Forty years ago on April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs silenced one of America’s sharpest, wittiest, angriest, most melodious voices by killing himself. In his life, at his best, Ochs captured the 1960s’ exuberance, its zaniness, its mischievousness, its rebelliousness. In his death, Ochs embodied the wariness, the weariness, the hopelessness that dimmed many of “the movement’s” stars—even as they triumphed.
Born in 1940 to a middle-class immigrant Jewish family, Ochs and his siblings bounced around America as their physician-father battled manic depression. After attending military school for two years, Ochs enrolled in Ohio State University in 1958. New cultural forms like rock ’n’ roll, the Beats, and folk music were starting to shake, then shatter Dwight Eisenhower’s and Ozzie ’n’ Harriet’s conformist consensus.
Inspired by John Kennedy’s election in 1960, by 1962, Ochs was singing his way into the Greenwich Village folk scene. That year, the legendary folkie Peter Seeger warned that Ochs’s song mocking the far right John Birch Society, merrily singing, “I like Hitler, jolly, jolly Hitler,” was “sophomoric.” “Dear Phil,” Seeger wrote, playing the role of the wise and honest mentor courageous enough to challenge and even offend, “I wish I had 1/10th your talent as a songwriter. My comments here are harsh, but I thought they’d be useless to you if not frank.”