A true American hero

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He didn't like LiberalsDue to a recommendation from a fellow paintbrusher I’ve just downloaded spotify. For those who are unfamiliar, this is a sort-of-free-music-playing-thingy which allows you to listen to a huge range of music with only a few ad breaks.

Anyway, as I had some data-entry to do today I thought I would do it whilst listening to Phil Ochs, one of my favourite political singer-songwriters. I’m glad I did.

Ochs was a flawed individual: he descended into drug abuse, alcoholism and mental disorder before hanging himself at the age of 35. However, while his contemporary and friend Bob Dylan shifted away from political activism to mainstream music, Ochs never ceased singing about the big political issues of the early 60s.

Many of his songs are about civil rights (Too Many Martyrs, In the Heat of the Summer, Here’s to the State of Mississippi) and Vietnam (The War is Over, White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land, Talking Vietnam). However, his subjects are as diverse as racism in the trade union movement (Links on the Chain), capital punishment (Iron Lady), the JFK assassination (That Was the President) and the death of Jim Dean (Jim Dean of Indiana).

His songs are characterised, not only by a passionate hatred of injustice and war, but by a sharp and caustic sense of humour.  In a live performance, he introduces his song Santo Domingo with a joke which seems all-too-appropriate today: “There’s been a drastic change in American foreign policy in recent months. Take the Dominican Republic…which we did!”

Not only is it sad to imagine what other great songs Ochs would have written (and would still be writing) since his untimely death (the Bush Presidency would have been a fertile source of material), it is also sad to reflect on the decline of the politics he represented. He was no nihilist (he supported both the McCarthy and McGovern Presidential campaigns and was a critical admirer of Kennedy) yet he resolutely opposed the moderate political establishment that were too willing to compromise in their opposition to racism, poverty and military aggression. In 1973, he organised a benefit concert in honour of Victor Jara, the Chilean musician who was tortured and murdered following Pinochet’s coup.

In his song Love Me I’m a Liberal (which he introduces by describing Liberals as being “10 degrees to the left of centre in good times: 10 degrees to the right of centre when it affects them personally”), he gently mocks the moderates who read progressive magazines, claim to abhor racism, support the UN and vote Democrat yet celebrated Malcolm X’s assassination, refused to bus their children and would certainly never live next to a black or hispanic family. Perhaps more than anything, it is his unflinching opposition to hypocrisy that makes his work truly resonant.

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6 Responses to “A true American hero”

  1. Captain Jako Says:

    Braggers has a nice little number on ‘The Internationale’ album called ‘I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night’.

    Y la musica de Victor Jara es muy bueno tambien.

  2. Captain Jako Says:

    *buena?

    If only I’d done a spanish a-level

  3. mike Says:

    Hi
    Nice article on Phil Ochs.
    Any chance of using it on our website aimed at babyboomers. We`d obviously give you credit and a link.
    Look forward to hearing from you,
    Mike

  4. John Scannell Says:

    Nice peice on Phil Ochs. I’ve been singing his “Chords of Fame” for about 35 years now. I’ll be recording it in the next few weeks. Might add some of your suggestions, cheers.

  5. Kimmitt Says:

    Excellent post. I’m a big fan of Phil Ochs but I think his strongest song was one of his few apolitical onse – ‘When I’m Gone’ – impossible to get a hold of but probably my favourite song of all time.

  6. electionsproduceerections Says:

    You can listen to When I’m Gone on Spotify – a truly excellent song I agree!

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