One of the many things that has always struck me about Phil Ochs, was his remarkable capacity for empathy. “There But for Fortune” is the most obvious example (which I will address in another diary), but consider the following gorgeous, virtually encyclopedic, “The Flower Lady,” a meditation on self-imposed isolation, as if everybody—the rich and the poor, artists and their art, men and women, the Left and the Right, the drunk and the dry, the young and the old—were so wrapped up in their own concerns, their own pain and suffering, that they don’t even perceive those in their midst that they could help and—at least in a small way—lessen the sum total of suffering in the world. I pick this version from a 1966 Montreal concert (there’s no video, just a still picture) because he sings all seven verses.
For those interested, here is a link to a live performance video of the same song, which I assume Phil had to cut it down for performance on TV, as he deletes verses 4 and 5. Many of songs express a kind of identification with the marginalized and powerless. Phil empathized with Mexican migrant workers (“Bracero”), the victims of American corporate imperialism (“Santo Domingo”), the urban unrest of African-Americans (“In the Heat of the Summer”), and even with the lowly navy seaman (“The Men Behind the Guns,” actually a poem by John Jerome Rooney set to music).
Some of Phil’s songs sound chillingly contemporary, even prophetic in these days when Russia is actively supporting far-right movements in both Europe and America. Consider the little-heard (I only heard it the first time a few days ago), “I like Hitler”:
The writer of blog “Shadows that Shine,” has a number of penetrating posts on Phil’s songs, but what struck me was his description of “The Ringing of Revolution” (from “Phil Ochs in Concert”) as “a beautiful snowglobe of a song, capturing not just an idea but a moment of harmony between content and style, between a songwriter and his politics, and between a singer and his audience. . . .” For this insightful and intelligent blogger,
Read cold on the page the lyrics seem harsh and stark and somewhat brutal – that killer line at the end that “only the dead are forgiven” kind of sums it up. Yet there is something disarmingly sweet about the delivery, something almost lullabyish. For all the brutality and violence of the lyrics, it is steeped in fantasy. . . .This is revolution as fairy tale. Songwriting as wish fulfilment. Phil as Hollywood director. . . .
A key difference between the lyrical camera of Phil Ochs and the real cameras of Hollywood is a distinct lack of sentiment. There is no backstory, no seeking of understanding, certainly no empathy. More to the point, this is a film that would never be made. . . .
The quote above, which I have heavily edited, doesn’t really do justice to the subtlety of Shadows That Shine’s analysis, as the distinct yet still lyrical sung poetic lines create distinct images in the mind of Phil’s listeners. As the blog’s author goes on to say,
Phil’s lyrics are not so much poetic as cinematographic. They sweep and swoop like a camera on a crane. Phil flits from looking in at the “merchants on style” and the “soft middle class” to zooming in and listening in to their desperate conversation. By the third verse we are inside their minds, reading their thoughts. And here comes the first key line, as the separateness of those attacking and those being attacked is described as the “distance only money could measure”. From here on in we are left in no doubt – what is being enacted is a Socialist revolution.
Note Phil’s remarkable ability to place himself—not without sympathy—in the minds of the very people he despises. He sees how revolution must seem to them, how threatening social change can be especially when it may involve the loss of prestige or material wealth (doubtless someone more intelligent than I could make some insightful parallels with the preset day). He empathizes with the victims in his songs; whatever their social station people remain the product, even the victim of their heritage and culture. Despite the mock sympathy he appears to have for conservatives in “I like Hitler,” he is not without sympathy for their lack enough good songs, so he offers them his (you might note that our present leader had similar problems in his campaign). In his capacity to imagine the thoughts of a hypothetical conservative songwriter, again he shows a remarkable capacity for empathy (admittedly, in a rather snarky way).
Ochs very much thought of himself both as an artist and a folk-singer, with his composed and sung art just as aesthetically important and valid as those in other disciplines. His songs transform us through the way he identifies with others, both the dispossessed and the powerful, in the way in which his songs (sung in his distinctive high tenor) seem to offer us entry into something beyond ourselves. As Richard Just wrote in The Washington Post a few months ago:
the biggest lesson Ochs bequeathed for the coming Trump era is only tangentially related to politics. One of his most famous quotes is from the liner notes of an album: “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” At moments of national crisis, no matter which side you are on, it’s tempting to view art as a worthless distraction from the task of political repair. Ochs’s insistence that “the true protest is beauty” could be the mantra for every liberal artist during the next four years — a time when the creation of thoughtful art of all kinds can serve as a counterweight to the thoughtlessness, even cruelty, emanating from our politics.
I’d like to think, even in these dark times, that this is still true.