Music has always influenced me, especially while I was growing up. One of the poet/songwriters I really loved was Phil Ochs, who died in April, 1976. Ochs corrected the people who labelled him a protest singer – “topical singer” was his phrase. Though his music extended beyond topical songs, his anti-war songs, and music that demanded social justice remain his best known pieces.
Ochs was born in El Paso in 1940. His father, a doctor, had been drafted during WWII and suffered from depression after his discharge. The moved a lot as he had trouble establishing a medical practice. Phil dropped out of college, but after an arrest for vagrancy in Florida, decided to become a writer and journalist. He enrolled at Ohio state where he discussed politics and learned the guitar from a fellow student who turned him on to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the Weavers.
Ochs learned quickly and was invited to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul, and Mary also appeared. During the ’60’s, he wrote hundreds of songs. One of his best known was “I ain’t a marchin’ anymore.” Ochs quoted the lyrics when called to testify at the Chicago Seven trial after the 1968 police riot during the Democratic Convention.
It’s always the old to lead us to the wars,
always the young to fall.
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun,
Tell me is it worth it all?
Several of Ochs’ most haunting ballads center on Christian themes. I haven’t read either of the two biographies, so I don’t know the role of faith in his life, but these songs are filled with poetry, sadness, and a vision of Jesus that lies on the opposite end of the spectrum from those who invoke Christian themes to support their political views nowadays. Here’s a clip of the first two minutes of a live version of, “The Crucifiction,” performed in Stockholm in 1969. The recorded version runs to almost nine minutes and is available on iTunes for anyone interested.
In the green fields a turnin’, a baby is born
His cries crease the wind and mingle with the morn
An assault upon the order, the changing of the guard
Chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard
And the only single sound is the sighing of the stars
But to the silence of distance they are sworn
Images of innocence charge him go on
But the decadence of destiny is looking for a pawn
To a nightmare of knowledge he opens up the gate
And a blinding revelation is laid upon his plate
That beneath the greatest love is a hurricane of hate
And God help the critic of the dawn.
So he stands on the sea and shouts to the shore,
But the louder that he screams the longer he’s ignored
For the wine of oblivion is drunk to the dregs
And the merchants of the masses almost have to be begged
‘Till the giant is aware, someone’s pulling at his leg,
And someone is tapping at the door.
So dance dance dance
Teach us to be true
Come dance dance dance
‘Cause we love you
Another one of my favorites has always been the “Ballad of a Carpenter.”
Two thousand years have come and gone
many a hero too.
But the dream of this poor carpenter
remains in the hands of you
remains in the hands of you.
The events during and after the 1968 election convinced Ochs that no one was listening to “topical songs.” He tried to return to his musical roots – Buddy Holly, Elvis, and Merle Haggard – hoping that would open better avenues of communication, but he began to rely more heavily on valium and alcohol to keep him going while touring.
He travelled to Chile in support of Salvatore Allende, a democratically elected Marxist. He and another Chilean folksinger barely escaped with their lives after visiting other South American countries. In 1973, he was attacked by robbers during a trip to Africa and his vocal cords were damaged as the attackers tried to strangle him. Ochs believed the CIA might have arranged the attack. Paranoid? Perhaps, although after his death, the freedom of information act revealed that his dossier was 500 pages long.
The final recording on Ochs’ final album was the haunting, “No More Songs.” Plagued by bipolar disorder and alcoholism, Phil Ochs took his own life on April 9, 1976.
A star is in the sky, it’s time to say goodbye,
A whale is on the beach, he’s dying.
A white flag in my hand, and a white bone in the sand,
And it seems that there are no more songs.
Hello, hello, hello, is there anybody home?
I’ve only called to say I’m sorry
The drums are in the dawn and all the voices gone
And it seems that there are no more songs.
To paraphrase what he sang in “The Carpenter,” the dreams Phil Ochs tried to embody, remain in our hands. May he rest in peace.