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