For those not fortunate enough to recall, Phil Ochs was one of our nation’s most profound folk singers in the period that bridged the Civil Rights, antiwar and feminist movements. His songs called for peace and an equitable society. His songs called for equal rights and celebrated an egalitarian philosophy. His songs damned the establishment that accepted the murder of leaders such as Medgar Evers and allowed organized labor to abandon its true cause.
Ochs’ songs unashamedly pointed out our faults and tried to demonstrate the means to repair them. His songs were brash calls to the youthful protesters and Ochs was a presence – not only in song, but in person – at such historic events as the 1968 Chicago Democratic convention. Some of his music was heard at campuses and rallies as commonly as those of his contemporaries, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez.
Many of Ochs’ songs remain in the common vocabulary and surely the repertoire of today’s folk singers. So, how is it then, that this vital, powerful, gifted songwriter of sonorous voice and darkly handsome features could be but a fading image to the general society? Phil who??
From the comfort zone of the New York Greenwich Village folk scene to the national stage, Ochs sang his protests. Albums such as “All the News That’s Fit To Sing” and “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” spoke volumes. Though the songs kept coming, he seemed unmarketable. Somehow the corporate media kept missing – or trying to dismantle – the point. Ochs’ move to California allowed him more breathing space but little solace. He toyed with audiences by titling an album “Rehearsals for Retirement,” the cover of which offered his own gravestone.
Continually plagued by demons, inner and outer, Ochs’ performances often became arguments with the audience, best documented by the concert album, “Gunfight at Carnegie Hall,” in which he can be heard berating a taunting audience with statements like, “Don’t be like Spiro Agnew.”
And through all of the pain, including a much-documented battle with depression, Ochs maintained contact with the issues that mattered most. For a while at least, he was beating the power elite’s offensive. Into the early 1970s he organized large-scale benefit concerts that would serve as the model for the later No Nukes and Live Aid events. He traveled to South America and met with songwriter-activist Victor Jara. The terrible murder of Jara at the behest of the right-wing dictator Pinochet was an awful blow to the already faltering Ochs. By the mid-seventies, unable to prevail in the battle on every front, he would die by his own hand.
Phil Ochs dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration through his music, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audience to police brutality and corruption and the manipulation of “the American dream.” Wisely, he warned us that a protest song was “something you won’t hear on the radio.” He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. But some of us will never forget.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.