Sol­dier of folk­dom

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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.”

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