There was a brief time in America between the beatniks and the hippies, and that was the time of the folkies. The Sixties was a time of cultural change, and among the precursors of the change was the new interest in folk music. Actually, to say that the interest in folk music was new would be disingenuous; what we now call folk music used to be known as… music. It chronicled the thoughts of the day, and some of those songs are still around, although their meanings have generally fallen into don’t-know-don’t-careville. Por ejemplo, it’s commonly understood that song we all sang, “Roses, roses, pocket full of posies, all fall down,” was about dying from the Black Plague in London in 1665. As recently as the 1920’s and ‘30’s, we had the folk music that came out of the deep South and the Okie Dust Bowl migration of the 30’s, and some of that turned into jazz, blues and rock. Before the new jongleurs* like Bob Dylan showed up in the early Sixties, folk music was mostly songs from the past, although the irony must have been noted that at one time, those songs had been written, they’d been topical. Sure, songs about romances sweet and tragic were always topical, but we’ve been singing about the erosion of London Bridge since at least the Sixteenth Century. Still do, yo.
Folk music had always been about what was current in its time, but until around 1960, the main folk influences were Odetta and the Weavers, before Pete Seeger went solo. They sang the sweet and sad love songs, they sang songs of treachery and all the sins, so the songs were timeless. Joan Baez was the queen of folk music, but there were others, like the Kingston Trio and Harry Belafonte, Bob Gibson and yes, even the Smothers Brothers. Their platform was low-key, their audience was small, and their record sales were paltry (though growing); but after Woody Guthrie, I don’t know of any really influential folk influences until Dylan and few other singer-songwriters who were addressing social issues in their music, including Buffy Sainte-Marie, Tom Rush, Eric Andersen and a few others. (I should write about those folks sometime.) Of course Bob Dylan stands out as an influence in the early Sixties, as he should, but prominent among those others of influence was Phil Ochs, who, for a while, was considered by many to be the equal of Bob Dylan back when Dylan and Ochs were mainly known for their anti-war songs. For many of you, this will be an introduction to a man who was of some measurable influence in his day, but who has sunk into obscurity. He was an influence on me and many others and I want to tell you about him and play a song for you that I love but has nothing to do with what he was famous for. To whit:
Phil Ochs was born in El Paso, Texas in 1940. Recognized early as having extraordinary musical abilities, he followed a classical star until he heard early rockers Elvis and Buddy Holly, as well as country acts like Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams and others, and another horse had left the barn. Getting out of Texas, he enrolled at Ohio State University.
Unhappy at college, he dropped out after a semester and drifted to Florida, where he was arrested and spent two weeks in jail for sleeping on a park bench. Bitter from the experience, he returned to college around the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and if you were born less than fifty years ago, you couldn’t possibly know that everyone—everyone— was glued to a TV or radio, scared out of our wits as President Kennedy dared the Russians to install their missiles in Cuba. The entire nation was united in an overhanging fear of annihilation and a sense of helplessness that sent people to church in unprecedented numbers and brought duck-and-cover exercises to our schools. We lived at our nerves edge, and if you think Donald Trump monopolizes the conversation today, then you weren’t there then. And that was when Phil Ochs changed his major to journalism.
I guess his fuse was lit by then, and his interest in politics led him to the school newspaper. When, claiming excessive radicalism in what he wrote, they refused to run some of his pieces, he published his own newspaper to expose his views. When a friend at college introduced him to the folk music of Seeger, Guthrie and the Weavers, his musical background met his journalistic aspirations and he started putting his political views into songs. During his senior year at OSU, angry at being denied the editor-in-chief slot at the school newspaper, he dropped out without graduating and moved to New York City to be a folksinger. He played in clubs in the Village and passed the hat.
- Ochs recorded his first three albums for Elektra Records: All the News That's Fit to Sing (1964), I Ain't Marching Anymore (1965), and Phil Ochs in Concert (1966). Critics wrote that each album was better than its predecessors, and fans seemed to agree; record sales increased with each new release.
- During the early period of his career, Ochs and Bob Dylan had a friendly rivalry. Dylan said of Ochs, "I just can't keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better." On another occasion, when Ochs criticized “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” Dylan threw him out of his limousine, saying, "You're not a folksinger. You're a journalist."
That brief, early rivalry is the time I remember most about the early days of Phil Ochs’ recording career. I was a folkie by the time I got to college, and Phil Ochs was played and sung around campus as much as Bob Dylan. Oh, I guess it was apparent that Dylan had the edge, but at the time the Viet Nam War was raging and the Selective Service was grabbing as many of my fellow teenagers as they could get their paws on. Everyone knew that if you didn’t want to go to Viet Nam you went to college, and if you flunked out of college, you were off to basic training. Yikes! So, beside the fact that everyone knew the war was illegal and immoral, if a guy didn’t watch his grades, a guy could get killed. So yeah, we were all against the war. And we went to the rallies, and some of the meetings, and held protests and talked about it at whatever informal gatherings college kids had, and at most of them someone had a guitar and was singing either Bob Dylan or Phil Ochs. Almost everyone knew the songs, and most of the people sang along.
Dylan’s “Masters of War,” “With God On Our Side,” “Chimes of Freedom” and others were sung at these gatherings, and they put us in an angry, contemplative mood, as did Ochs’ “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Too Many Martyrs,” and “There But For Fortune.” Those songs not only spoke to us, they spoke for us. These were communal thoughts; we all shared them but we left it for Bob and Phil to do the talking. You wanted to add your voice to the protest? You sang along. Phil Ochs was a significant part of youth culture from 1964 until maybe 1966; Dylan moved on and got better, and Phil stayed where he was and got stale.
Edited from Wikipedia:
- In 1974, after the Allende government was overthrown in a coup d'état, Ochs organized a benefit concert to bring to public attention the situation in Chile and raise funds for its people with Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie. Dylan agreed to perform at the last minute when he heard that the concert had sold so few tickets that it was in danger of being canceled. Once his participation was announced, the event quickly sold out.
- After the Chile benefit, Ochs and Dylan discussed the possibility of a joint concert tour. Nothing came of the Dylan-Ochs plans, but the idea eventually evolved into Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue the following year.
- Ochs's drinking became more and more of a problem, and his behavior became increasingly erratic. He frightened his friends both with his drunken rants about the FBI and CIA, and about his claiming to want to have Elvis's manager Colonel Tom Parker or Kentucky Fried Chicken's Colonel Sanders manage his career.
- In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Ochs, and that he, John Butler Train, had replaced him. Train was convinced that someone was trying to kill him, so he carried a weapon at all times: a hammer, a knife, or a lead pipe.
- Ochs's friends tried to help him. His brother Michael attempted to have him committed to a psychiatric hospital. Friends pleaded with him to get help voluntarily. They feared for his safety, because he was getting into fights with bar patrons. Unable to pay his rent, he began living on the streets.
- In January 1976, Ochs moved to Far Rockaway, New York, to live with his sister Sonny. He was lethargic; his only activities were watching television and playing cards with his nephews. Ochs saw a psychiatrist, who diagnosed his bipolar disorder. He was prescribed medication, and he told his sister he was taking it. On April 9, 1976, Ochs committed suicide by hanging himself in Sonny's home. He was found by his nephew.
Dylan wrote his protest songs and then walked away from the movement, but Ochs maintained his focus, playing for striking miners in Kentucky and Civil Rights rallies, anti-war demonstrations, student protests and wherever he was asked and felt his songs were needed. When the war in Viet Nam ended, his songs became yesterday’s news. Paying gigs dried up and Ochs went into a downward spiral. Popularity is about what you’ve done lately, and the only song of his that was a hit was a hit for Joan Baez, not Ochs.
John Lennon once called Phil Ochs “The greatest American protest song writer.” When Dylan abandoned the protest movement, people thought Ochs would take the crown, but his records never sold well. From his former manager: “There was a PBS documentary on American protest
Singers that didn’t even mention Phil. There was a Joan Baez documentary recently that didn’t even include “There But For Fortune,” her signature hit, which Phil wrote. A CD boxed set on the folk singers in the Village and Phil’s not on there? I’m as shocked as shit by things like that.”
Dylan has been generous with his former Greenwich Village players in his book, Chronicles , but there is no mention of Ochs. Martin Scorsese’s Dylan documentary No Direction Home has no mention of Ochs.
That’s the story in broad strokes. I hope I haven’t appeared disrespectful. Back in the days when there were “protest songs” (Ochs preferred his to be called a “topical songs”), Phil Ochs was Bob Dylan’s only rival. I am so glad that Dylan grew and became the voice of the protest movement and then grew from there into everything that followed, and I understand why Phil Ochs isn’t better known today. I can kind of see it; I mean, he was so much an artist of his time, and his time has passed. It happens. I don’t have enough time for a lot of those stories, and there are a lot of them… I just wanted to honor him a bit.
For some reason, as fondly as I remember my time with Phil Ochs’ protest songs, I have always most admired one of his songs that isn’t one of his own. I love what he did with “The Bells,” a poem by Edgar Allan Poe, so I’ll put a link to it below. As much as I was influenced by and admired Phil Ochs and what he was saying about such an important subject, I like that he took a traditional form, a poem, and re-jiggered it into folk. As a man who enjoys manipulating words as I do, I enjoy Poe’s literary wordplay, and I hope you enjoy the song. And I hope you enjoyed meeting Phil Ochs.
Also below are some of his better-known songs. Watch him as he performs; I think you’ll see humility and something… direct. Even I’m not sure what that means, but I think you’ll see it. Please try to imagine what it felt like to listen to these songs from a time when the nation’s youth led a movement that ended a war; unity and optimism reigned on college campuses where we believed we were engaged in a righteous struggle against convention, when none of us thought we were naïve, and Phil Ochs was speaking to and for a generation. I know there are songs of protest today, and I know there are movements, but it just ain’t the same. Back then we felt united in our struggle, and this was powerful stuff when I heard it fifty years ago.
And wow, how did I get old enough to say something like “…when I heard it fifty years ago”?
* I must say that I was surprised when Word accepted “jongleurs” without a question. If you look for them in Wikipedia, you are directed to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Minstrel
Put your fists in the air for: I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore:
There But For Fortune:
Draft Dodger Rag:
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.