BOOK REVIEW: I’m Gonna Say It Now, The Writings of Phil Ochs

I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writings of Phil Ochs

Edited by David Cohen

Backbeat Books

Where have all the folkies gone

Long time passing

Where have all the folkies gone

Long time ago

“One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply than a thousand rallies,” said Phil Ochs. He also noted that, “A protest song is a song that is so specific, that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.” These are just a few of the bon mots to be found  in I’m Gonna Say It Now: The Writings of Phil Ochs, a collection of the writings, poetry and other commentaries by the prolific folksinger who died in 1976. 

As an occupation, the evolution of the folksinger from court minstrel, to busker on the streets of European cities, to popular entertainer and recording artist, is a long and circuitous genealogy that encompasses live performance, the invention of printing and sheet music as well as the invention of sound recording. 

In the beginning there was the jongleur. The itinerant entertainer who was his or her own means of production all rolled up in one. Up until the 18th century, the job description for a jongleur usually required the entertainer to sing, play an instrument, dance and do some acrobatics. Eventually, dancing and acrobatics dropped away and the focus became the presentation of music and song.

The songs were usually written by the performer or were popular ditties of the day written by another musician. Occasionally, the authorities were alerted if the songs were considered subversive, profane or both. A Paris police report in 1751 noted with some concern that a singer might sometimes “add things that are not in the song,” such as political commentary that spoke truth to the power of the day.

In his book, NOISE: The Political Economy of Music (University of Minnesota Press, 1985), cultural critic and historian, Jacques Attali, distills the commodification of musical production over the centuries and concludes that throughout the history of the trade, as the emphasis on profit increasingly took root,  it has always been hard for the artists to make a buck. Many are called but few are chosen for the big time. August Wilson’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (now an excellent film as well) shows the corrosive effects of racism in the music industry circa 1920s and the super exploitation of Black artists. Phil Ochs, the iconoclastic protest singer of the 1960s and early 70s wrestled with this contradiction of artistic creation versus the market place for his entire, albeit limited, career.

Now, just when we need him most, the voice of Phil Ochs returns – not as a folksinger (thankfully we have his 8 record albums for that plus the most recent Phil Ochs: Live in Montreal 10/22/66 from RockBeat Records, 2017) but as an arts journalist and political commentator. 

Editor David Cohen has dug deep into the Phil Ochs Archives housed at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. This meticulously catalogued material (some of it published here as re-prints of the original primary document including marginalia) chronicles the life and times of the folksinger from his days as a high school student at the Staunton Military Academy, through his college years at Ohio State University, to his emergence as a professional musician beginning in the early folk scene in Greenwich Village and culminating with numerous appearances on college campuses, folk clubs, television shows and record albums. 

As Cohen here reveals, Ochs’ talent was multidimensional and deep, as a poet, a lyricist, composer, music critic and arts journalist. As such his book is a welcome addition to Marc Eliot’s biography of the singer entitled Death of a Rebel, Starring Phil Ochs and a Small Circle of Friends (Anchor Books, 1979) and Michael Schumacher’s There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (Hyperion 1996).

Today, Phil Ochs’s diverse fan base includes the likes of Lady Gaga (you can hear her rendition of  “The War is Over” at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 here), Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Tim Robbins, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Steve Earle and Kinky Friedman. Neil Young -while introducing “Changes” during a Farm Aid concert in 2013 – called Ochs “one of the greatest poets who ever lived” and, in almost the same breath, “one of the greatest songwriters who ever lived.”

When the young Phil Ochs was sent to Staunton Military Academy in 1956, he was drawn immediately to the marching band where he excelled as a first-chair clarinet player. He loved the instrument’s high descants and trills that surrounded the well known anthems of the military marching song genre. Later, his guitar picking and strumming would incorporate some of the heavy snare-drum percussive effects of the military march, ironically subverting same in songs like “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore.” 

While at Staunton he contributed to the school’s literary magazine, the Scimitar, which was edited by Michael Goldwater (the son of conservative Senator, Barry Goldwater) as well as to the school’s newspaper, Kablegram.

He enrolled at Ohio State University in 1961 as a journalist major, where he met Jim Glover, who taught him how to play folk guitar and introduced him to the music of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and The Weavers. They soon were performing publicly as a short-lived duet named “The Singing Socialists,” later changed to “The Sundowners.”   

Ochs also eagerly joined the staff of the Lantern, OSU’s student newspaper. There he showed a wide interest in campus events as a critic-at-large covering arts and politics. He turned in theatre and music reviews (Thurber and Ionesco, Segovia and Roger Williams) as well as covering various political speakers who visited campus during his time there. If he became too political for the Lantern, he turned toward satire and contributed to the Sundial, the school’s humor magazine, which he edited during his senior year.

In one article for the Lantern entitled, “Red Party Defended by Youth Organizer” he gave more than ample coverage to Daniel Rubin who spoke on behalf of the Communist party, noting in his introduction to the article that, “Rubin’s unannounced talk was attended by an ad hoc group of 75 in the third floor lounge of the Ohio Union.” 

In his apparently clandestine address, Mr. Rubin explained why the McCarran Act is “one of the most extreme examples of far-right legislation ever passed in this country.” During the question and answer period that ensued, Ochs noted that Rubin went on to speak about the civil rights movement, the Hungarian Revolution, the Russian Revolution and the difference between socialism and communism.

Dropping out of Ohio State his senior year, Ochs moved to New York’s Greenwich Village where he soon became part of the thriving folk music scene, dubbing himself “the singing journalist” and befriending many of the artists on the scene at the time. When two music critics of the day began exploiting a rivalry between Ochs and Bob Dylan around the aesthetics of the folk/protest song movement, he was quick to call them out, responding in Broadside magazine with, “An Open Letter From Phil Ochs To Irwin Silber, Paul Wolfe, and Joseph E. Levine,” declaring: “Just between you and me, I would like you to sheath your critical swords so I can get a word in edgewise.” 

This was in response to Silber and Wolfe’s public reprimand of Dylan in Sing Out! magazine for not writing more protest songs. Silber believed that Dylan was becoming “too personal” in his lyrics rather than concentrating on the political. Ochs retorts: “It is as if the entire folk community was a huge biology class and Bob was a rare prize frog. Professor Silber and student Wolfe appear to be quite annoyed that the frog keeps hopping in all different directions while they’re trying to dissect him.” The Broadside letter was published in January 1965, six months before the Newport Folk Festival at which Dylan “went electric” and loosed the floodgates of opprobrium for real.

Further defense of Dylan’s work published in Broadside was contained in a piece entitled, “The Art of Bob Dylan’s Hattie Carroll.” And in yet another Broadside album review, Ochs came out strongly for the debut of an Indigenous Canadian singer-songwriter-musician named Buffy Sainte-Marie, noting: “…she is one of the finest songwriters dealing in the folk idiom, and of her songs, I believe “Cod’ine” will clearly emerge as one of the classic musical statements on drugs.”

Phil Ochs loved Canada and was at home with Toronto’s Yorkville Avenue folk club scene as well as the Canadian left in general which included many American ex-pat Vietnam War resisters. In fact, it has been suggested over the years that Ochs first began writing one of his most famous songs “Changes” on the back steps of the Riverboat on Yorkville Avenue, a folk club that was at the epicenter of the folk and blues scene during the 60s. He was performing at the New Gate of Cleve just down the street from Gordon Lightfoot who was holding down a gig at the Riverboat.

Ochs described the scene this way for an article in Broadside: “There I was in Canada, stoned out of my mind at 5:00 in the morning, swapping songs, jokes and bottles with Ronnie Hawkins, the Arkansas rock ’n roll singer who runs an out of sight bar in Toronto and Gordon Lightfoot, who is the Canadian Hank Williams.

“The best music is usually done in situations like that, where there’s no stage, no mike or lights, and no unnatural need to please a strange audience. You’re just singing to have a good time, communicate with people who understand you, and create those mad moments that become cherished memories when you’re too old to do it anymore.”

Musicians can be a feisty, competitive lot in the best of times but Lightfoot and Ochs seemed to have sensed in one another something that was authentic and enduring.

I asked music critic Nicholas Jennings, author of the definitive biography of Gordon Lightfoot (Lightfoot, Penguin Random House, 2017), if there was any truth to the story that “Changes” was first performed in its entirety in the living room of labour activists, Nelson and Phyllis Clarke

Jennings recalls: “Ochs wrote “Changes” (or at least completed it) in 1965. He’d performed that year at Mariposa and afterwards the New Gate of Cleve. Some accounts say he finished it around the back of the Cleve, while others say it was on the Riverboat’s back steps. Yorkville hippie leader David DePoe befriended Ochs around this time and claims Ochs sang “Changes” in his Toronto apartment. But it’s just as likely that he performed it in the Clarke’s living room, as Ochs made quite a few friends in Toronto.”

Ochs activism continued through the late 60s. He was in Chicago in 1968 during the police riots and subsequently testified at the trial of the Chicago 7. In 1971, he travelled to Latin America with friends (including Jerry Rubin) and visited Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru and Bolivia, participating in student demonstrations and getting busted more than once.

Of particular interest was Phil’s eagerness to observe the progress of Dr. Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government in Chile that was elected in 1970 as the result of a coalition formed between seven left-wing political parties including communists and socialists. While in Chile, he met the famed folksinger Victor Jara and was invited to perform with Jara for striking copper miners and appear on Chilean television. Jara and Ochs quickly became compañeros while trading songs deep in the bowels of an Andean copper mine. 

In her biography of her husband entitled, Victor: An Unfinished Song (Jonathan Cape, 1983), Joan Jara wrote: “They spent all day with Victor, going into the mine with him. They heard him singing and talking to the miners and were impressed with his easy relationship with them and how much they appreciated his songs. Victor gave them a chance to speak and to sing a few songs, translating for them, and then all together they sang Pete Seeger’s ‘If I Had A Hammer’. The three of them had such a good time together that in the evening, when they reached Santiago, Victor took them to the Peña, where they were warmly received.”

Ochs had a keen interest in the art, culture and folkways of the African people and in September of 1973 he embarked on a journey that took him to Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa. While in Kenya he recorded a song, in the Lingala language, with The Pan African Ngembo Rumba Band. Although the song was not a commercial success, it was hoped that future collaborations might be developed. On his way home through Tanzania, he met with a tragic event while walking alone on a beach in Dar es Salaam where he was robbed and strangled by three assailants. Although his wounds were superficial, his vocal chords had been crushed which permanently damaged his singing range.

On top of all this, after returning from Africa he learned of the September 11, 1973, CIA inspired military coup that toppled the Allende government and replaced it with a military dictatorship headed by General Augusto Pinochet. Upon hearing that his good friend, Victor Jara, had been arrested, tortured and brutally murdered, Ochs fell into a deep depression already being aggravated by paranoia, drugs, alcohol and a diagnosed bi-polar disorder. 

One of his last major acts of political organizing in the spring of 1974 was to mount a memorial concert entitled, “Friends of Chile present: An Evening with Salvador Allende” at the Felt Forum in Madison Square Garden. By all accounts the five hour event was a shambolic affair that, according to Billboard magazine, raised $30,000 in funds for Chilean refugees who were now being scattered throughout Latin America and around the world. Approaching the event scheduled for May 9th, ticket sales were slow and there were fears that organizers might have to pull the plug until Ochs finally convinced Bob Dylan to join the line up of artists and speakers at which point box office sales sold out in a matter of hours.

Besides Dylan, performers included Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, Harry Chapin, Dave Van Rank, The Beach Boys, Melanie, Dylan, Melvin Van Peebles and others. Speakers included Ramsey Clarke (who proclaimed Ochs “a poet of the first order”), Isabella Allende (daughter of the slain president), Daniel Ellsberg and Joan Jara. Ochs gave brief introductory remarks before introducing Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie who led off with “Guantanamera”.

Phil Ochs’ last performance in Toronto was in August of that year at the Riverboat. University of Toronto English professor, David Galbraith attended the performance. Says Galbraith: “I was with a group of friends that included Phyllis Clarke. He greeted Phyllis very warmly but by this time he was in terrible shape. His voice was damaged after he’d been mugged while visiting Tanzania. And his drinking seemed pretty much out of control.”

The itinerant jongleur’s slow fade to the end continued over the intervening months until the spring of 1976 when he died by suicide at the home of his sister, Sonny, in Far Rockaway, Queens, NY.

Phil Ochs was published in many of the leading journals of his day. I’m Gonna Say It Now contains a wonderful pot-pourri for Ochs’ fans that captures his honesty, his sincerity and his wry sense of humor. David Cohen has curated his subject well, choosing pieces such as his moving eulogy for the film star and martial arts master, Bruce Lee in a piece entitled “Requiem for a Dragon Departed”; his poetry and even his critical appraisal of the short lived ABC network television show, Hootenanny, as a prime example of how capitalism can take music, commodify it and feed it back to the public while advertising “shoes, socks, pants, shirts, perfumes, and your friendly Loyalty Oath Insurance Company, ad nauseam.”

In a satirical one-two punch directed at Hootenanny’s host, Jack Linkletter, Ochs observed how protest songs are deracinated for the national airways: “Welcome to the scenic Birmingham Military Academy, deep in the beautiful Caucasian Valley. We have a special treat for you tonight. The local citizen’s council is sponsoring a new group, the Marauders, singing a song they wrote themselves, ‘Freedom Later.’”

In his introduction to the book, Cohen observes that at one point Ochs updated a lyric to one of his best known songs “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” Instead of “I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts, he sure gets me singing those songs” he substituted the more self-deprecating, “I go to all the Phil Ochs concerts, I sure wish he’d write some new songs.” Cohen notes, “This always got applause and laughter from the audience but Phil was not laughing.”

Success in the arts can be an ephemeral thing. Creativity and longevity do not always walk hand in hand. Like the uncertainty principle in physics, although you can measure both elements, they can easily fall out of sync. 

Those who create art are like that. Sooner or later the flame dies out.

Photo of Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan courtesy of The Guardian

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