The union of political subject matter and music can surely make for a problematic, sometimes even dysfunctional relationship, but the occasions where the results actually work are cause for celebration. Unsurprisingly, much of the good stuff sitting at the big crossroads of social issues and song sprang forth from the 1960s, and one of the best protest singer-songwriters of the era was Phil Ochs. His music shines great illumination upon the tumultuousness of that decade, but in its specificity to concerns of its period it also manages to present a somewhat discomforting commentary on the present.
For as long as I’ve been cognizant of Phil Ochs, he’s been identified as a tragic figure. This reflects upon how undiagnosed sickness and a troublesome final act to an eventful life can cast a shroud over prior achievements that are quite substantial and worthy of praise. And the fact that he was a success as a topical folk artist who never really transcended the realm of modest renown to become a household name (ala some of his contemporaries) only contributes to the grimness that surrounds his story. Add in that, Ochs’ attempts to move beyond the constraints of folk-based protest persist in being underrated and the downbeat mood of the man’s life narrative is secure.
Phil Ochs committed suicide by hanging on April 9, 1976 after suffering a long period of depression, bipolar disorder, and alcoholism, and his self-inflicted death has often been linked to the creeping malaise that transpired in the ‘70s after the fallout of stumbled progressiveness that ended the previous decade. While denying this symbolic resonance is surely a mistake, it’s also true that wallowing in the difficulties of Ochs’ later years reduces him to an artist of fleeting productivity that was victimized by life’s struggles and ultimately died a failure.
He was anything but that. Indeed, Ochs’ three albums for the Elektra label gather some of the best unashamedly leftist topical song-craft to ever get down onto tape. Those LP’s, 1964’s All the News that’s Fit to Sing, ‘65’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and ‘66’s In Concert reveal a musician who pursued his self-described mode of “singing journalist” with a vigor that was nearly unswerving in its tenacity. This simultaneously positions him as a follower of Pete Seeger, the grandfatherly figure of the folk protest movement whose recordings often struggled to overcome a pleasant atmosphere of correct-minded collectivity, and thusly different, for Ochs’ songs were frequently biting, challenging, and even eye-opening.
The best place to start with Ochs is with All the News that’s Fit to Sing. He’d done a touch of solid earlier recording, much of it for Broadside magazine, but the majority turned up on compilations only later, and the fourteen cuts that fill up his Elektra debut provide a nicely expansive tour of Ochs’ surprisingly versatile personality. This diversity greatly helps the LP in shouldering a burden that’s common to politically minded music, specifically the aura of preaching to the converted. Yeah, it’s pretty doubtful that a John Bircher or foamy-mouthed Goldwater supporter would’ve had any desire to own a record by Ochs, except for the possible intention to gleefully destroy it.
But it’s also true that the playing of All the News that’s Fit to Sing during assorted gatherings, hootenannies, and additionally at home via older brothers and sisters (and enlightened moms and pops) did much to open up some impressionable young minds. And sure, that’s also part of the reason Seeger has remained such a likable presence to so many, but fortunately with Ochs there was more. A big part of that more that’s distinct to his debut was the inclusion of second guitarist Danny Kalb, later of The Blues Project. The additive of extra picking, plucking, and strumming lent deeper musicality to Ochs’ early work, songs that surely went down a storm in the folk club and on the stage at Newport through the service of just his voice and guitar, but on record were surely aided by a stronger acoustic atmosphere.
To elaborate, Ochs has been unfairly backhanded as being not much of a singer. The reality is that he was a limited vocalist who learned how to utilize his constraints to fine effect. As his songwriting acumen increased and his lyrical focus toughened, the need for an accompanist subsided, and his second and third releases found him going it alone. If it seems like I’m making a better case for those records than his first, there are a handful of persuasive reasons to begin with All the News that’s Fit to Sing.
First, as the ‘60s grew more intense and people began choosing a side in which to become entrenched, that toughening lyrical focus could become at times scathing, other times self-righteous, and occasionally both at once. I myself don’t consider this a problem; in fact, it thankfully avoids another issue with politically focused music, namely that it can be a little (or a lot) namby-pamby by settling for easy targets and subjects that hold a large consensus of popular opinion. And it may seem like that’s the case with Ochs, but it’s important to remember that matters like integration and Vietnam were far from one-sided issues in the mid-‘60s.
All the News that’s Fit to Sing found the songwriter debuting numbers like “Talking Vietnam” and “Talking Cuban Crisis,” and in both cuts he was clearing taking stances that were yet to be shared by any sort of majority. But those tunes were also full of Ochs’ witty side, his lyrical claws having yet to sharpen into the raw, unapologetically divisive reality checks of songs like I Ain’t Marching Anymore’s “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and In Concert’s “Is There Anybody Here” and “Cops of the World.” If Ochs’ disgust understandably gathered steam as political and social ugliness increased, it’s sorta nice to spend time with the less caustic atmosphere of his first album.
This doesn’t mean that Ochs was in any way mild or tentative in his early opining. In fact, All the News that’s Fit to Sing opens with one of his most immediately affecting songs, a lament on unchecked patriotism “One More Parade.” And it’s good to be familiar with the arc that led to Ochs’ more walloping statements. Context is an excellent thing, y’know? It’s also nice to absorb some of the guy’s prettier musical moments like “The Thresher,” a song that is definitely assisted by Kalb’s additional guitar.
And that two guitar template definitely figures into “The Bells,” the record’s most appealing piece. But the largest reason behind its success comes down to Ochs, whose emphatic adaptation of a poem by Edgar Allen Poe makes plain he was always more than just a protest singer. It’s an achingly beautiful tune and its focus on a bit of non-topical minutiae greatly enhanced his overall palate, helping a labor number like “Automation Song” or a historical meditation on fascism like “Knock on the Door” gain strength through emotional breadth.
Ochs’ musical career is often erroneously shorthanded as that of an effective if one-dimensional folksinger who grew frustrated with that bag, in turn striving to branch out with limited success via his later A&M albums. But “The Bells” (and In Concert’s exquisite “Changes” and “When I’m Gone”) show that it was far from that simple. To the contrary, All the News that’s Fit to Sing includes what might be Ochs’ most well known song, the heartfelt tribute to Woody Guthrie “Bound for Glory” (featuring some nice uncredited harmonica from the Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian) that shared its title with not only Woody’s 1943 autobiography but also Hal Ashby’s biopic of the enduring populist icon. And yes, it stings a little that the movie came out (and won Academy Awards) in the year of Ochs’ demise, but the surefire cure for any lingering morbidity is to spend some quality time with the man’s music.
It’s true that for a long while it was somewhat difficult to lay hands on his work. In the late ‘80s there appeared a nicely compiled 2LP There but for Fortune via Elektra and The War is Over: The Best of Phil Ochs, a CD that for years was the easiest route to a sampling from his A&M albums. Nearly a decade elapsed before Rhino put together a 3-disc box set that naturally included a wealth of material but was frustratingly all over the place chronologically. This might not seem like such a big problem, but again in my view, Ochs’ stuff really benefits from at least a semblance of linear progression. So where could a hungry listener hear one of his records in the way it was originally intended?
Well, back then second-hand vinyl was pretty scarce. Chords of Fame, a ’76 2LP chock full of rarities that was compiled by his photo-archivist brother Michael (yes, it’s he that’s responsible for the incalculable value of the Michael Ochs Archives) was probably the easiest thing to find. This was followed by the A&M stuff, though it took years for this writer to locate suitable playing copies of Pleasures of the Harbor and Tape from California. The Elektra albums never seemed to turn up, a fact that lends some clarity to his legend. If successful and fairly well-known, he was simply never all that popular.
Happily, Ochs’ first two for Elektra have seen recent enough vinyl reissues to still be available, and All the News that’s Fit to Sing was even given an affordable 180gm treatment. Picking up that LP will not only provide some crucial enlightenment into Ochs as something other than just a doomed activist, but it’ll also shed powerful luminosity on a very different musical climate.
As a “singing journalist,” Ochs was at the forefront of arguably the most productive (and surely the most time concentrated) intermingling of political/social issues and song-form in his country’s history. It was half a century ago; in some ways it seems like much farther, and in other aspects it registers as somewhat similar to the present. For some time now various commentators have ruminated upon the sharp divisiveness that’s been plaguing the current day USA, and after some consideration I tend to think this ideological separation resembles (though only in some ways) the differences and hostilities that transpired during the 1960s.
And I’m beginning to believe they are similar enough that there should be a contemporary figure comparable to Phil Ochs. Not someone who sounds like him but rather a performer that simply shares his determination to protest via music. That our current landscape seems lacking is a real shame. And don’t get confused by the easy hectoring of millionaires or the morphing of audacious public behavior into political statements that are ultimately weak tea. Phil Ochs could surely badger and push buttons, but one of his best qualities was the strength of his conviction; deep down in their guts the hate and death mongering Segregationists and war profiteers were terrified most by the fact that he was right.
GRADED ON A CURVE: