Phil Ochs was, simply put, a protest singer. He is often placed into the same category as other great folk singers such as Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and Woody Guthrie. Placing Ochs in such a category, however, often overshadows the factors that made him such a unique - and dangerous - part of the 1960s peace movement.
Ochs was born in 1940 into a world that was about to be vastly changed. Hitler and Stalin were still in power. Women's rights and the rights of minorities were concepts that were laughable to most educated persons. Phil Ochs grew up in this environment, and later became one of the chief heralds of its downfall. He began writing music in the early 1960s that was so outspoken in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements that the FBI kept tabs on all of his activities in politics from 1963. His works began to take on the feeling of an idealist that believed in America's purity and a sense that America would one day cast aside the mistakes it had made. His tone suddenly became darker in the later 1960s, however, as he began to believe that America had spun irredeemably off course.
Ochs' work went largely unnoticed throughout his life; he was often considered a 'runner-up' to the great Bob Dylan, despite Dylan's saying 'I just can't keep up with Phil. And he's getting better and better and better.' His life began to spin inexorably out of control in the mid-1970s, and he tragically took his own life by hanging himself at his sister's home in 1976.
The music of Phil Ochs has been alternatively described as 'scathing', 'seething', 'caustic', and 'all too accurate'. While most of his early work dealt with his beliefs in ending the war in Vietnam, his later works often had to do with more social issues. His music had a much more melodic sense than Dylan's, but lacked the clever lyricism that made Dylan so famous.
'Flower Lady' was a sad reflection on the death of beauty. 'Cross My Heart' was an optimistic promise to his audience that he would continue working for them. 'Outside of a Small Circle of Friends' and 'Love Me, I'm a Liberal' were scathing, sarcastic attacks at the lack of American social values. The first was a moral assault on apathy set to a perky ragtime melody. It contained the controversial line 'Smoking marijuana is more fun than drinking beer', which got the song banned on many radio stations. It was the closest Ochs came to a Top 40 hit. 'Love Me, I'm a Liberal' was more of a folk song that attacked the hypocrisy of the American middle class.
Ochs' song 'The Crucifixion' was a ten-verse epic directed towards the late John F Kennedy. It is said that the late president's brother Robert was moved to tears after Ochs played it for him.
Phil Ochs was known mainly for his anti-war songs of the late 1960s. His 'The War is Over' is a cry for peace in an all too belligerent world. He sets the song to a background of insanity and chaos. The backup track has been described as an 'insane marching band'. The song contains the poignant verse:
So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is to young to die.
Many people consider Ochs' greatest hit to be 'I Ain't Marchin' Anymore'. The song is a yet another call for peace in a warlike world. He asks what exactly war has gained for humans, other than death, suffering, and sadness. He begs for peaceful resolutions to conflicts.
Covers and Tributes
Phil Ochs' songs have been recorded by many artists, from Joan Baez to Jello Biafra, from The Four Seasons to Teenage Fanclub, from Marianne Faithful to Ani DiFranco. Songs written about Phil Ochs include: 'I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night', by Billy Bragg; ' All My Heroes are Dead', by Dar Williams; ' The Parade's Still Going By', by Harry Chapin; 'The Day', by They Might Be Giants; and 'Patriot's Dream', by Arlo Guthrie.
The following sites have more Phil Ochs information:
- The Phil Ochs Homepage
- Phil Ochs Discography
- Rolling Stone Magazine
- Biography from the Austin Chronicle