On April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs hanged himself. The world lost one of her best songwriters. What follows below are but a few of the articles written immediately after his death. It’s truly a tragedy that it took his death for America to realize what a treasure she had in Phil.
There’s no place in this world where I’ll belong when I’m gone, And I won’t know the right from the wrong when I’m gone, Won’t know who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone, So I guess I’d better do it while I’m here. Phil Ochs
PHIL OCHS WAS, in the literal sense of the phrase, the Movement’s poet revolutionary. He came to prominence as the civil rights movement came to national attention, experienced his greatest popularity at the height of the antiwar movement, and when the protest had died down, there was no place for him to go.
Unlike other protest singers who were able to maintain a sense of their own space in relation to their audience, Ochs was at one with his audience. His songs expressed a consensus of feeling on the issues of racism, war, and imperialism. His style, honest and direct, was well-suited to the attitude of the politically conscious in the early 1960s.
Ochs’s songs were best appreciated at large demonstrations. They didn’t lend themself easily to the privatistic world of posh living rooms and expensive stereo systems. His music was meant to be experienced immediately, communally. At their best, his songs could move audiences to anger, love, and hope.
His work in the early ’60s, along with that of Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Joan Baez, and others, placed Ochs squarely in the tradition of Pete Seeger, of Woody Guthrie before Seeger, and of Joe Hill before Woody. For Ochs, the struggle against oppression was everything, and he mocked those unwilling to carry out all the implications of that struggle. He reserved particular scorn for the liberals:
I go to Civil Rights rallies And I put down the old DAR (DAR, that’s the dykes of the American Revolution) I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy, Hope every colored boy becomes a star. But don’t talk about revolution, That’s going a little bit too far So love me, love me, love me, I’m a liberal.
BUT OCHS WROTE out of love, out of hope. One of his most beautiful songs was “That Was the President,” a memorium to John Kennedy. In the liner notes he commented that his Marxist friends couldn’t understand why he wrote it–in response he quoted Fidel Castro: “It is systems, not men, that are the enemy.”
In those, the best years of the Movement, Ochs was at every important rally and demonstration. He gave of himself tirelessly. But something happened to the Movement along the way, and with it, to Ochs. From protest, which had originally unified the cultural and the political, there evolved a self-indulgent counterculture that relied on drugs, sensations, and electricity. Ochs, unable to make the transition, was left behind.
Perhaps the turning point was in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in the summer of 1968. The naked violence of the state, until then aimed against nameless peasants in Vietnamese villages, was now directed against the young demonstrators. Afterwards the Movement took perverted forms, such as the SLA and the Weathermen, and many former activists went into seclusion.
Ochs flirted with the various sects that emerged from the anti-war movement–he was in the streets of Chicago with yippies Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman in 1968, nominating a pig for president–but he was too bright to believe that any of these fringe groups would achieve anything. But now the real movement was dormant, and with it the source of Ochs’s creativity had dried up. He could only write with the momentum of the crowd behind him–he was sustained by their energy and hope.
OCHS WENT THROUGH some feeble attempts to find his audience again. He adopted the notion that the way to America was through the jukebox and this reasoning led him onstage at Carnegie Hall in a gold lame suit. It was all carried off with an extreme self-consciousness–on the back of the album that followed the concert, he wrote ’50 Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong.”
In the last years, Ochs tried to live his life as he had during the ’60s–singing at benefits, performing in small concert halls–but “the words weren’t coming anymore.” Two years ago, at the Performance Center in Cambridge, Ochs had no new songs, only reworked versions of old standards. For “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” Ochs substituted “Here’s to the State of Richard Nixon”:
Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of. He was overweight, drinking. His message was the same as always–the struggle was worthwhile, eventually it would be won, but now, with no barricades to man, his heart was not in it.
Phil Ochs took his life last Friday at his sister’s home in Far Rockaway, but his memory and his dreams will live on. He takes his place in the family of American poet-revolutionaries–alongside Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie–who devoted their lives to justice and human liberation. It can now be said of Phil Ochs, as Ochs had sung of Woody,
Oh, why sing his songs and forget about the aim, He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same. And now he’s bound for a glory all his own, Now he’s bound for glory.