Favorite Folksingers: Phil Ochs

WC admits to a long love of folk music. It likely started with the folk music scene in the early 1960’s, which wended its way even to Fairbanks, Alaska. Peter, Paul & Mary’s appearance at a fundraiser for the Alaska centennial, er… A67, er… Alaskaland, er… Pioneer Park transformed an interest into a passion, particularly their cover of “The War Is Over.” In their introduction, they mentioned it was written by their friend, Phil Ochs…

Phil Ochs didn’t have many Top 40 songs. His classic “Small Circle of Friends,” a song describing the murder of Kitty Genovese done to a catchy ragtime piano melody, got some air play, but his really sarcastic songs, like “Love me, I’m a Liberal” were a little too intense for the folk generation.

But if you ask me to bus my children
I hope the cops take down your name
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal

But for a time, Ochs was a real competitor to Bob Dylan, with the difference that Ochs could sing, and wrote songs that were less gnomic than Dylan. The lyrics are a pale shadow of his songs, but the final stanza of “Flower Lady” catches a bit of the imagery Ochs could summon up:

And the flower lady hobbles home without a sale
Tattered shreds of petals leave a fading trail
Not a pause to hold a rose
Even she no longer knows
The lamp goes out the evening now is closed
And nobody’s buying flowers from the flower lady

WC came home one evening to find his girlfriend, in tears, just from listening to “Flower Lady.” Yet for all his fury at what he saw at the stupidity of war, he was still an unabashed patriot. He sang in “The Power and the Glory,”

Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)

And he was an incurable romantic. Consider songs like “Pleasures of the Harbor”

And the ship sets the sail
They’ve lived the tale
To carry from the shore
Straining at the oars
Or staring from the rail
And the sea bids farewell
She waves in swells
And sends them on their way
Time has been her pay
And time will have to tell
Soon your sailing will be over
Come and take the pleasures of the harbor

But the Democratic Convention in 1968, combined with the Nixon Administration’s expansion of the war in Vietnam, broke something in Phil Ochs. Torn between his desire for fame and his drive to get his country out of Vietnam, he descended into alcoholism and madness, committing suicide in 1976. He had reason to be paranoid – the FBI turned out to have a 500 page dossier on Ochs. If he had known, he would have been proud.

In many ways and in many songs, Ochs knew how his personal story would end. In “There But for Fortune,” he sang:

Show me the whiskey stains on the floor,
Show me the drunken man as he stumbles out the door,
And I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons why
There but for fortune, may go you or go I — you and I.

Phil Ochs may not have found fame, but you can still find his songs in the iTunes Store, and Amazon still carries all seven of his original albums. Greg Brown and John Prine will surprise you with a cover of an Ochs song from time to time. And his passion still matters. The madness and folly of the Bush and Cheney years badly needed a Phil Ochs. WC will close with the prescient, “When I’m Gone”

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone
And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone
Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

Want to know more? There’s a hard-to-find documentary called “Chords of Fame” that I recommend. There’s a decent biography by Marc Eliot called Death of a Rebel, and a better, more recent one by Michael Schuhmacher called There But for Fortune. But the biographies are a pale candle to the music. All of his albums are in print. Give them a listen.