American Masters Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
Premieres nationally Monday, January 23 at 10 p.m. (ET) on PBS
(check local listings)
Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was a singer-songwriter who was known for his sharp wit, political activism, sardonic humor, and haunting voice. His music touched on some of the most difficult issues of the era, raising important social and political questions that few dared to ask. His career and life mirrored the arc of the 1960s, from the hopeful optimism of the early protest movement to the dark divisiveness at the end of that decade. Though he never achieved the same level of fame as his contemporary, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs nevertheless was one of the most important artists to emerge from the folk movement. While the inherent tension between his two conflicting goals, as activist and as star, plagued him throughout his career, his music continues to inspire and resonate to this day.
He was born in El Paso, TX, in December, 1940 to Jacob Ochs, a doctor who was born in the U.S., and Gertrude Phin Ochs, who was born in Scotland. The Ochs family moved frequently; from Far Rockaway, New York, to upstate New York, and then to Ohio. As a boy, Phil was obsessed with movies and would often escape to watch his hero, John Wayne, on the big screen. At the age of 15, at his mother’s insistence, he took up another hobby – the clarinet – and began to nurture a natural musical talent.
From 1956 to 1958, Ochs was a student at the Staunton Military Academy in rural Virginia. Upon graduation he enrolled at Ohio State University to study journalism. He befriended Jim Glover, a fellow student who was a devotee of folk music and left-wing ideology. Through Glover, Ochs was introduced to the music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and The Weavers. Quickly, these two growing passions – music and politics – merged. When Phil bet Jim 50 dollars against his friend’s guitar that Kennedy would beat Nixon, America acquired a new president, and Phil Ochs acquired the instrument through which he would finally find his voice.
Ochs and Glover soon began writing their own politically-charged songs and formed a duet called The Singing Socialists, later renamed The Sundowners (after a favorite film). The duo broke up before their first professional performance but Phil continued playing on his own and started to gain a local following. In 1962, he moved to New York City where he quickly infiltrated the blossoming Greenwich Village folk music scene.
By 1963 Phil was becoming well known in folk music circles for his pointed lyrics and prescient political messages. He was one of the first folk singers to write about the deepening conflict in Vietnam. He carried a book of news clippings wherever he went, and his passionate songs, ripped from the day’s headlines, set him apart as an unflinching chronicler of the times. He traveled the country headlining folk clubs and fighting for causes he believed in. He sang for striking miners and performed at civil rights demonstrations in the Deep South. While others described his music as “protest songs,” Ochs preferred the term “topical songs” – and approached the subject matter of war, civil rights and labor struggles with the optimism that his music could change the world.
In New York, he met and married Alice Skinner (with whom he had his only child, a daughter named Meegan). He was also acquiring new friends, including a young singer named Bob Dylan, who became an amiable rival throughout his career. In 1964, he released his first album on Elektra Records, and within two years he had enough success to play to a sold-out crowd at Carnegie Hall. While his popularity and album sales were growing, so too was his political activism. He rarely turned down an invitation to perform at a rally, no matter how big or small, and he aggressively challenged even his liberal supporters and musical contemporaries to get more involved. He was emboldened by the hopeful spirit of the era and romanticized himself like John Wayne on his horse, both hero and star, riding to his country’s rescue.
In 1967, seeking more popular appeal as an artist, Ochs signed with A&M Records and — now managed by his brother Michael — moved to California. Musically, he moved away from solo acoustic guitar performances and experimented with more ornate arrangements in the hopes of producing a pop-folk hybrid. His new sound was not well received by his fans, and the failure of his first release on the label left him disheartened.
He continued to perform tirelessly at anti-war rallies throughout the country, and in 1967 he organized two infamous rallies (in New York and Los Angeles) to declare, “The War Is Over.” It was a hopeful message and a last breath of optimism for the anti-war movement; but the mood in the country was beginning to shift and Ochs’s ever more radicalized and outspoken politics seemed to be keeping him from the widespread fame and acceptance he so desperately sought.
The events of 1968 — the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon — left Ochs feeling disillusioned. He took these events personally and felt that the American public was unaffected by both his music and the message of the political groups he supported. The hopelessness and confusion he sensed in the country perfectly matched up with his own career, and as the country seemed to slide into an abyss, Ochs began his own downward spiral — following in the genetic footsteps of his father, who had battled depression throughout his life.
Ochs recorded his last studio album in 1970. Though the album consisted of all new songs, it was called “Greatest Hits” as an ironic nod to his waning popular appeal and his lack of career “hits.” He decided that to get his message across he needed to be “part Elvis Presley and part Che Guevara”. He commissioned a gold lamé suit from Elvis’s costumer which he wore on the cover of the album and throughout the accompanying tour. His fans didn’t know how to respond and at Carnegie Hall, he was greeted with boos and calls to “bring back Phil Ochs!” He eventually won over the crowds but the tour took its toll. The album was a commercial failure and he began drinking more heavily than ever.
In August, 1971, Phil went to Chile where Salvador Allende had just been democratically elected. There he met Chilean folksinger Victor Jara, an Allende supporter, and the two became fast friends. For a brief moment, Ochs’s belief in the power of the people and the people’s music to make a difference was re-ignited. In 1973, he traveled to Africa and even recorded a single in Kenya — “Bwatue,” sung in the local language of Swahili. While traveling in Tanzania, Phil was mugged and strangled, resulting in the loss of the higher end of his vocal range. After returning from that trip, he sank deeper into a severe depression.
He tried to fight his way back but with short-lived success. Ochs organized a benefit concert for the people of Chile and their fallen heroes, Salvador Allende and his friend Victor Jara (who were brutally murdered in the military coup). When the Vietnam War finally ended, he organized a rally and concert in Central Park. Over 100,000 people were there to celebrate, and Phil closed the concert with his song “The War Is Over.” Rather than it being one of the happiest days of his life, it made him feel that what gave meaning to his life was somehow behind him.
His behavior became increasingly erratic. He frightened his friends by his drunken rants about the FBI and the CIA, and he took on an alternate identity, John Butler Train. He told people that Train had murdered Phil Ochs, and that he, John Train, had replaced him. His brother Michael tried to have him committed to a mental hospital but he resisted. At the end of 1975, a defeated Phil Ochs moved to his sister Sonny’s house back in Far Rockaway. On April 9, 1976, at the age of 35, he took his own life.
Two biographies have been written about him, and his music continues to influence and inspire topical songwriters around the world. His songs have been covered by artists such as Pearl Jam, Joan Baez, Ani DiFranco, Billy Bragg, and They Might Be Giants.
His best-known songs include “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “Power and the Glory,” “There But for Fortune,” and “The War Is Over.”