What Phil Ochs heard

Wednesday, July 29, 1998 - 10:00

What's That I Hear?: The Songs of Phil Ochs
Various artists
Sliced Bread Records
PO Box 606, Blue Bell, PA 19422, USA

Review by Barry Healy

This two-CD compilation of tracks by a bevy of performers, including Billy Bragg, Arlo Guthrie, Peter Yarrow, the Roches and Dave Van Ronk, pays homage to the writing of Phil Ochs more than two decades after his unfortunate death — and three decades after his most important work.

Quite a work of homage it is too: expertly recorded, nicely presented and lovingly performed. Many tracks are sung better than Ochs ever did — unsurprising, as others usually performed his songs better than he did.

Such respect for a singer who never had a hit record is remarkable, but Ochs was remarkable for more than his singing. The arc of the rise and fall of '60s US liberalism — the halcyon Kennedy period followed by wild ultra-leftism — was matched almost exactly by Ochs' greatest work and his descent into personal hell.

In the early 1960s, a coincidence of events propelled topical folk music into prominence and, with it, Phil Ochs. There was a musical vacuum caused by white authorities repressing black rock-and-roll singers like Chuck Berry.

Before the arrival of the Beatles, young people were denied access to anything more subversive than Pat Boone's pale imitations of Little Richard's songs.

At the same time, the Cuban Revolution inspired many, and the election of John Kennedy fuelled hopes for a better United States. The black civil rights movement was gaining momentum, drawing young people into radicalising activities like Mississippi voter-registration drives.

The folk-ballad tradition, supported by the Communist Party since the Depression era, suddenly struck a spark.

Like a torrent, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and Bob Dylan did what Woody Guthrie had never achieved. They soared up the charts worldwide singing condemnations of US racism and conservatism.

Among the fiercest of the new radicals, though never in the same limelight, was Phil Ochs, composing some of the sharpest broadsides and placing himself at the front of some of the decade's most momentous events.

Ochs was born in 1940. His childhood was marked by his father's decline into manic depression, a disease that was to blight his own life.

Inspired by Kennedy's 1960 election victory, he dropped out of university and headed to Greenwich Village, New York, the heart of the folk boom. He quickly made his name with a barrage of songs that seemed to tumble out effortlessly.

Protest music was then known for its preachy, earnestly artless tone. Ochs' songs were notable for having more than platitudes — they touched people with poetry and, best of all, they had good tunes.

Not content with being a commentator, Ochs threw himself into the radical movement. Unlike Bob Dylan, he played at voter-registration drives in the deep south during the early days of the civil rights movement. He campaigned for striking coal miners in the hills of West Virginia and Kentucky and was a leading figure in demonstrations against the Vietnam War.

What's That I Hear? opens with "Power and the Glory" from his first LP, passionately sung by the duo Magpie. It surveys the same ground as Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" — a proletarian hymn to the US.

Touching, well-crafted and strongly nationalistic, it reveals the parameters of Ochs' politics — liberal US patriotism.

Although it says that the US is "only as rich as the poorest of the poor, only as free as a padlocked prison door", the song's appeal crosses the political spectrum. It was recorded by the US Army Soldiers' Chorus and, of all people, Anita Bryant (the ultra-right anti-abortion campaigner).

It is a great tune, but proves that patriotism is not something revolutionaries need contest with right-wingers. It is best left in the hands of bourgeois scoundrels.

Kennedy's 1963 assassination personally devastated Ochs, but by 1964 his career was climbing. He began recording and made a big splash at the Newport Folk Festival with songs like the witty "Draft Dodger Rag" — here sung beautifully by Arlo Guthrie but best known from Country Joe McDonald's performance — and the stirring freedom anthem, "What's That I Hear?".

His radicalism was contrasted to Dylan's new apolitical style. A critic writing in the folk music bible Broadside compared Ochs' "idealistic principle" to Dylan's "self-conscious egotism".

After Newport, Ochs went south with freedom riders for civil rights marches. He recorded another album called I Ain't Marching Anymore. The title track became his trademark song and was to inspire a mass burning of draft cards in Chicago during the 1968 Democratic Party convention.

Others, outside of folk music circles, commented on his increasing radicalisation, too. One far-right commentator, complaining about the "crimson tide" in popular music, wrote: "Anti-war songs aimed at helping to defeat our men fighting and dying in Vietnam, are Comrade Ochs' bag. Declaring 'The Viet Cong are right: We should support Ho Chi Minh', he has created such popular horrors as: 'White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land'.

"As Phil's songs all follow the same theme on the Vietnam War, they are obviously very big with that great poet, Chairman Mao. Unfortunately, they are also very big with America's teenagers. He used his concerts to promote anti-Vietnam War activities and sang at the rallies. 'I was over there entertaining the troops', he once quipped at a concert. 'I won't say which troops.'"

Ochs linked up with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin to found the Youth International Party (the Yippies), a prankster-type outfit that grew prominent on the fringes of the mass anti-war movement.

By 1967, Ochs was writing more personally reflective songs and experimenting musically. That year he recorded "Crucifixion", easily his most extraordinary song.

Ten verses long, its astonishing, swirling imagery reworks the Irish folk hymn "Lord of the Dance" into a terrifying, mythological saga of life, celebrity and sacrificial death. He wrote it as a tribute to Kennedy; many others see parallels with his own life presaged within it.

Impeccably sung here by David Massengill, the best performance of "Crucifixion" was recorded by Australia's Jeannie Lewis in the 1970s, again as a tribute to Ochs. Her near hysterical singing captured the fear and supernatural beauty of the song and dramatised its theological depths.

The deadly struggles that possessed the United States in 1968 — the riots, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy — ate into Ochs. In Chicago, he roused the crowds of young demonstrators with his songs, then watched, appalled, as the police rioted, gassing, bashing and kicking hundreds.

He came to believe that change was impossible. His next LP featured a picture of his tombstone on the cover with the words"Died: Chicago, Illinois 1968".

His songs grew more inward-looking, though no less affecting, and his behaviour took some strange turns. He summarised his orientation to working-class politics as: "If there's any home for America it lies in a revolution, and if there's any hope for a revolution in America, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara".

In 1970, he set out to meld Presley with revolution — by wearing a gold lamé suit on stage and alternately singing '50s rock 'n' roll and protest songs. It surprised his fans and didn't win any converts.

A live recording from this period, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, has a drunken Ochs in a tug-of-war with his audience as they noisily swung between sympathy and explosive anger.

Over the next six years his song-writing evaporated. He explained in a 1975 interview: "It could be the alcohol, it could be the deterioration of the politics I was involved in, it could be the general deterioration of the country. Basically, me and the country were deteriorating simultaneously and that's probably why it stopped coming."

In one last burst of inspiration, at the end of the Vietnam War, he organised a celebration rally in New York's Central Park. One hundred thousand people came to hear him, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger.

Ochs, in growing mental confusion, felt that with the war over, his life's work was finished. He lost contact with his identity and became a homeless derelict on the New York streets, committing suicide in April 1976.

His sister, Sonny Ochs, through organising movement fundraising "Phil Ochs Song Nights", has maintained his musical and political heritage and hence this recording project.

Mixing, as it does, some of his most sensitive songs with his more declamatory work, it is a window into the soul of a person of extraordinary talent and political commitment. Phil Ochs' heart brimmed with compassion for the oppressed, but ultimately he could not extend it to himself.

From GLW issue 326