Phil Ochs is the ob­scure ’60s folk singer we need to­day

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - outlook@wash­ Richard Just is a for­mer ed­i­tor of Na­tional Jour­nal magazine and the New Repub­lic.

‘Any­body know who Phil Ochs is?” Lady Gaga called out to her au­di­ence at a free con­cert last sum­mer dur­ing the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. Her setlist that day was eclec­tic: from the Bea­tles to Edith Piaf to her own gay rights an­them, “Born This Way.” But her de­ci­sion to per­form Ochs’s “The War Is Over,” a 1967 folk song about Viet­nam, was par­tic­u­larly sur­pris­ing.

It isn’t of­ten that Ochs, who died four decades ago and is mostly un­known to those born since the 1970s, gets even a brief mo­ment of main­stream recog­ni­tion. Yet as we en­ter the Trump era, and as a new mass protest move­ment be­gins to take shape, his mu­sic would be wor­thy of a re­vival. Taken to­gether, his songs of­fer an ex­cep­tion­ally com­pelling tour of the deep­est ques­tions cur­rently con­fronting lib­er­als — ques­tions about democ­racy, dis­sent and hu­man decency in a grim po­lit­i­cal age.

The song Lady Gaga per­formed is a good ex­am­ple. “The War Is Over” was com­posed in the mid­dle of the Viet­nam War but in­sists that the con­flict had al­ready ended. “One-legged veter­ans will greet the dawn,” Ochs sang. “And they’re whistling marches as they mow the lawn. And the gar­goyles only sit and grieve. The gypsy for­tune teller told me that we’d been de­ceived. You only are what you be­lieve. I be­lieve the war is over. It’s over, it’s over.”

Here’s how Ochs ex­plained what he was try­ing to do: “Some of us have been protest­ing against the war in Viet­nam to a point where it be­came sort of a mind­less habit, and we seemed to be los­ing our ef­fec­tive­ness, be­cause the ad­min­is­tra­tion and those in power al­ways have longevity on their side. And at a cer­tain point you keep say­ing, ‘In­de­cent, in­de­cent,’ and the words lose their mean­ing — it’s just the sound of syl­la­bles, it’s not a word any­more. So last June some of us in Amer­ica de­clared the war over from the bot­tom up and cel­e­brated the end of the war, and we’ve been cel­e­brat­ing ever since.”

“The War Is Over” sug­gests how po­lit­i­cal re­sis­tance in any age can be en­livened, re­freshed and per­haps even gal­va­nized by jar­ring notes of artis­tic cre­ativ­ity. Yet it isn’t close to be­ing Ochs’s most philo­soph­i­cal work. Take, for in­stance, “There but for For­tune,” the most beau­ti­ful song ever writ­ten about the nat­u­ral lottery. To a se­ries of tragic cir­cum­stances — “show me a prison man whose face is grow­ing pale,” “show me the coun­try where the bombs had to fall” — Ochs at­taches a sim­ple re­frain: “There but for for­tune may go you or I.” It’s a suc­cinct re­minder of the eth­i­cal ba­sis of modern lib­er­al­ism: that in a world with no level play­ing field, we have siz­able obli­ga­tions to those who are less lucky. And it’s an over­ar­ch­ing mes­sage that Democrats, af­ter a cam­paign in which their nom­i­nee tended to fa­vor dis­crete pol­icy pro­pos­als over sweep­ing moral vi­sion, would be wise to re­dis­cover.

Ochs him­self was clearly a hard-left pro­gres­sive. His sis­ter, Sonny, re­cently told me she thinks he would have been a Bernie San­ders sup­porter. One of his most fa­mous cre­ations — the sar­cas­tic “Love Me, I’m a Lib­eral” — is a harsh de­pic­tion of the cau­tious cen­ter-left. And in “Out­side of a Small Cir­cle of Friends,” he of­fers an acer­bic chal­lenge to lib­er­als who de­cline to protest: “Smok­ing mar­i­juana is more fun than drink­ing beer. But a friend of ours was cap­tured, and they gave him 30 years. Maybe we should raise our voices, ask some­body why. But demon­stra­tions are a drag, be­sides we’re much too high. And I’m sure it wouldn’t in­ter­est any­body out­side of a small cir­cle of friends.”

But Ochs’s mu­sic also puts for­ward ideas that tran­scend the pol­i­tics of left and right. “Out­side of a Small Cir­cle of Friends” be­gins with the story of Kitty Gen­ovese — who was mur­dered in New York in 1964 while nu­mer­ous by­standers failed to in­ter­vene — and be­comes an elo­quent ar­gu­ment for ac­tion in the face of in­jus­tice. In the­ory, it should hold as much ap­peal for ide­al­is­tic neo­con­ser­va­tives, who want the United States to in­ter­vene abroad to stop geno­cide or pro­mote democ­racy, as it does for pro­gres­sives. And buried in his gor­geous bal­lad “Flower Lady” is the fol­low­ing verse: “Sol­diers, dis­il­lu­sioned, come home from the war. Sar­cas­tic stu­dents tell them not to fight no more. And they ar­gue through the night. Black is black and white is white. Walk away both know­ing they are right.” It was as if Ochs an­tic­i­pated how the self-cer­tainty of Fox News, MSNBC and Face­book news feeds would some­day dam­age our democ­racy.

More­over, although he made his name in the New York folk scene, Ochs was not a stereo­typ­i­cally in­su­lar coastal pro­gres­sive. One of his an­gri­est songs is “Here’s to the State of Mis­sis­sippi,” a de­nun­ci­a­tion of Jim Crow. While the cho­rus — “Here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of; Mis­sis­sippi, find your­self an­other coun­try to be part of” — ex­presses sentiments that sound like they could have been tweeted from Brook­lyn, it’s worth not­ing, as Michael Schumacher points out in his ex­cel­lent bi­og­ra­phy of Ochs, that the singer ar­rived at these lyrics by get­ting out of the lib­eral bub­ble and trav­el­ing, with other folk singers, to Mis­sis­sippi. “He met with the lo­cals and asked them end­less ques­tions about their day-to-day lives,” Schumacher writes. “The more he saw and heard, the more alarmed he be­came.”

It also seems likely that — his jus­ti­fi­ably pointed words for Jim-Crow-era Mis­sis­sippi notwith­stand­ing — Ochs would have been ap­palled by the fail­ure of to­day’s lib­eral elites to con­nect with the work­ing-class vot­ers of red Amer­ica. He trav­eled with other singers to Ken­tucky in sol­i­dar­ity with strik­ing coal min­ers, and he wrote a song (“No Christ­mas in Ken­tucky”) based on the trip. Later, in the wake of the 1968 elec­tion, Ochs, Schumacher writes, con­cluded that left-wing “demon­stra­tors and the Demo­cratic Party had lost touch with Amer­ica’s work­ing class — the very peo­ple they were sup­posed to be rep­re­sent­ing.”

But per­haps the big­gest les­son Ochs be­queathed for the com­ing Trump era is only tan­gen­tially re­lated to pol­i­tics. One of his most fa­mous quotes is from the liner notes of an al­bum: “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” At mo­ments of na­tional cri­sis, no mat­ter which side you are on, it’s tempt­ing to view art as a worth­less dis­trac­tion from the task of po­lit­i­cal re­pair. Ochs’s in­sis­tence that “the true protest is beauty” could be the mantra for ev­ery lib­eral artist dur­ing the next four years — a time when the cre­ation of thought­ful art of all kinds can serve as a coun­ter­weight to the thought­less­ness, even cru­elty, em­a­nat­ing from our pol­i­tics.

Ochs’s mu­sic ex­em­pli­fied this credo. Some of his melodies are merely catchy and fun, but oth­ers are pierc­ingly beau­ti­ful. When I asked Zachary Steven­son — a 36-year-old Cana­dian singer-song­writer and Ochs devo­tee, who is work­ing on a play about him — what he thought dis­tin­guished Ochs from other po­lit­i­cal singers of the ’60s, he said it was the artistry. “There are a lot of folk songs that are very sim­ple. In many ways, that’s the stan­dard way to go about folk songs. It’s not nec­es­sar­ily about in­vent­ing things too com­plex,” Steven­son ex­plained. Ochs, by con­trast, “was an artist through and through . . . . I think he had a real sen­si­tiv­ity to melody and song and chord struc­ture. And so he was al­ways push­ing him­self to write bet­ter and more mov­ing songs emo­tion­ally.”

Ochs wrote per­haps his two most haunt­ing melodies for “Changes,” a song that isn’t about pol­i­tics but rather about love, and “When I’m Gone,” which is glanc­ingly about pol­i­tics but re­ally about liv­ing well along­side the ever-present prospect of death: “Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone. And the evenings and the morn­ings will be one when I’m gone. Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone. So I guess I’ ll have to do it while I’m here. All my days won’t be dances of de­light when I’m gone. And the sands will be shift­ing from my sight when I’m gone. Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone. So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.” (Ochs singing it him­self is great, but the weighty, husky-voiced ver­sion by folk singer Eric An­der­sen is even bet­ter.)

For Ochs, death came at the trag­i­cally young age of 35. He strug­gled with men­tal ill­ness, and, in 1976, he com­mit­ted sui­cide. Forty years later, it isn’t dif­fi­cult to imag­ine what he would have thought of Don­ald Trump. “I know he would have de­spised him,” Sonny told me, “and I’m sure his pen would have been run­ning non­stop.” But it’s tougher to know what he might have made of the over­all arc of Amer­i­can his­tory since the 1970s: our leaps for­ward and back­ward; our na­tional mo­ments of ide­al­ism side by side with our bouts of in­com­pe­tence and avarice. In some ways, as Sonny points out, the en­dur­ing im­por­tance of her brother’s songs is a sign of our col­lec­tive fail­ure. “The thing that’s sad to me is how many of the songs are still rel­e­vant,” she says. “There are so many that . . . still hold wa­ter. And they shouldn’t af­ter this many years.”

No sin­gle artist or ac­tivist, of course, can rem­edy this de­press­ing state of af­fairs. But Ochs’s mu­sic could at least help Amer­i­cans who care about the fu­ture of lib­eral democ­racy to grap­ple with the dif­fi­cult work that lies ahead. As he once wrote: “One good song with a mes­sage can bring a point more deeply to more peo­ple than a thou­sand ral­lies.”

And that — the moral power of one good song — is why I have a pitch for Lady Gaga. In a week, she is slated to per­form at the Su­per Bowl. To sing just one Phil Ochs song — to in­tro­duce mil­lions of peo­ple to his ideas and poetry — would be both a glo­ri­ous act of cul­tural trans­gres­sion and an en­dur­ing gift to Amer­i­can democ­racy.

Which song should she choose? My sug­ges­tion would be “Power and the Glory.” “Here is a land full of power and glory,” goes the cho­rus. “Beauty that words can­not re­call. Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her free­dom. Her glory shall rest on us all.” Amer­ica, Ochs sings in one verse, is “only as rich as the poor­est of the poor. Only as free as a pad­locked prison door.” This is na­tion­al­ism as it should be de­ployed: as­pi­ra­tional, en­nobling, al­tru­is­tic.

“Power and the Glory” was bril­liant enough as Ochs usu­ally sang it dur­ing his life­time. As it turns out, how­ever, he wrote an ad­di­tional verse, which is now fre­quently per­formed with the rest of the song. It’s a state­ment of faith in the Amer­i­can peo­ple amid en­croach­ing po­lit­i­cal dark­ness: “But our land is still trou­bled by men who have to hate. They twist away our free­dom, and they twist away our fate. Fear is their weapon, and trea­son is their cry. We can stop them if we try.”

Lady Gaga should sing one of his songs at the Su­per Bowl, says jour­nal­ist Richard Just


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