Phil Ochs and the legacy of singing journalism

Phil Ochs and the legacy of singing journalism

“In the heat of the summer/when the pavements were burning/the soul of a city was ravaged in the night/after the city sun was sinkin’.” 

                 – “In the Heat of the Summer”

After the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the city of Minneapolis erupted in protest, with police forces beating back protestors with tear gas and rubber bullets.  Related protests occurred in 140 other US cities, including Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, New York and Las Vegas, resulting in violence, property damage and the deaths of at least four protestors.  The protests of summer 2020 eerily resembled the civil rights riots which swept much of the country during the mid-1960s.  Documentation of those riots was not left entirely to the mass media, however.  Phil Ochs may be the only result Google returns for the term “singing journalist,” but his insightful, deeply observational music endures as a lasting and all-too-relatable demand for social justice, honesty and an end to war everywhere.  On what would have been his 80th birthday, it is well worth revisiting his work in light of these times.

Philip David Ochs was born in El Paso, Texas on December 19, 1940, the second child of Jacob Ochs, a Jewish Army doctor, and Gertrude Phin, a Scottish immigrant from a wealthy family.  The family moved frequently, and he grew up in Texas, New York and Ohio.  As a child he was described as a daydreamer, perpetually forgetful and intelligent yet inattentive in most classes.  What he possessed, however, was an innate talent for playing music at an advanced level with little practice.  At the age of 10 he took up the clarinet, earning praise from his instructors within his first month of study.  He continued to play as he attended Staunton Military Academy, simultaneously developing his skills as a writer and earning prizes for his short fiction.  He graduated in 1958, having earned the rank of Sergeant as a member of the school band.

By this time, the 17 year old Ochs was interested in a career as a singer.  While in military school his interest in music drifted from marches and classical work to the then-innovative sounds of country and early rock and roll.  Throughout his life he retained a deep love of Elvis Presley, Faron Young, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, covering their work in his later concerts alongside his own compositions.  He enrolled at Ohio State University as an undeclared student, dropping out briefly before returning a semester later, finding a sense of purpose in journalism.  He wrote for both the school newspaper The Lantern and the satirical campus publication The Sundial.  Yet neither publication was enough to support Ochs’ prodigious, and increasingly political, output.  After being passed over for prestigious assignments by The Lantern, he created his own paper, The Word, which he copied and stapled himself in the apartment he shared with fellow student, future folksinger and songwriter Jim Glover.  Before he dropped out of college and moved to New York in February 1962, he had already developed his method for composing much of his music.  Every day, he would purchase newspapers and magazines, and throughout the day he would write at least one song based on the stories he read.  His earliest compositions include songs about the American Medical Association, con artist Billie Sol Estes and the Bay of Pigs invasion

He arrived in Greenwich Village broke, jobless and homeless and immediately moved in with his old friend Glover.  However, Glover’s new girlfriend and musical partner, Jean Ray, was unwilling to share him with anyone, especially the legendarily slovenly Ochs.  Ray set him up romantically with her friend, Alice Skinner, an 18 year old drama student from Philadelphia.  After a brief courtship, they married in 1963, with their daughter Meegan Lee born in September of that year.

Ochs’ career developed with alarming speed.  The same month that he arrived in New York, a new folk publication, Broadside, was first published by activist and music instructor Agnes “Sis” Cunningham and her husband, Gordon Friesen.  Like Sing Out!, another folk music oriented publication, Broadside promoted the best of a new crop of songwriters inspired by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.  Unlike other publications of its time, however, it focused on activism as much as music, and Ochs’ work was a perfect fit.  By September 1962, he became a regular contributor and editor, eventually writing a whopping 72 songs which were first printed there. In addition to his work for Broadside, his writing was featured in other publications such as Mainstream, Broadside of Boston and the Hi-Fi Record Guide as well as liner notes and program notes for the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals.  After he became established at the renowned music venue Gerde’s Folk City, he also kept up a strenuous schedule of college tour dates across the country and parts of Canada, rarely coming home to do more than sleep. 

With impresario Albert Grossman as his manager, Ochs landed his first record contract with Elektra in January 1964, and proceeded to record his first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, a spare recording of 14 tracks accompanied with only two guitars and his tremulous, innocent tenor.  He viewed the album as a musical newspaper, with distinct sides, and a “headline” in the leadoff song, “One More Parade,” about the futility of war.  While many of the songs featured current events (including “Talking Vietnam,” written in 1962 and perhaps the earliest protest song about the Vietnam War by any artist) the record also featured one of his most covered compositions, the sweeping American anthemic singalong “Power and the Glory.”  It was an auspicious debut for the hardworking artist, who had just turned 23 when it was released. 

If All the News That’s Fit to Sing was politically potent, its followup, I Ain’t Marching Anymore, proved twice as powerful.  From the history lesson of the title track to the bitterly satirical “Draft Dodger Rag” and the investigative journalism of “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Ochs’ second album remains for modern listeners an invective against complacency, racism and warfare.  Its songs have been covered by Odetta, Loreena McKennitt, Wyclef Jean and Richard Thompson, with lyrics that still have the power to blister almost everyone within earshot.  For many, it serves as his definitive statement of truth and integrity and stands as one of the finest protest albums of any era. 

The furious pace of his writing and recording, coupled with a heavy touring schedule, made any kind of personal life difficult at best.  He and his wife separated by December 1964; his friendships and family relationships also started to fray.  Yet he continued his grueling workload, founding his own management company, Barricade Music (early artists included Jim and Jean and Joni Mitchell) and expanding his touring into Europe and Australia.  However, along with this success came the first inklings of bipolar disorder, for which he self-medicated with alcohol.  In the late 1960s and early 1970s there were very few treatments available, and those which existed had occasionally disastrous side effects.  There was little help for someone like Ochs, who inherited the condition from his father and relied almost entirely on his own creativity to make a living.

Ochs’ next album, Phil Ochs in Concert, is his best known record on the strength of “There But for Fortune,” a hit for Joan Baez in 1966, and “Changes,” his first abstract composition.  Both songs remain among the most covered in his catalog, less directly protest-oriented yet dealing with the human condition and forces outside of one’s control.  These two songs were bellwethers for the next phase of his recording career.  He signed with A&M Records in 1967 and released four records between 1967 and 1970, each far more complex than his initial folk efforts, emotionally dark and all characterized with full band arrangements.  The first of these, the lush, art-folk Pleasures of the Harbor (1967) boasts perhaps his most poignant composition, “Crucifixion,” a seven minute meditation on the death of President John F. Kennedy.  Pleasures became his best selling album because of “Outside a Small Circle of Friends,” a pointed commentary on the murder of Kitty Genovese and the incarceration of poet and activist John Sinclair, which scraped the Billboard Hot 100.

The next three albums saw diminishing sales, even if the artistic quality remained high. Tape from California (1968) is the closest he ever came to a rock and roll record.  It features “When in Rome,” Ochs’ longest song, a 13-minute acoustic opus on the downfall of American society.  Tape from California is also his most protest oriented album for A&M, with “The War is Over,” the theme song for a series of absurdist marches he held in conjunction with the Yippies in 1968.  Rehearsals for Retirement (1969) deals with Ochs’ disillusionment with politics and limited possibility for social change.  By this point, he was also suffering from depression and the songs reveal despair in all its forms.  From the paranoia of “My Life” and “Another Age” to the embittered observational piece “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park and Escapes Unscathed” (about the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, which ended in rioting) the album is a harrowing yet poetic set of songs, combining the approaches he took on his previous two records.  After Rehearsals for Retirement failed to sell more than 25,000 copies, Ochs took a different approach with his final studio album, Greatest Hits (1970).  Dressed in a Nudie Cohn-designed gold lamé suit for the cover and the ensuing tour, Ochs treated the album (of all new material) as a concept where “If there’s any hope in American for a revolution, it lies in getting Elvis Presley to become Che Guevara.”  The album was inspired by Elvis’ 1968 comeback as well as Ochs’ earliest influences, yet most people could not grasp that the gold-suited rock and roller in Hollywood was the same person who, five years earlier, was in dirty jeans and shirtsleeves strumming a single guitar in New York.  

Greatest Hits was Ochs’ last studio album (a live album, Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, was released only in Canada in 1972.)  While he continued to perform at protest rallies, including the Free John Sinclair Rally in Ann Arbor (invited by John Lennon) and campaign events for antiwar candidates, he hit a writer’s block that he could never shake.  Instead, he turned his energies in different directions.  He continued as a popular concert draw on the folk circuit, the most memorable being a two week series of near-triumphant shows with Patti Smith as the opening act in December 1974.  After the state-ordered murder of his friend, Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, he organized a concert to benefit refugees of Chile’s Pinochet regime, featuring luminaries and friends including actor Dennis Hopper, Beach Boy Dennis Wilson and Bob Dylan.  In May 1975, after the formal end of the Vietnam War, he organized a second show, the “War is Over” concert in Central Park, where he shared a duet with Joan Baez.  Additionally, he returned to journalism, writing articles on Bruce Lee and Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev.  Yet these small successes were not enough to keep him emotionally or mentally together.  Falling deeper into depression and alcoholism, gaining weight as a result of drinking and poor diet and losing part of his voice in a mugging and strangulation in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he suffered a psychotic break in mid-1975.  Although he recovered his personality by the end of the year, his spirit was crushed, and he died by his own hand on April 19, 1976, believing he and his music had been forgotten.

Yet 44 years after his death, Ochs’s music remains refreshingly honest and painfully relevant today.  In 2018, legendary basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in a letter to the National Football League, defended the players’ right to protest by quoting Ochs’ “I’m Gonna Say it Now.”  At the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Lady Gaga demonstrated support for Hillary Clinton with a rendition of “The War is Over.”  Neil Young claimed Ochs was one of the greatest poets who ever lived, and his cover of “Changes” is both faithful and elegantly done.  His own original compositions, however, have lost none of their power to engage and enrage.  “What’s That I Hear” continues to serve as a rallying cry for freedom lovers and people seeking positive social change, while “Days of Decision” casts a sharp look toward those who would choose not to choose sides on moral, ethical or political issues.  His whole catalog is studded with gems like these, all infused with a crystalline honesty and a relentless desire to pursue and tell the truth.  And with releases of new archival material in both audio and print formats this year, now is an ideal time to become acquainted with the work of this fundamental songwriter.

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