Portrait: Phil Ochs

Issue 

By Nicola Haywood

At the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, Pete Seeger introduced a new "topical" singer to the crowd of 37,000 people. Sick with nerves, the 22-year-old Phil Ochs came out onto the stage and performed two songs he'd written espousing the civil rights movement. Later in the program, to a rousing response, he returned and sang "The Power and the Glory", which was his dream of a fair and just America. A few years on, his "I Ain't Marching Any More" became a standard antiwar anthem, despite receiving no airplay and very little media attention.

As with many of his peers, his political opinions were formed and shaped in university. Jim Glover was instrumental here. Jim, a working-class folk aficionado, impressed upon Phil the music, and importance, of such people as Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers. It was Jim who encouraged Phil to read more than the standard textbooks Ohio State University required of its journalism majors: Marx, Engels, Mao Zedong, Jefferson, Adams, The Federalist Papers, Abraham Lincoln.

Friendship with Jim opened up Phil's political mind. He became a regular dinner guest at the Glover home. Mr Glover, a Marxist fond of political debate and discussion, was also a big influence.

Until this time, Phil's world had been the movies and then music (he played the clarinet and saxophone). As a child, he was a loner; at university Jim was really his only friend.

Phil had never heard of the House Un-American Activities Committee or paid much attention to the McCarthy witch-hunts, until the evening Mr Glover mentioned them. These revelations shocked him into compulsive reading about the witch-hunts, the black-listing and the Hollywood Ten. This led to more discussion and more reading, this time about foreign policy and Cuba and US business's exploitation of that country.

It was at Ohio State that he made his first stands. Participation in the Reserve Officer Training Corps was a requirement of male education; the Staunton Military School Graduate and his working-class friend protested. Phil organised boycotts, marches and rallies and recruited other students to the cause. Jim would sing.

Even worse in the eyes of the school, Phil made no attempt to hide his admiration of Fidel Castro. He was taken off political stories and given concert reviews and interviews for the school newspaper. He started his own newspaper and ran an editorial proclaiming Castro "perhaps the greatest figure the Western Hemisphere has produced in the last century". He was reprimanded and eventually bypassed for the position of editor of the school newspaper. Phil was so disgusted by this that he dropped out, with just a quarter remaining before his graduation.

At this time, John Kennedy was making his run for the presidency. Phil bet $50 against Jim's old Kay guitar that Kennedy would win. A month later, he was writing his own songs.

Greenwich Village, New York, was the place to be during the early '60s. Phil hit town in '61, after outgrowing the folk scene in Cleveland. The streets were alive with energy and buzzing with coffee houses. Until Bob Dylan arrived in '65, everybody was making a few dollars a night and a share of the basket. Phil was no different.

On Bleecker Street, he lived with his pregnant wife, a cat and wall to wall New York Times (song fodder) carpeting. His apartment was always full of other musicians and folk singers and assorted political thinkers — Eric Anderson, Danny Kalb, Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, all of them with a message for the world. Phil joked that he'd be the "left's Elvis Presley".

A miners' strike in Hazard, Kentucky, was brought to the attention of the Greenwich Village artist community in '64, and it was their involvement — most notably, Phil, Eric Andersen, Bob Gibson, Judy Collins and Bob Dylan — that alerted the public to the miners' plight and evoked public sympathy. Rallies at the Village Gate were organised by a former political organiser at New York University, Arthur Gorson, to raise money for the miners. Phil was so impressed by Arthur that he asked him to manage his career, despite Arthur's lack of musical knowledge.

At the height of the dispute, Phil went to Kentucky and, with Eric Andersen, Bob Dylan and Judy Collins, spent a week singing, picketing, eating and sleeping with the miners. While there, Phil sold copies of Broadside magazine, a publication devoted to getting the "topical" singer-songwriter heard.

There was an optimism in the politics of the early '60s, and in its music, the protest song. The assassination of John Kennedy did a lot to undercut this movement. Nobody felt this more than Phil. Despite this, Eric Andersen remembers him rushing about the Village assuring everybody that everything would be okay, things were going to be great again.

But Phil was frightened and confused by the assassination. Kennedy, it seemed to Phil, was the bridge between the old and the new. Then, suddenly and so easily, he was gone. If someone could take out the president so easily, where did that leave him? He was scared.

In Mississippi for the Caravan of Music, a series of concerts set up to encourage the registration of black voters, Phil made Eric Andersen promise to prowl the audience on the lookout for potential assassins before every performance. He waited in the wings, nervously going over his material. Another time, backstage, Eric dropped his guitar, and Phil, mid-song, fell to the ground, clutching his heart, sure an assassin had got him.

But for all his dramatics and frailties, he was a staunch believer in just, balanced world, and he proved himself time and again with his tireless efforts for progressive organisations and the Broadside magazine — which he wrote for, sold and initiated ideas for. Any antiwar or freedom of speech rally, protest or demonstration could count on him. He continually urged people, through his songs and with his speeches, to get together, stand up and make themselves heard.

Towards the late '60s, he saw it all falling apart. With seven others, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman among them, he co-founded the Youth International Party (Yippies). Their idea was to stage a form of theatre politics. It was to be a communication to the public, a parody of sorts, to convey the kind of leadership they could expect from their leaders.

Perhaps predictably, they were attacked from all sides — the hip, the straight, the underground and the normal press; even the folk community, to some extent, agreed the Yippies went too far with their "freaky" appearances and "vulgarity" to have any positive effect on either the political scene they were protesting against or the public in general. Phil found himself excluded from the Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert and virtually exiled from the folk festivals he'd previously performed at regularly.

During the '70s his activities were mainly concerned with the organising of several major benefits. These included a concert to raise money for the Chilean refugees (1974) and the War Is Over Celebration Concert held in Central Park in November 1975.

Phil Ochs hanged himself on April 9, 1976. His brother Michael organised a memorial concert at the Felt Forum, New York. Everybody was there. Phil Ochs is fondly remembered for his commitment to a better world and his fight to realise a dream.

UPCOMING EVENT

IN CONVERSATION WITH BRUCE PASCOE: The Climate Emergency & Indigenous Land Practice

SATURDAY 5 DECEMBER ♦ 4PM ACT, NSW, TAS & VIC ♦ 3:30PM SA ♦ 3PM Qld ♦ 2:30PM NT ♦ 1PM WA

Zoom panel featuring Bunurong man Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Australian writer and editor, author of Dark Emu: Black Seeds: Agriculture or Accident?

Also featuring agroecologist Alan Broughton, filmmaker & Rural Fire Service volunteer Robynne Murphy and City of Moreland councillor Sue Bolton.

For more information call (02) 8070 9341 or 0403 517 266. Hosted by Green Left.