​Kevin's Culture Corner:

Music, Politics and American Culture

Phil Ochs & the Protest Songs of American Youth

by Kevin Comtois


One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.  -  Phil Ochs
 

      Phil Ochs was a troubadour and troublemaker who reflected the evolution of American youth from idealism to fatalism. We can learn a lot about the demise of youthful idealism in the late sixties and early seventies by examining the politics and music of Phil Ochs. The four major events that rocked the world of both Phil Ochs and that of America’s politically active youth were the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, the murders of Senator Robert Kennedy and Reverend Martin Luther King in 1968, and the events at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago of the same year. Phil loved the traditional folk medium that was famous because of the work of people like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. But as the tastes of American music consumers changed, so did the style of Phil Ochs. As the war in Vietnam dragged on and the peace movement failed to change the direction of the electorate in 1968, Phil Ochs became as disillusioned as the movement. As the decade wore on, and the nation seemed destined to explode from within, the songs of Phil Ochs ominously reflected the idea that the youthful idealism of the Kennedys was all a fantasy. And by the end of the decade, Phil was as broken and depressed as the anti-war movement was in those dark days of August 1968. What he left behind was a wealth of protest songs that reflect that age and the ideals of its activists.

      Born in December of 1940 in Texas, and raised in New York, Ohio and Virginia, Ochs was brought up like many kids in the baby boom generation. He was a big fan of American movies, especially the heroic depictions of cowboys and war heroes created by John Wayne and company. Phil also loved the vibrancy and sexuality of Elvis Presley. Phil loved what Elvis had done: combine country music with rhythm and blues using his own voice and personality to create a new form of rock’n’roll music. While fascinated with American cinema and American music, Phil’s real love was journalism and the idea that there is truth in the world. He believed in the existence of truth, it only needed to be found and reported.

      Phil’s love of current events and journalism encouraged him to attend Ohio State College where he also continued his passion for writing and music. While taking classes in journalism, Phil honed his writing skills and developed his political views. Writing for the two school papers The Lantern and Sundial, Phil showed his radicalism, which eventually became too much for the publications. After being pushed out of the paper he started to send his pieces to local rags as letters to the editor or commentary pieces. He even started his own short lived newspaper he called The Word. Phil also learned how to play guitar at Ohio State from a friend of his, Jim Glover. At one point the two of them formed a duo they called the Singing Socialists. In Phil’s mind, he was following in the footsteps of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. They eventually changed the name of their group to the Sundowners, a name that Phil lifted from a movie starring Robert Mitchum.

It was when Phil moved to New York that his career would get a jump start. It was there in Greenwich Village that he would interact with some of the greatest influences of his career. People like Jim Glover, (who had gone to New York earlier) who was already his onetime musical partner; Alice Skinner, who became his wife and the mother of his child; Bob Dylan who became his competitor; and Pete Seeger who became his mentor.

      It was Pete who brought Phil to a little known publication called Broadside. Phil’s first song appeared in Broadside #13 and according to Michael Schumacher “Phil had a song in every one of the magazines biweekly issues.” Pete Seeger recalls being with Phil and Bob Dylan at the offices of Broadside and thinking that he was in the presence of the two greatest songwriters ever. The magazine did a cover on Phil in issue #36 and added two of Phil’s songs to their newly pressed record Broadside Ballads, Volume I, which was the first time he had a song of his own on record.

      It was also at Broadside that Phil was able to express his position on the power of music in any political or social movement. Fifty years after Joe Hill wrote “A pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated over and over….” Phil put it in his own words in an article he wrote for Broadside #22 titled “The Need for Topical Music.” Released March of 1963, he wrote “one good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.” Phil certainly understood the power of song; just as the troubadours and troublemakers who preceded him.

      It was Phil’s songwriting ability that made people in the folk community take notice. He was invited to play the 1963 Newport Folk Festival at one of the songwriting workshops. He was so excited on his way to the festival in Rhode Island that he ended up in a hospital with severe headaches and had to be medicated. Finally making it to the festival, Phil delighted members of the pro-civil rights audience with three of his newest numbers: “Too Many Martyrs,” “Talking Birmingham Jam” and “Power and Glory”

      While providing material to Broadside, Phil was able to get a recording contract with Electra Records. His first album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, released in 1964, addressed many of the issues that concerned college students including civil rights, free speech and American imperialism. Even the album cover seemed to be a message to college students. It pictured Phil sitting on his guitar case reading the newspaper. Dressed in a colorless jacket and holding a cigarette, Phil is intently concentrating on reading the news of the day. His message to the youth was to stay informed about what is going on in the world.

      Of the fourteen songs on the record (fifteen on the re-release), eleven had themes of protest. Five of those were direct protest songs very different from Seeger's vague "If I Had A Hammer" and “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.” Two of the eleven, "Power and Glory" and "Bound for Glory," attempted to evoke the memory of Woody Guthrie as the historic troubadour of protest songs. "Power and Glory" was similar to Guthrie's popularized version of "This Land is Your land." It provided a positive emotional feeling while describing the people and beauty of America. "Bound for Glory" was a direct tribute to Guthrie by reminding listeners of his travels, music, and dedication to the poor and destitute of America.

      The opening song on the album, (and probably one of the most chilling) was "One More Parade." It created the image of the parade that marches young men off to war. He ridiculed the idea of sacrificing human life in war. The image that Ochs created was that of mindless drones following orders that nobody really understands.

      He followed “One More Parade” with a song called “The Thresher.” Pulled right out of the newspaper, the song is about a horrible tragedy aboard a U.S. Navy submarine. At 9:18 a.m. on April 10, 1963, 129 men perished in what has been described as an implosion. According to National Geographic, “the most likely explanation is that a piping joint in a sea water system in the engine room gave way. The resulting spray shorted out electronics and forced an automatic shutdown of the nuclear reactor.” Like the title of the album, Ochs was able to grab a headline out of the newspaper and create a song like the olden days of the colonial Broadside Ballads. He was showing that news can still be presented in the form of a song.

      Another number on the album, "Automation Song," was similar to what Guthrie and Seeger used to sing. It evoked memories of traditional protest songs that came from industrial workers, farmers, and miners. Ochs' message was similar to "Sixteen Tons" and "Brother Can You Spare a Dime" recorded by the Weavers and other folk outfits. "Automation Song" protested the problems people must face when confronted with advancing technology. Automation does increase production but it also decreases the labor needed to accomplish the same work. It puts laborers out of work and makes it harder for them to find similar jobs.

      "Ballad of William Worthy" directly addressed a problem that concerned radical American students. Many rebellious youths, especially intellectuals and leftist radicals, saw Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as heroes to their own people for their revolution to free Cuba from American influence. The US government, on the other hand, saw them as enemies to national security. Many radical students believed that democracy and freedom were more important than economics, and rejected the US government's anti-Castro position. Phil spent many hours studying the situation in Cuba. His onetime singing partner said: “Phil knew more about Castro and Cuba than” anyone he knew, including his own father. In "Ballad of William Worthy," Ochs sang about a man who went to Cuba several times but started having trouble traveling when the Cubans took control of US companies operating in Cuba. William Worthy became an enemy of the state because of his travels to a country that the US government considered off-limits. At the end of each verse, Ochs sang that since we live in the “free world” we can’t leave; almost as if Americans were prisoners of their own government’s anti-Castro policy.

      Two songs on the album that may appear not to have a protest theme but still promote subtle revolutionary ideas were: “Celia” and “Knock on the Door.” The song “Celia” while appearing to be a love song, contains themes of protest. It was about Celia Mariano who served time in a Filipino prison for revolutionary activities. Worldwide protests finally forced the Philippine government to release their prisoner. She was eventually able to re-connect with her American husband in London after a ten year separation. “Knock on the Door” on the other hand, is a general warning of fascism. Ochs reviews the history of modern civilization by using examples of totalitarianism from Rome to Nazi Germany. Bringing the song to modern times, Ochs reminds the listener of the millions who died in Soviet Russia, especially during the reign of General Secretary Josef Stalin, when it was not safe to speak out against the government. The main point of both songs is to warn of the dangers of despotic governments that could form anywhere.

      The album contained two songs dedicated to the African American civil rights struggle. "What's That I Hear" was very uplifting and similar in spirit to many of the Freedom Songs of the movement. The number also might remind the listener of Seeger ringing the bell of freedom in "If I Had A Hammer." The second civil rights song, "Too Many Martyrs," was more of a direct protest song in the spirit of Woody Guthrie than the Freedom Songs of the civil rights movement. Ochs portrayed feelings of anger and sorrow rather than feelings of hope and love. "Too Many Martyrs" protested the June 1963 murder of Medgar Evers, the leader of the NAACP Mississippi state chapter.

      Two of the most direct and satirical protest songs on the album were "Talking Cuba Crisis" and "Talking Vietnam." These two songs were Ochs' way of commenting about two very important developments in the early sixties: the Cuban Missile Crisis and the growing US involvement in the Vietnam War.

      "Talking Cuba Crisis" was a description of the several days in American history when the world seemed on the brink of nuclear holocaust. The song began by introducing the President of the United States while implying absurdity by telling the American people to pause for a commercial break. It then ridiculed politicians who squabbled while the future of civilization balanced on the brink of destruction. The song contained references for the folk crowd like mentioning Gerde’s Folk City (a popular club in Greenwich Village) and Republicans going insane. The way the song was somewhat spoken while being somewhat sung, sounded like the combination of a talking blues number with a comedy sketch. It was similar to Bob Dylan’s “Talking World War III Blues.”

      "Talking Vietnam" was written in the same satirical style as "Talking Cuban Crisis." It compared the struggle in Vietnam to the struggle in Birmingham, USA. In both places people were fighting for freedom and justice. After a helicopter full of trainees was shot down by the Viet Cong, Ochs sang, that the communists don’t ever “fight fair." At the end of the number, Ochs told America that "Diem democracy" is "rule by one family” and an army of US Soldiers. Ochs protested the growing conflict in Vietnam by questioning the reasons for fighting. If the United States is supposed to support freedom and democracy, then how can it rationalize sending young men to die protecting a third world dictatorship?

      Phil’s second record was titled I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and was just as pointed as his first collection of topical songs, but also included an element of Phil’s growing disillusion about the promise of America. One music critic called the record “one of the finest albums of topical music available,” while another wrote “Don’t be fooled by the title. Mr. Ochs is still marching, against war, against intolerance, against the south, and nearly everything else that troubles people today.” Of the fourteen songs on the record, eight had a direct theme of protest, two were about JFK, two were Guthrie-esque and two were adaptations of poems.

      Even the cover of the album was laced with protest. This time Phil was without his guitar, cigarette or newspaper. He is sitting on the ground with his legs stretched out with crossed ankles. His hands are in his pant pockets and he is leaning up against a wall plastered with old political and advertising posters. Phil is looking off in the distance with a very serious emotion on his face. Directly behind him is a “Goldwater for President” sign that has been partially torn down and a black peace sign painted on the wall. The title of the album is in quotes as if making a statement in a newspaper.

      The title song of the album, “I Ain't Marching Anymore,” was part of the anti-war theme of the record. It sounded like a follow-up to the song "One More Parade." The song surveyed the different wars that Americans had been involved in and focused on the soldier who fought them. He suggested that it is the soldier who should decide when fighting is worth the cost. Ochs tried to convince the listener not to march in any more parades to any more wars.

      The other antiwar song on the record was “Draft Dodger Rag.” This number was a good showcase of Ochs’ use of wit to oppose the war in Vietnam. It was a whimsical list of excuses young people used to avoid the draft. He sang to the draft board that he would be willing to fight if there was no blood or killing. Pete Seeger loved this song and would perform and record it throughout the sixties.

      There were three songs on the album that dealt with Civil Rights: “In the Heat of the Summer” dealt with the riots in Harlem in 1964; “Talking Birmingham Jam” was about segregation and the fight for equal rights; and the album closer was “Here's to the State of Mississippi."

      The language of "Here's to the State of Mississippi" makes it the most serious protest song on the album. At the end of each verse Ochs sang that he wanted Mississippi to leave America and join another nation. Each verse was an attack on different parts of the state. He sang that if you drained all the rivers in Mississippi, only "nameless bodies you will find..." and even the "people" of Mississippi "can't wash the blood from their hands." He compared the people running the state with “criminals” and “clowns.” Ochs also protested the "laws" of the state which betray the meaning of the constitution by treating black people as second class citizens without the same rights as white people. He even attacked the police of the state, by singing that they are nothing but “murderers."

      There were two songs on the album that dealt with the plight of the worker in American society and the need for people to unify and fight for better jobs and conditions: “That’s What I Want to Hear,” and “Links on The Chain.” Both songs emphasized that only through unionization and solidarity can unemployed Americans improve their lot.

      The first song was a call to action to those people who have been thrown out of work because of automation. It was also a condemnation of those who complain about their situation but do nothing about it. In the final verses Phil reiterated the point of the song that only by joining with others can workers win more rights and better conditions.

      In “Links on The Chain” Phil sang about the importance of maintaining togetherness among all working people. I believe the most poignant verses of the song actually condemn the unions for their lack of support for the Civil Rights Movement. He pointed out that when African Americans were fighting for equal justice and access to American society, the unions did not back them up. The Civil Rights movement actually received push back from certain union members and some unions themselves. Phil’s main point was that all struggling people are links in the chain regardless of ethnic background. In order for the chain to be strong we must support all the “links,” including blacks who are fighting for the same rights that union men have fought for in the past.

      The song “Iron Lady” described the process of someone being put to death in the electric chair. The Iron Lady is the chair itself. Phil condemned the concept of an “eye for an eye” because that is how the culture of death in society continues. He sang about the mistakes people make in life, and how we should be given a second chance. He also pointed out the mistakes in the justice system that condemn innocent people to death.

      One song dealt with the struggle Phil went through following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Titled “That Was the President,” Phil clearly expressed his sadness over JFK’s death. He had high hopes for the President who represented a new generation of Americans in a post-World War II world. He sang that part of his world ended when “the bullets of the false revenge have struck us once again.” He conjured up the memory of seeing Kennedy in an open car driving through Dallas, but then sang about the despair and loss of hope that ended on that fateful day in 1963 with so many promises unfulfilled.

      “These Are the Days of Decision” was a subtle attack on elected officials and politicians who knew there were problems in society but did nothing about them. He referred to war and the civil rights struggle affecting America (specifically the murders of three civil rights activists in Mississippi: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner), while politicians sat by and did nothing. Phil sang that, “the cost” of doing nothing is “most dear.” In the liner notes to the album, Phil was more direct.

The American politician has developed into the gutless master of procrastination with a maximum of non-committal statement and the barest minimum of action. This moral vacuum is exceeded only by the apathetic public who allows him to stay in power. How feeble is the effect of a song against such a morass, but here it is.

      Two songs on the album contained the spirit of Woody Guthrie: “Hills of West Virginia” and “Ballad of the Carpenter.” “Hills of West Virginia” was a feel-good song about the beauty of America, while the other was a cover originally written by Ewan MacColl. “Ballad of the Carpenter” was clearly about the life of Jesus Christ while converting him into a working man who is fighting for laborers and farmers. Phil explained in the liner notes of the record why he decided to record a cover song for his album.

The State Department has a nasty habit of blocking the entrance of Ewan MacColl into this country, and undoubtedly one of the reasons is songs like this. All political considerations aside, if you take a serious look at the quality of culture in America, you can see that the State Department can ill afford such a tactic. 

       Ochs' third album, titled Phil Ochs in Concert, was a collection of recordings he made during performances in Boston and New York during the winter of 1965-66. All the songs on the album were new and not yet recorded. Of the 11 songs on the album, seven had clear messages of protest, one had a subtle message of revolution and three were more introspective in nature. On the back of the album, Phil displayed seven poems written by Mao, the communist leader of China. Following the poems, Phil wrote, “Is this the enemy?” In his own introduction to the song “Cannons of Christianity,” Phil related that it is not really a protest song but more of an “anti-hymn.” Phil said, “It’s the first anti-hymn folks,” to great applause.

      The opening song on the record dealt with the many differences between the generations. Titled "I'm Going To Say It Now," it was a general protest number written for college students assembling on America's campuses for unrestricted freedom of expression. As the song progressed, Ochs pointed out the political differences which divide the school administration and the students. One example of this division was the University's support of Nationalist Chiang Kai-shek while many students supported China's communist revolution led by Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-tung). Demanding the constitutional right to free speech, Ochs sang that he felt less free than those in other countries. This song protested those in power whose desire was to control every aspect of the student's lives and reminded those in control that power can be acquired with large numbers of people.

      The second song on the record, “Bracero,” was about immigrants in America who are exploited by the economic system that uses their cheap labor without concern for their health or well-being. This song reminds me of the Woody Guthrie songs, “Deportees” and “Doe Re Me.” Phil is obviously singing for the plight of migrant farm workers in America just like Guthrie did twenty five years earlier.

      There were three anti-war songs on the record. The first was "Is there Anybody Here," a criticism of soldiers marching off to war to find "glory." He reminded the listener of the lessons learned from the Nazi war crime trials in Nuremburg that soldiers cannot use ‘following orders’ as an excuse for committing war crimes. The second anti-war song, "Cops of the World," protested the use of the United States military as an international police force. He used an analogy of a woman being sexually violated to describe how the US treats Third World countries in maintaining global interests and multinational profits. The third anti-war song, “Santo Domingo," protested the United States invasion of the Dominican Republic on April 28, 1965, when 400 marines landed in Santo Domingo after the country's leader resigned.  

      Of the two songs protesting the older generation's criticisms of American youth, "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" is probably the most pointed. Phil made fun of liberals who maintained a distance from political activism. Ochs attacked liberals who objected to school integration by singing about people who want blacks and whites to live together but ‘not in their backyard.’ In the last verse he provided an excuse for liberals who turned their back on the New Left: they are now older and wiser. (wink wink!) The song was dripping with sarcasm.

      Phil was even able to express protest while introducing his songs in concert. In the introduction to “Ringing of Revolution,” Ochs mocked California Governor Ronald Reagan and President Lyndon Johnson and then said "this song is so cinematic that it's been made into a movie.... Frank Sinatra plays Fidel Castro, Ronald Reagan plays George Murphy, John Wayne plays Lyndon Johnson, and Lyndon Johnson plays God." The audience laughed and applauded as Ochs concluded, "I play Bobby Dylan, the young Bobby Dylan." In his introduction to another song, “Cannons of Christianity,” Phil says that he heard the voice of God and responded: “You’re putting me on of course Dylan,” and the crowd laughed and clapped again. This showed that many young people saw Bob Dylan as their political leader.

      Of the three songs dealing with more introspective issues, there was one on the album that some people did recognize. “There But for Fortune” was recorded by Joan Baez with some mild success. It reached number eight on the British charts and number fifty on the American Billboard charts.  It was about how fate can be the most powerful force in the universe. In the song Phil asked why some people are poor and others rich and why some people have opportunities to succeed while others don’t. Phil’s response after every verse was the same: it’s all just a matter of fate.

      The final song on the album is a haunting number about accomplishing as much on this earth as possible before we die. The fact that Phil was already singing about being gone after only his third record tells us that he had a feeling of the future. “When I’m Gone” explains to Ochs fans that there will be a time when he will no longer be singing. He expressed his understanding that when he’s gone he won’t be able to participate in politics, social movements or singing songs; and therefore it is important for him to do it all while he’s still alive.

      While popular music was changing, Phil’s music was also changing. He was inspired by Dylan’s movement into rock with Highway 61 Revisited, the Beach Boys’ experimentation in the studio with Pet Sounds and the Beatles’ inspiring collection of folk rock style recordings on Rubber Soul. This new style of songwriting and recording was showcased in Phil Ochs’ Pleasures of the Harbor. While containing only eight songs, four of them clocked in over seven minutes, two were over five minutes long and the final two were about three minutes in length. At the time, the album was “one of the longest running single disk pop albums in history.” Only one of the songs could be considered a protest song: “Outside a Small Circle of Friends.” The song was about how not a single person tried to stop a murder that took place in New York while people watched. The other songs on the record were more personal than political; more introspective than topical. Many considered the final song on the record, “Crucifixion,” a complete disaster, while others cherished the song as Phil’s finest masterpiece of lyrical talent.

      Tapes from California was a way of Phil combining the sound of his first three records that had the traditional folk style, with the production complexities of Pleasures of the Harbor. This latest record was a lot more haunting than the previous album. With this collection of songs, Phil continued down the road of depression and disillusionment regarding American ideals of justice and equality. The album does achieve many musical accomplishments. For example, Phil threw out all songwriting conventions and recorded a 13 minute song titled, “When in Rome.” He also wrote a seven minute biographical song about the IWW troubadour Joe Hill. Without a chorus, Ochs was able to capture the mythos of Hill’s entire life into one song.

      The two songs of direct protest on the record were: “White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land” and “The War is Over.” The first verses of “White Boots” set up the war in the air where American pilots were bombing North Vietnam. Phil sang that the generals and politicians were more interested in the casualty reports of the enemy than the value of their own soldiers. Phil also referred to the candy that many soldiers were known to give Vietnamese children. The third verse pointed out that all the training in the world cannot match people who are fighting for their own land. Phil pointed out that this was a civil war, and there was nothing we could do as a nation to solve their internal conflict. The fourth verse dealt with the manner in which the American army was interrogating prisoners. If the point of the war was to win over the hearts and minds of the enemy, then creating more enemies by torturing some of the captives is not the way to do it. In the final verse Phil could be referring to the USO and the recruitment drives that the military are always involved in. As the young men volunteer to go off to war, they are really only preparing themselves for their own death.

      “The War is Over” was Ochs’ expression of disillusionment with the idealism that dragged America into the war in Vietnam in the first place. It was written for a rally that was planned for June of 1967. He sang it at a number of rallies in 1967 and 1968 and also in a public rally when the war was finally over in 1975. America first began its involvement in Vietnam following WWII as the Cold War was beginning. We assisted the French in maintaining their colonization of the region and then slowly involved ourselves in their conflict. You can hear Ochs condemning films that portray war as glorious and adventurous while the nation’s citizens send their children to die in a war while their own civilization crumbles around them. Phil was able to use cinematic imagery to declare a simple statement: “The War is Over.”

      Phil’s experience in Chicago during the 1968 Democrat Presidential Convention had a dramatic influence on his song writing. The Youth International Party (Yippies), led by Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman, advertised that Lincoln Park in Chicago would be a gathering of the tribes just like the be-ins of San Francisco and the Monterey Pop music festival held in the summer of 1967. Rubin and Hoffman used the popularity of rock music in an attempt to motivate people to attend political rallies. There were a number of organizations that attended the convention for different reasons. While the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) wanted to change the Democrat Party and a group that called themselves the Motherfuckers wanted to see massive disruption in the streets, people like Allan Ginsburg and David Dellinger were there to try and prevent violent confrontations.

      While a number of musicians were asked to be a part of the event, Phil Ochs, along with John Sinclair and MC5s, were some of the few musicians present in Chicago during the convention. Phil performed at an indoor concert that was dubbed as an ‘Un-Birthday party for LBJ’ where he performed many of his protest songs as some attendees burned their draft cards. On August 28, the day Humphrey was nominated, Phil performed at a rally and once again sang his now signature song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.”

      He was an official member of the McCarthy campaign so Phil was able to get in and out of the Conrad Hilton Hotel; Where McCarthy’s Headquarters were located. There he was able to watch the events of the convention unfold on his television; whether it was in the hall or out on the streets. He had hoped that the Democratic Party would listen to the disparate voices coming from the protesters, but the reality was different. Inside the convention hall, the forces of Humphrey prevailed in the nomination fight, and outside the hall the police forces of Mayor Daley were beating the living hell out of protesters and journalists alike.

      Phil was spared any police brutality but he was arrested during one of the many political theatre events that the Yippies sponsored. This time they were nominating a pig for president. (Yes, they nominated an actual pig!) The radicals met in an alleyway near the Civic Center and then worked their way out onto the street. Causing a mess in the traffic and without permits, Phil, the pig and others were promptly arrested while Jerry Rubin delivered the pig’s nomination speech. While visually effective, this type of political theatre actually accomplished nothing to stop the war, nominate Eugene McCarthy, or adopt the peace platform at the convention.

      According to Jerry Rubin, the violence in Chicago was the exact response the Yippies wanted from Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Police.

We wanted to create a situation in which the Chicago Police and the Daley Administration and the Federal Government and the United States would self-destruct. We wanted to show that America wasn't a democracy, that the convention wasn't politics. The message of the week was of an America ruled by force.  

      Rubin and Hoffman may have wanted violence, but Phil wanted to see changes. He left Chicago emotionally depressed, physically exhausted and politically wounded.

      Phil reacted to his experience in Chicago by writing and recording Rehearsals for Retirement. Released in late 1968, there were many songs signaling his disillusionment with American politics. Of the ten songs on the album, three had direct messages of protest while many of the others expressed Phil’s sadness and prediction that American civilization was on the brink of destruction. Phil described this point in his life as transformative: “I no longer feel any ties of loyalty to the present American society… I’ve gone from being a left social democrat to an early revolutionary mentality….”

      Even the cover of the record showed Phil’s growing sense of disillusionment. The picture on the cover was of a tombstone with Phil’s image carrying a gun, standing in front of an American flag. The inscription under his picture read:

Phil Ochs
(American)
Born: El P, Texas 1940
Died: Chicago, Illinois 1968
Rehearsals for Retirement


      On the back cover Phil had printed a poem he wrote after leaving Chicago. In part it read:

This then is the death of the American
Imprisoned by his paranoia
And all his diseases of his innocent inventions
He plunges to the drugs of the devil to find his gods…
And I realize these last days these trials and tragedies
Were after all only
Our rehearsals for retirement


       Of the three direct songs of protest, the first was an attack on the police in Chicago and the whole mindset of opposition to the anti-war movement. Titled “I Kill Therefore I Am,” it began by introducing the listener to the Chicago police coming in on a “pale pony” to save the American people from the anti-war hippies. He was describing the lines of police on their horses trying to clear the streets and parks of protesters. Phil then blamed the police for racism and violence. Phil saw firsthand the way southern police treated blacks protesting and marching for their civil rights in the fifties and early sixties. In Phil’s mind, the Chicago police were treating the anti-war protesters in the same fashion as the civil rights marchers a decade earlier. One verse showed how the police didn’t care what the protesters had to say. Their only concern was maintaining law and order, even if that resulted in maintaining a fascist state. The final verse clearly exhibited the way Phil saw the police. In Phil’s mind, the police saw the students as gangsters whose only concern was breaking the law. The police saw a revolutionary with a gun and assumed he was fighting for hate. In Phil’s mind the revolution to end the war was not about hate, but love and brotherhood.

      “William Butler Yeats Visits Lincoln Park & Escapes Unscathed” is an eerie song that sets a musical stage allowing the listener to almost smell the tear gas as it’s being thrown into the crowds of protesters. The smoke from the tear gas bellowed through Lincoln Park and the rest of Chicago by the convention center and the Conrad Hilton. The flames in the eyes of young people that Phil referred to in the second verse could be the result of the tear gas. He even referenced the “Robespierre robes” of the French revolution when Robespierre was the head of the Committee of Public Safety that put tens of thousands of French citizens to death because they opposed the rule of the revolutionary committee. The song is sad and depressing. It shows Phil’s downward spiral into fatalism and the difficult situation the anti-war movement was in.

      Throughout the song Phil referred to a “young maiden” he met. After the horror of the police brutality, Phil sang that he went looking for her but she now “lies in stone.” I listened to this song a number of times and I believe the young woman he is referring to is liberty. It was the desire for liberty and peace that motivated Phil to go to Chicago. It was liberty that was lost in the tear gas, the beatings and the nomination of a pro-war plank with Hubert Humphrey. I am convinced that Phil believed it was American liberty that died in Lincoln Park that fateful week.

      After a few seconds of silence on the record there is a short 30 second song fragment in which expressed Phil’s disgust at those who talk about revolution and their desire to change things, but never put their actions with their words. Phil had the right to criticize others who sang for money but didn’t sing for causes. In fact, Phil was known for turning down paying gigs so he could perform at a rally.

      While “The World Began in Eden But Ended in Los Angeles” was not about Chicago or the war in Vietnam, the song makes a poignant comment on the cultural rot taking place in America. In the first verse Phil sang that we came to America for a new beginning. In the second verse he pointed out that some Americans constructed “highways” and “homesteads” while others continued migrating to the new western lands. It was in the third verse, however, that Phil’s most profound comment is made when he sang about being outside on the open road only to “breathe the air of ashes.” He seems to be predicting the demise of America and a coming environmental catastrophe or nuclear holocaust.

      The final album of original material released in his lifetime was erroneously titled, Phil Ochs Greatest Hits. It was a collection of forgetful songs. The last song on the album, however, was a frightfully visionary number titled “No More Songs.” It begins with an apology to his fans for not having any more political songs to write and then uses imagery to say goodbye.

      While Phil continued to perform when he could, such as the ‘Un-birthday party for President Johnson’, or the ‘War is Over Rally’, and participate in whatever political rally he could, after Chicago he was never the same. He began to drink heavily and stopped making new music. While Phil’s chronic alcoholism was destructive, his mental illness probably had more to do with his demise than anything else. He told friends that he suffered from manic depression. Joan Baez was worried for him in the mid-1970s because his health was so bad. Phil stopped bathing, drank heavily and acted differently every day. In fact, at one point Phil announced that Phil Ochs was dead and he was now John Train. And John Train was not a pleasant person to be around. It got so bad that Phil eventually took his own life. According to his brother Michael:

 He flirted with suicide a number of times. You can see it in the lyrics of his songs for at least the last three albums…. My last conversation with him I’ll never forget. It was like ‘I’m really gonna kill myself Michael’ and I said ‘Yea Phil (Phil loved food) Yea, give up food Phil?’ and he cracked up laughing. He said ‘OK good point’ and the next week he kills himself. The next week he hangs himself.


       The legacy of protest that Phil left behind was tremendous. Even though his life ended a lot earlier than it should have, he left behind a legacy of songs and activities that still has an impact today. His songs were sung in the 80s, 90s and into the 2000s. His signature song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” was even revitalized by many singers during the protests against the war in Iraq which started in 2003.

      Billy Bragg adapted the famous tune, “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” (written by Earl Robinson and made famous by the great singer Paul Robeson) in honor of Phil Ochs. You can see him singing “I Dreamed I Saw Phil Ochs Last Night” at the very end of the documentary about Ochs’ life called There But For Fortune.

      Songs have been written using some of Phil’s melodies. For example, the song “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” has been adapted to oppose President Bush and the war in Iraq. More recently, a song was written by Robert Thomas using the same melody to attack President Barack Obama. It is printed here with permission of the author.

 Here's to the state of Barack Obama
The taxes are so high and the debt is too great
We go to the pump and pay the highest freight
Off to the store as we see our pay degrade
We know it’s his fault, but elect him anyway
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Barack Obama, find yourself another country to be part of

Here's to the state of Barack Obama
Health Care imposed on the people as we wait
He spends all our money on projects that are waste
Stops an oil pipeline for favors lying in wait
When promises he made lay lingering in state
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Barack Obama, find yourself another country to be part of

Here's to the state of Barack Obama
We go to our job and find it cut to 29
Off to the bank to find what we’re worth this time
Then to the pump to pay 4 and a dime
And all he can say is: It’s not my fault this time
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Barack Obama, find yourself another country to be part of

Here's to the state of Barack Obama
He finds a war in Libya just to fit his time
He thinks he’s got Egypt following in line
He left Iraq a mess, which one is next in line
They gave him the peace prize; they said it was his time
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Barack Obama, find yourself another country to be part of
 
Here's to the state of Barack Obama
They failed to pass the dream act – he does it anyway
He sends guns to Mexico - then hides it all away
He plays with our security – in Benghazi and LA
He plays us like the fools we are – just ask the N.S.A.
Oh, here's to the land you've torn out the heart of
Barack Obama, find yourself another country to be part of

      Phil Ochs was a troubadour and troublemaker who had a tremendous impact on the protest music of the later sixties and early seventies. He was a contemporary of Bob Dylan who made his best effort at maintaining his integrity and honesty in an industry that is brutal in its criticism and as unforgiving as any business whose priority is to make profit. While Phil’s songs never made it to the top of the charts, they were heard on college campuses, in dorm rooms, at anti-war meetings and rallies, civil rights marches, concerts, and song festivals. The themes of his songs: pro-labor, pro-unionism, free speech, anti-war, anti-colonialism, anti-interventionism, civil rights, and immigrant rights continued to be addressed in songs throughout the decades that followed his peak in the mid-1960s. Phil Ochs not only represented American youth, but a growing political leftist movement that embraced radicalism, anarchism, and extreme libertarianism. While most of his music style was based in the folk medium, his influence was strongly felt in the rock’n’roll arena. The rock bands and artists of the 1960s adopted the same themes that Phil promoted; only they put their words to a different form of music. While the folk style was the vehicle of protest in the fifties and early sixties, by 1965 it was rock’n’roll that carried the messages of protest.