phil ochs. i first learned about this man maybe two years ago through a reference in a billy bragg song. i first heard his tunes maybe ONE year ago, and he’s now easily one of my TOP 5 favorite folk singers.
(i haven’t actually made a top 5 list, but off the top of my head, and in no particular order… woody guthrie, phil ochs, jim croce, john hartford, and some other boring asshole probably)
phil was a “left social democrat” and “early revolutionary” who wrote and performed “topical songs” from 1962 through 1975. he was also bi-polar, manic depressive, and had an alternate personality as well as alcoholism and an addiction to valium and sometimes lithium. i think i like him a LOT because he was an actual political activist and his songs are about real, important things. so many of these stupid folk singers sing ‘political’ songs, but don’t actually get involved in any real activism. phil ochs was serious about it.
when he was 18, he was arrested in miami for sleeping on a park bench, and was held in jail for 15 days. while in jail, he realized he wanted to write, and more importantly, to become a journalist. so… during college, he wrote a lot of articles for the school paper, many of which were refused publication because they were too radical. getting fed up, he started his own underground paper and continued pursuing radical jounalism. during this time, he was also introduced to folk music and learned to play the guitar (he was already a somewhat acclaimed clarinet player).
the natural next step for ochs was to combine his love of music with his love of journalism, and he began writing political songs. he described himself as a troubadour jounalist whose songs were built from the stories read in newsweek. in the early sixties, phil was getting rather popular in the new york folk scene and would hang out with such well knowns as joan baez and bob dylan. he was also heavily involved in political activism, performing at and organizing anti-war rallies, civil rights rallies, labor events, etc.
however… he seemed to become more disillusioned and depressed with every passing year (his mental problems were becoming more and more serious as well), and when 1968 rolled around, it really took its toll on phil with the assassination of martin luther king jr. and robert f. kennedy, the riots at the dnc, and the election of nixon. he was also getting negative reviews on his new “baroque-folk” style album, which didn’t help the depression.
in 1970, in order to have more influence on the general public, he commissioned a gold suit from elvis’s costumer and went on tour, playing buddy holly, merle haggard, and elvis covers as well as his own songs. he also travelled to chile, hung out with victor jara (who’s death was immortalized in the song “washington bullets” by the clash), a staunch supporter of allende, and performed in the first greenpeace concert.
1973 was another bad year for ochs… not only did both jara and allende die in the u.s. backed coupe in chile, but he was attacked in africa by robbers who strangled him and injured his vocal chords. the attack worsened his mental problems, and he became increasingly paranoid, believing that the attack was arranged by government agents. (it later turned out that the FBI did, indeed, have a 500 page file on ochs, but they didn’t actually have anything to do with the strangulation)
in 1976, phil ochs hanged himself.
here are a couple of mp3s off the one album i own… “there but for fortune”, a compilation put out by elektra in 89.
There But For Fortune
Is There Anybody Here
Draft Dodger Rag
here’s a live clip of phil performing “the highwayman”:
and here’s a clip of victor jara:
AND… Washington Bullets by The Clash: