Music to Change the World: Remembering Phil Ochs

By Harden, Joel | Canadian Dimension, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Music to Change the World: Remembering Phil Ochs


Harden, Joel, Canadian Dimension


"Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore/ But so few remember what he was fightin' for/ Oh why sing the songs and forget about the aim?/ He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same.

Phil Ochs wrote these lyrics in 1963 to remember Woody Guthrie, but they tell us a great deal about Ochs himself. His praises may not sung "on every distant shore," but since his tragic suicide in 1976, much ink has been spilled to understand what went wrong. Sadly, most of these efforts have emphasized aspects of Ochs' life that miss the larger contributions he made as an activist and a musician. Apart from a general recognition of his link to protest movements, little effort is made to understand what his legacy can tell us about our struggles today.

Ochs' biographers pay tribute to his stature during the heady 1960s, but prefer to emphasize his steady depression after the sixties gave way to the decidedly less political seventies. A conclusion is therefore thrust upon us: that Ochs, like so many of generation, rose on a wave of passion that eventually crashed on the shoals of where the sixties ended up. Tom Hayden and Bobby Seale became prominent Democrats, erstwhile revolutionaries like Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis mutated into stockbrokers and venture capitalists. The turbulent period that was Ochs' muse became his worst nightmare. With his world turned upside down, dispirited and uninspired, there truly were no more songs.

There is a grain of truth to this position. A series of setbacks involved with the American protest movements of the 1960s would steadily demoralize Ochs. But it is wrong to assume, as so many do, that Ochs' later years of his career comprised a depressed, "more lyrical" and "less political" phase. It was actually at this time in Ochs' life that he identified a key flaw with the sixties (largely student) radicalization in America: that its hatred of "the establishment" included an oppressed -- but in the students' view, a complicit -- working class. Ochs was rightly concerned about the radical student subculture being isolated by the state and the American ruling class. He recognized that the students had assigned blame to the very social force needed to change society; Quite apart from what his biographers claim, Ochs' conclusion from the sixties was not that protest was futile, but that student radicalism without the broad support of the American working class was futile.

This insight was unique and powerful then, but equally important for activists today who believe that a better world is possible. The emergence of deepening alliances between trade-union militants and other activists in today's anti-globalization movement suggests that Ochs' concern is at last being taken seriously. The importance of building solidarity, the message at the heart of Ochs' music, is a practice that new generations of activists must learn as they fight for a better world. Apart from building new legions of Ochs fans among activists today, the best conclusion a review of his work could draw is the need to build a mass movement for global justice.

A SIGN OF THE TIMES: Ochs as a reminder of what was

When Phil Ochs emerged in the heady New York City folk music scene of 1962, the Leave-it-to-Beaver image of American life had begun to unravel. In the trend-setting New York City youth culture, folk music had become a new rock'n'roll that gained prominence as the civil-rights struggle raged in the South. White racists terrorized blacks while authorities often championed the side of bigotry, or ignored the atrocities constantly being committed. During the 1950s, the civil-rights struggle had begun in earnest, specifically targeting the regime of apartheid that separated blacks from whites in schools, buses and even cemeteries. Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955 was among the first bold actions in a string of defiance challenging a fearful white ruling class. …

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