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“My pen won’t pour out a lyric line when I’m gone
So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here”
This blog occasionally pays tribute to notable influencers of the English language and its culture. Today we’ll explore a lesser-known, but astonishingly talented and complicated individual – Phil Ochs.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Phil Ochs was a singer/songwriter often associated with popular folk artists like Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger. But Ochs was something more than a singer. He was an activist. If he embraced a cause, such as civil rights or the anti-war movement, Ochs was all in. It is said that he never turned down an invitation to sing at a rally or at a meeting hall. He was investigated by the FBI for over a decade for his political activities, and agents were regularly seen attending his concerts. “As you know,” he famously told his audiences, “I’m a singer for the FBI.”
He was born in Texas in 1940, the son of Jacob (Jack) Ochs, a physician who served in the Army during the Battle of the Bulge. Jack was forced out of the military, however, due to the mental and emotional trauma which resulted from his service. Jack Ochs was later diagnosed as bipolar, and the family drifted across the country as the elder Ochs sought work. The mental illness which his father endured later came to haunt Phil as well.
He showed early promise as a musician. However, after being arrested and jailed for sleeping on a park bench (really), Phil Ochs decided to get a degree in journalism. He wanted to write about politics and what he saw as a country filled with injustice, believing that he could change the world by telling the stories of others. His passion for politics and his gift for music, along with a talent for writing, soon coalesced into a life singing protest songs. Or, as Ochs preferred to call them, topical songs.
Phil was bitterly disappointed at being denied the editorship of his university’s newspaper, so he quit college just one semester shy of graduation. By early 1962, Phil Ochs was a regular in the folk cafes of Greenwich Village in New York City, which was an artistically influential community at the time. He became close with Dylan, although they had their differences which occasionally boiled over into feuds. Once, in a dispute over one of Dylan’s songs, Ochs was tossed out of Dylan’s limousine, with Dylan criticizing Ochs as not a real singer, but a singing journalist. It became a description that Ochs would embrace to his dying day.
Ochs played guitar with far more sophistication than most of his folk singing counterparts. His melodies and chord choices reflected his broad musical background. And his tremulous, pitch-perfect tenor voice was distinctive. Yet his fame came from the subjects of his songs, and his witty, scathing, often sarcastic approach to those subjects. He poked fun at liberals for what he saw as their hypocritical nature.
I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
As long as they don’t move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal
And he could be wistfully reflective on his modest career in songs like Chords of Fame.
So play the chords of love, my friend
Play the chords of pain
If you want to keep your song,
Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t play the chords of fame.
Because he was so controversial, and never turned his back on his beliefs, Phil Ochs never tasted the success that many of his contemporaries achieved. He was an uncompromising talent in a business that requires compromise for certain rewards, such as fame. In the early 1970s he moved his musical style closer to rock and roll and country, which were the musical styles he preferred in his youth. But those styles were never suited to the politically passionate lyrics of rebellion and protest that Ochs couldn’t stop writing.
In 1973, Ochs toured Africa, giving concerts and raging against perceived CIA plots to overthrow unfriendly governments. One night, in Tanzania, he was brutally robbed and attacked. He was strangled nearly to death, causing severe damage to his vocal cords. Ultimately, his unique and beautiful voice lost the top three notes of his vocal range.
Disillusionment over the election of Richard Nixon, the downfall of Salvador Allende in Chile by a military coup, and his vocal cord problems led Ochs to drink and depression. He grew increasingly paranoid, believing that either the CIA or the FBI, or both, had arranged the attack in Tanzania, and were still trying to kill him. He even took on a new persona, John Butler Train, and claimed that Ochs had been murdered by Train. Eventually, like his father, he was diagnosed with a bipolar disorder. Phil Ochs took his own life in April 1976.
Years later, through the Freedom of Information Act, it was revealed that the FBI had a more than 500-page file on Ochs, and that the government believed that he was a radical, subversive influence who would continue to be dangerous even after his death. Indeed, his influence on artists and musicians has continued. Lady Gaga sang his song The War is Over at a concert at the 2016 Democratic Convention. His songs, and his passionate conviction in speaking up for the underprivileged and disadvantaged, is his legacy.
Photo by sweejak on Flickr CC