 19, 1940, in El Paso, TX; died by suicide, April 9, 1976, in Far Rockaway, NY; son of Jacob (a physician) and Gertrude (Phin) Ochs; married Alice Skinner, 1963 (separated); children: Meegan. Education: Attended Staunton Military Academy, VA, and Ohio State University, 1958-1961.
Singer, songwriter, and activist. Performed solo, and with Jim Glover as the Sundowners, Cleveland, OH, 1961; played folk clubs in New York City, early 1960s; signed by Elektra, released first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, 1964; switched to A&M label, 1967; played concerts, festivals, and political rallies, 1960s; released last studio album, Greatest Hits, 1967; last live album, Gunfighter at Carnegie Hall, released only in Canada, 1974; performed occasionally in the 1970s, traveling throughout Chile, Australia, and Africa. Wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press; organized benefit concerts.
discovered he was an exceptional musician. It wasn’t until he attended Ohio State University, however, that he became interested in folk music and started writing songs. Ochs’s roommate, Jim Glover, who introduced him to folk music, taught him to play guitar, and actually gave him his first guitar after losing a bet on the Kennedy-Nixon election of 1960.
It was also as a student that Ochs became interested in journalism. According to Rolling Stone, after two years in college he was jailed in Florida for vagrancy; the experience motivated him to become a writer. Upon his return to Ohio State, he started publishing a radical newspaper and soon found himself in line for the editorship of the school’s publication, The Lantern. School authorities eventually blocked him from taking that post, however, probably the result of his statement that communist Cuban leader Fidel Castro was the greatest figure in the Western Hemisphere in the twentieth century. Michael Ochs told Stambler that disappointment over this rejection prompted Ochs to quit school a few months before graduation.
Instead of obtaining his degree, Ochs formed a duo with roommate Glover and began playing bars in Cleveland. In 1961 he moved to New York City, landing in the middle of the thriving Greenwich Village folk scene. He began writing protest songs in the company of some of folk music’s greats—Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Tom Paxton, and Dave Van Ronk. Ochs and Dylan shared a close but volatile personal and professional relationship in the early 1960s. Clearly, Dylan was the star of the folk scene, but most agree that Ochs ran a close second. Ochs began to draw widespread attention when he performed in Rhode Island at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Elektra records signed him, and in 1964 released his debut album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, its title reflecting Ochs’s brand of journalism. When it was re-released in 1987, Sing Out! magazine called the album “clearly one of the most important debuts of the ‘folk boom’” and Rolling Stone described it as “a manifesto of social urgency; Ochs sounds the alarm in a strident clarion voice with acidic humor, noble rage and at times, priestly tenderness.” Ochs followed All the News with I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore, which introduced on vinyl some of his most popular songs, including “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” and the title cut—the anthem of the period, according to the Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music. This second album, according to Rolling Stone “firmly established Ochs as the leading protest singer/songwriter.” By this time Dylan had moved away from protest music and had begun to alienate many in folk circles; Sing Out! proclaimed that the crown had been passed to Ochs.
Ochs’s third album, Phil Ochs in Concert, put him on the Billboard charts; Joan Baez’s recording of one of its songs, “There But for Fortune,” was also a hit. As Ochs’s talent began to mature, he added some personal subjects to his songs. “Musically,” read the liner notes to The War is Over, “this entailed a greater emphasis on melody and arrangement. Lyrically, it meant that Ochs was striving for something deeper than making a point.”
During this time, and throughout the sixties, Ochs was deeply involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. He played rallies, often for free, and expressed his objections to the combat in Southeast Asia at folk festivals across North America. His outspoken politics across the board won him more than a handful of enemies; he alienated much of the South with civil-rights songs like “Talking Birmingham Jam,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Because of his views, according to Melody Maker, Ochs was banned from performing on television or radio in the United States for several years. Ironically, the folksinger was even attacked by one of his heroes, John Wayne. As recalled by Spin’s Poses, Wayne told Playboy that he made his film The Green Berets “to counteract the lies that Phil Ochs and Joan Baez were spreading.” Nonetheless, Ochs considered this the high point of his career: John Wayne actually knew who he was!
As radical as Ochs was, he was not blind to the problems and hypocrisy of the Left. Many of the songs he wrote in the late sixties—“Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends, and “Flower Lady”—chide and even indict many of those in his own camp. As that decade wore on, Ochs became increasingly disillusioned with American society. His popularity began to wane. Michael Ochs and Billy Bragg cite the tumultuous Democratic National Convention, held in Chicago in 1968, as the primary catalyst of Ochs’s decline. “Something inside Phil died in Chicago in 1968. He’d witnessed the country he loved devouring its own children and realized that the U.S.A. was no place for heroes,” wrote Bragg in the liner notes to Ochs’s record There & Now: Live in Vancouver, 1968. Ochs’s optimism began to fail and his recordings reflected a growing bitterness. He recorded his last studio album in 1970. As the times changed, Ochs had trouble adapting; his friend David Blue told Rolling Stone that “Phil was totally a child of the Sixties. He was a political animal and that political energy was his only source. When that started to go, he started to wither.”
The 1970s were hard on Ochs; his creativity began to dry up and he turned to alcohol. In 1970 he recorded a performance at New York’s Carnegie hall that is remembered for a bomb scare and a jeering audience shouting “Phil Ochs is dead.” Ochs told Tom Nolan in Rolling Stone that he thought it was great. “You can hear the whole audience thing, at first they’re booing me, then I win them over and they come around, at the end they’re cheering.” His record label—by this time A&M—however, was not so pleased. At first it would not release the album, and then did so only in Canada, and not until 1974.
As musicians turned introspective in the seventies, Ochs was not able to follow suit; he lost confidence and inspiration. His brother told Poses that Ochs “never developed his personal stuff. He always thought of the greater good and never thought about himself. Frankly, he never grew emotionally; he wasn’t equipped to deal with the me generation. It wasn’t part of his psyche.” Ochs stopped writing and sank deeper into drinking and depression, producing one single in the seventies, a rewrite of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” entitled “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon.” Still, Ochs did not lose his dedication to the causes of freedom and justice. He wrote for the Los Angeles Free Press and organized benefit concerts. He also tried to take his message to different parts of the world, touring Chile, Australia, and Africa. In Kenya tragedy struck: Ochs was mugged and almost strangled to death. His vocal chords were damaged beyond repair. Already unable to write, he was then barely able to sing.
In 1975 Ochs appeared at a rally in New York’s Central Park that celebrated the end of the Vietnam War. He performed “The War Is Over.” To Chet Flippo of Rolling Stone, it was clear that Ochs’s career was also over: “Reality had finally caught up with his ten-year-old song and it was pathetically clear that antiwar songs and singers were relics from the past. Ochs went downhill fast after that.” Suffering, as his father had, from manic depression, he continued drinking and drifting, staying with friends in cheap hotels and even on the street. He started calling himself John Butler Train, and according to Flippo, as Train was charged with assaulting a woman friend and arrested for drunkenness. Ochs eventually went to stay with his sister in Far Rockaway, New York. It was there that he hanged himself, on April 9, 1976. Three months later, a sell-out crowd of 4,500 filled Madison Square Garden’s Felt Forum in New York City for a six-and-a-half-hour tribute concert in Ochs’s memory.
Fortunately for younger generations, Ochs’s music did not die with him. He has continued to influence musicians, especially folk singers. The folk music renaissance of the late 1980s brought a resurgence in his popularity; a handful of record companies re-released some of Ochs’s albums and produced new compilations. In reference to the new releases, Sing Out!’s Mark Moss affirmed that “much of the material, though over two decades old, speaks just as loudly and truly as when it was first recorded.” The Washingtonian’s Wieseltier agreed: “These songs sound strong today because they had the strength of the particular. Nothing gauzy here, nothing pompous, nothing metaphysical, nothing for the ages, nothing general. Only a natural bard with a devotion to the affairs of the day, a poet of political details.”
“The Bells,” Elektra, 1964.
“The Power and the Glory,” Elektra, 1964.
“Draft Dodger Rag,” Elektra, 1965.
“Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Elektra, 1965.
“I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” Elektra, 1965.
“In the Heat of the Summer,” Elektra, 1965.
“There But for Fortune,” Elektra, 1965.
“Canons of Christianity,” Elektra, 1966.
“The Ringing of Revolution,” Elektra, 1966.
“Santo Domingo,” Elektra, 1966.
“Crucifixion,” A&M, 1967.
“Miranda,” A&M, 1967.
“The Party,” A&M, 1967.
“Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” A&M, 1967.
“Joe Hill,” A&M, 1968.
“The War Is Over,” A&M, 1968.
“When in Rome,” A&M, 1968.
“My Life,” A&M, 1969.
“Where Were You in Chicago,” A&M, 1969.
“Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon,” A&M, 1974.
All the News That’s Fit to Sing, Elektra, 1964.
I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore (includes “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Talking Birmingham Jam,” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”), Elektra, 1964.
Phil Ochs in Concert (includes “There But for Fortune” and “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”), Elektra, 1966.
Pleasures of the Harbor (includes “Flower Lady” and “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”), A&M, 1967.
Tape From California (includes “The War Is Over”), A&M, 1968.
Rehearsals for Retirement, A&M, 1969.
Greatest Hits, A&M, 1970.
Gunfight in Carnegie Hall, A&M, 1971.
Chords of Fame, A&M, 1976.
A Toast to Those Who Are Gone, (songs recorded before 1964), Rhino, 1986.
The War is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs, A&M, 1988.
The Broadside Tapes I, Smithsonian Folkways, 1989.
There But for Fortune, Elektra, 1989.
There & Now: Live in Vancouver, 1968, Rhino, 1990.
Eliot, Marc, Death of a Rebel, Anchor Press, 1979.
The Penguin Encyclopedia of Popular Music, edited by Donald Clarke, Viking, 1989.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, The Encyclopedia of Folk, Country and Western Music, St. Martin’s Press, 1983.
Crawdaddy, July 1976.
Melody Maker, April 17, 1976.
Rolling Stone, May 27, 1971; May 20, 1976; July 15, 1976; March 12, 1987.
Sing Out!, Spring 1976; Spring 1987.
Spin, April 1991.
Washingtonian, July 1989.
Other sources include album liner notes to The War is Over and There & Now: Live in Vancouver, 1968.
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