Soldier of folkdom
IPhil Ochs: There but for Fortune, documentary, not rated, The Screen, 3.5 chiles A documentary is no better than its subject matter. And in the brilliant and tragic singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, director Kenneth Bowser has taken on a subject that reflects nothing less than the rise and fall of the ideals, aspirations, frustrations, and dreams of a generation.
Or at least of that slice of the generation of the 1960s that rose up in protest against the injustices of segregation, labor, sexism, racism, consumerism, and war. Which may not have been a huge slice demographically, but it was a slice that took itself and its issues seriously and put a lot of creativity and commitment into storming the barricades. Take a handful of young anti-war idealists, swell their numbers with the specter of military conscription, and the next thing you know, even in America, you’ve got a movement capable of taking to the streets and shaking the established order.
Ochs wasn’t always a troublemaker. When he arrived at Ohio State in the fall of 1958, he was a rock ’n’ roll fan who didn’t know the first thing about folk music. “He’d never heard of The Weavers, Pete Seeger,” recalls folk singer Jim Glover, his roommate. “I kind of introduced him to the left.” Ochs got his first guitar by winning a bet with Glover on the 1960 presidential election, and he soon followed his buddy to the folk center of the known universe, Greenwich Village.
He arrived determined to be “the best songwriter in the country,” Ochs later said. “Then I met Dylan, and I decided I’d be the second best.” Seeger tells of listening to the two kids play their songs for him in a magazine office one day. “Here I am with two of the greatest songwriters in the world,” he thought. “Someday they’ll be famous.” There was a rivalry between the young Midwesterners, but it was an unequal battle. Friends like singer Judy Henske remember Ochs idolizing Dylan. Although Ochs’ wife, Alice, recalls that “they really got along,” others remember the relationship differently. “Dylan toyed with Phil,” a friend says bitterly. “He was such a prick.”
Dylan may have been uneasy with the competition. Ochs’ 1965 song “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” became a classic anthem of the anti-war movement. Ochs never rivaled Dylan in the pop charts, but he had a fervent following in the protest movement.
Ochs had more serious things on his mind than a rivalry with Dylan. His windmills were the civil rights struggle, the draft, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, and the Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. Songs like “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “There But for Fortune,” “When I’m Gone,” and the haunting ballad “Changes” helped make Ochs a trenchant voice for his generation.
The watershed moment for Ochs was the ’68 convention, when Mayor Daley’s cops brutalized demonstrators in the streets of Chicago and shattered the illusions of the left. Tom Hayden, a radical who became a U.S. senator, described the ’60s as falling into two parts, idealism and radicalism. “We actually thought we could make a difference through morality and persuasion.” The assassinations and the violence in Chicago ended that, in “disillusion and alienation — or, some would say, a clarification of where we stood.”