The Forgotten Political Troubadour of the 60s
In this time of political unrest, when at once America is burning and Bob Dylan is being revered for his 39th album release about JFK, the time has come to reawaken our generation to Phil Ochs. Never heard of him? That's no surprise. A contemporary of 60s Dylan, Ochs wrote albums full of politically charged tunes, shedding light on the anti-Vietnam War movement, as well as anti-racism and anti-oppression. Unlike Dylan, however, Ochs didn’t write in symbols or metaphors, but facts and irony. For Dylan’s Hurricane’, Phil Ochs’ Lou Marsh came eight years before. While the Vietnam war continued, as it ended and as many social problems followed in the United States, Dylan’s career continued as he veered towards writing about love and relationships and distanced himself from political ballads as he rose to infallible fame. Phil Ochs, for his part, condemned Dylan for not using his platform to bring attention to the atrocities the American government were committing, or (at the very least) turning a blind eye to. Phil Ochs, not shying away from making his voice heard, was pushed out of a moving limo when he told Dylan he didn’t like his new single (different accounts mention the song as Please Climb Out Your Window and some say Fourth Time Round). In the terms of the historical moment that we're living now, Ochs chose to use his privilege to bring attention to the movements that the government were trying to stamp out, he chose to be a true ally for the causes those in power tried to silence.
Phil Ochs was born in Texas in 1940, but moved around the country as a child due to his father’s travelling medical practice. After enrolling as a journalism student at Ohio State, he was introduced to folk-revival singers like Woodie Guthrie and Pete Seeger. These interests, paired with a keen musical talent, led him to writing his own political songs (his first band was named “The Singing Socialists”, with Jim Glover). Becoming absorbed by the Cuban Revolution while in college, and after moving to New York in 1962, Ochs sang about solely topical issues: the Vietnam war, the inequality between classes in America, the civil rights movement. A self-described ‘singing journalist’, his songs I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Draft Dodger Rag and Power and Glory (among others) became influential in the Greenwich Village music scene, a cry for reform and equality in each melody.
Our generation’s niche, satirical humour (see: the popularity of memes) aligns well with the razor-sharp ironical lyrics of Ochs. In Love Me I’m a Liberal, Ochs describes, in perfect satire, the problem with performative activism before the term ever existed. He prefaces the song by revealing a common critique of the liberal movement, stating that many upper-class leftists are pro-equality for minorities, until it impacts them personally (before the term ‘performative activism’ came into the mainstream vernacular, there was the term NIMBY – Not in My Backyard – meaning white liberals were all for black people moving into white neighborhoods, until it was their own neighborhood). He sings of the tragic loss he felt when Medgar Evers was shot (a black civil rights activist who served in the U.S. army), and when JFK was assassinated he feels as though “I'd lost a father of mine”, but does a U-turn when describing the death of Malcom X; Evers and Kennedy were palatable and their tactics were centrist, whereas Malcom X was too ‘radical’. Ochs finishes the verse with a ‘Get it?’, solidifying the irony with a burst of laughter from his audience - probably the same audience who fulfill this Democratic stereotype.
A McCarthy-era rebuttal within his songs, Phil Ochs was acutely aware of the power the government had against its ‘free’ citizens in the United States. In Ballad of William Worthy, the lyric “my passport's disappearing as I sing these words to you” highlights the terrifying impact ones values can bring upon ones freedom – those who ignored the problems were rewarded with peace and quiet, while those on the right side of history, fighting for their rights and the rights of others were condemned as terrorists. In a country that still has lingering negative connotations with the word ‘communist’ after being brainwashed by the government over fifty years ago, Ochs sings in the jolliest of voices, “Let's sink Cuba into the sea, And give 'em back democracy under the water”. A song as daring as Talking Cuban Crisis comes along rarely, the hypocrisy is so rarely highlighted in such an adept and hilarious way.
By 1966, the year ‘Blonde on Blonde’ was released, Dylan was already recognized as one of the most seminal artists in the world. Dylan made his fame as a straight white man off the back of the folk revival movement – a movement that was founded off the traditional folk tunes of black people, re-introduced by people like Leadbelly and Big Bill Broonzy. Did Dylan spark hope in the souls of despondent Americans in the early 60s? Sure. Did he speak for an entire nation? Absolutely not. Much like the cyclical revolutions we see today (the BLM uprising in 2014 that, when the media decided they weren't giving it coverage anymore, led to its death), the heat with which the Greenwich Village troubadours infected the anti-Vietnam war movement died down as the outrage did, too. While the fervently peaceful sentiment was always there, the setbacks seemed too great; with the progression of the civil rights movement came the assassination of its most powerful ally. The same can be said for Dylan himself; only a year after the death of JFK, Bob Dylan went electric – assassinating the protest singer's persona and fully tapping into the relationship-centric, reflective lover version of himself we saw only in snippets in songs such as ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ and ‘Ballad in Plain D’. In albums like The Times They Are A Changin’, the hyper-political songs defined an era of political happenings in America, and, simultaneously, put Dylan on the map. The ongoing debate between the moral quandaries of separating the art from the artist and its reverse is certainly ignited in the parallels between Dylan and Ochs' political activity in the 60s and the forms of political activism in present day. Was Dylan's activism performative? Were his political ballads simply piggy backing off one of the most iconic artistic movements of the 20th century? Was Ochs, on the other hand, so invested in the righting of social wrongs in America that it led to his suicide at the age of 35? Do these speculations change the way we listen to the music of the two men?
The cult of personality surrounding Dylan is undeniable. And, while his success musically is difficult to debate, the praise he is showered with in reference to his title as 'protest singer' is questionable. If the big players of the folk revival were the Democratic candidates of 2020, is Bob Dylan the Joe Biden of the white folk singer circle? The values and priorities of Phil Ochs certainly seem to match up to those of Bernie Sanders: Ochs desired total equality for all minorities in the states, and he refused to believe that fighting for this was radical. As Dylan hid away from the world, Ochs stood up and fought for those who needed fighting for. In today's world, and especially in today's America, we need more Phil Ochs'.