Phil Ochs Makes a Comeback

Phil Ochs during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside U.N. Building (New York City, 1967). Photo by Michael Ochs.

Phil Ochs during a Vietnam moratorium demonstration outside U.N. Building (New York City, 1967). Photo by Michael Ochs.

“One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.”

– Phil Ochs, 1962

WC’s all time favorite folksinger, Phil Ochs, is making a comeback. Ochs and his amazing songs seem to make a comeback whenever American politics get especially dark. This is the man, after all, who sang,

And the speeches of the President
Are the ravings of a clown.

– Phil Ochs, “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”

You can’t get much more current – and accurate – than that. But this time, it’s official: The Washington Post had a long feature about Ochs. It’s ironic: the unrelentingly anti-establishment Phil Ochs has been endorsed by a columnist in a quintessentially establishment newspaper. He would have loved it. Lady Gaga performed “The War Is Over” at the Democratic Party National Convention.

What WC liked most about Ochs was his willingness to call out hypocrisy, even in his audience. One of his less successful songs, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” is sung from the point of view of a moderate liberal, likely Ochs’ audience:

The people of old Mississippi
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can’t understand how their minds work
What’s the matter don’t they watch Les Crain?
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 if Ochs was snarky to liberals, he was utterly brutal to conservatives.

It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the sabre and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all.

– “I Ain’t a’Marchin Anymore”

And his views of the American legal system got him arrested, more than once:

In the courtroom, watch the balance of the scales
If the price is right, there’s time for more appeals
The strings are pulled, the switch is stayed
The finest lawyers fees are paid
And a rich man never died upon the chair

– “The Iron Lady”

For WC, at least, what really sets Phil Och’s protest songs apart is the beauty of the music, which is hard to reporduce in a blog post. As he wrote in the liner notes to Pleasures of the Harbor, “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” Here’s a live version of “When I’m Gone.”

While Phil Ochs is dead some 40 years, his music, his songs, his passion are more alive, more relevant than ever. In his patriotic anthem, “The Power and the Glory,” he sang:

But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate.
They twist away our freedom, and they twist away our fate.
Fear is their weapon, and treason is their cry.
We can stop them if we try.