In America at least, Phil Ochs was primarily known as a protest singer, and some of them were truly terrific. I think in part he wrote them because he had a very idealistic conception of America and of the American people. That’s why I include this song, “The Power and the Glory,” which is the first song on his first album, as well as (I think) his last single. Towards the end, I believe he was consciously trying to recapture his earlier feelings of hope and optimism, as well as an intoxicating creative energy and productivity. In fact I basically look at “The Power and the Glory” as Phil’s attempt to write an early 60’s version of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Notice that a lot of responsibility is placed on the American people actively working to maintain their country as a morally upright and even empathetic nation. Anyway, here it is:
The following is “There But Fortune,” which is—I think—one of the most empathetic songs ever written by anyone, beautifully sung by a young Phil, who is obviously still hopeful that the American people could live up to what he believed to be their ideals (unfortunately he was sort of wrong on both counts).
I honestly think that if every first grader in the world got to really listen to this song, the world would truly be a better place (yes, I know it isn’t going to happen).
Here’s a real protest song by Phil, actually the first of Phil’s songs that I heard, played to me by my middle school English teacher. By the way, you might have to listen to it twice, the jaunty ragtime accompaniment (by Van Dyke Parks, I believe), can easily make you miss the bitter sarcasm. I include the version on You Tube that he recorded in Vancouver in 1969. In his introduction to the song he it becomes apparent that he was obviously deeply affected by the Chicago riots of the Summer of 1968, and you can actually hear him lose faith in America and Americans. Not explicitly, but in the tone and timbre of his voice. He’s plainly realized that, in general, people don’t really care about issues that don’t affect them in a direct way, and that getting “the silent majority” portion of the population might well be an impossible task.
In the late sixties one can see that Phil was experimenting with new forms (such as contrapurnal singing on The Pleasures of Harbor version of “The Crucifixion,” and the distinctly jazz arrangements of “The Party.” He was obviously trying to push the limits of what he could do in the studio, while largely returning to his folk roots in his arrangements for his live concerts.
It was in 1967, I believe, that a group of people tried to levitate the Pentagon; it’s possible that some of them truly thought that believing hard enough might—as in a fairy tale or a Hollywood movie, might make a difference. For many of the others it was an attempt to demonstrate their own powerlessness and a bid for cultural attention. Phil’s “The War is Over,” while also a bit of cultural theater, can also be seen as an exercise in magical thinking, the idea that if you believed in something strongly enough, and especially if you could get enough other people to share that belief, that you could in effect will an alternate reality into being. This has actually been developed into a viable political strategy by the Republican party (with lots of help from the corporate media, especially Faux News and Hate Radio); if you can get enough people to deny reality, you can basically manipulate them to a remarkable degree (although as recent history has proved, there is always the possibility of blowback). Even if you are losing faith in the ability of the people to live up to to an idealistic vision of America, there is still hope offered by the transformative power of the artistic imagination (I include this version largely because it suggests the complexity of the arrangements Phil was experimenting with in the studio):
By the late sixties the earlier idealism was collapsing into cynicism and—even worse—Phil was starting to find songs harder and harder to write. Having defined himself as a creative artist, this was a terrible blow (made worse by the fact that Phil was probably abusing both alcohol and pills by this time). The combination tended to make him paranoid, a state of mind that was in fact justified (the FBI was tapping his phone, some of his supposed friends were paid informants, and ultimately they compiled quite a thick file on him.
Certainly many of his late songs capture I beautiful but unhealthy melancholy. While written from the viewpoint of of the seamen who had lost his life when the USS Scorpion went down in 1968, the haunting “The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns” one can’t help but feel that many of the song’s individual lines could have been written about himself, especially as Phil began to wonder if he has made the right choices in his life and if it might not already be to late to change direction:
Captain my dear Captain we're staying down so long
I have been a good man, I've done nobody wrong
Have we left our ladies for the lyrics of a song?
That I'm not singing, I'm not singing
Tell me I'm not singing
This led ultimately to one of his late masterpieces, “No More Songs,” the final song on the last album he released in his lifetime. Note the setting of this little seen version: a derelict building site, which I cannot help but feel Phil saw as an apt metaphor for his increasingly bleak state of mind, especially as it seeemed to get more difficult to perform what he felt to be his true calling: songwriting.
Creativity, Protest, Diversity, Civil Rights, Truth, Media Stereotypes—these are just some of the subjects Phis addresses in his songs. But his songs also articulate a vision for America, its citizen’s, and himself as a Protest singer and a musical and poetic artist; one started to lose faith in one, they all did, leaving Phil among the wreckage.