I was all set to review Tape from California when my dad decided to return to the United States.
I think he’s out of his fucking mind, but it’s his mind and he has the right to do stupid shit if he so chooses.
What triggered his departure was a combination of two shit shows: the predictable acquittal of he-who-shall-not-be-named and the utter disaster of the Iowa caucuses. Having given up on the United States long ago, I hadn’t paid much attention to either. The whole impeachment debacle was as predictable as a bad mystery novel where you know it’s the butler before you finish the first chapter, so I paid little attention to the proceedings. My father, on the other hand, binge-watched the hearings, the trial that wasn’t a trial and hours upon hours of pundit commentary, yelling at the television just like he did in the good old days when he watched the 49ers on Sunday afternoons. He then made plans to stay up all night to watch the Iowa drama unfold . . . but nothing unfolded. After a couple of days of extended grumpiness, he invited me over to announce his imminent departure.
“I can’t just sit on my ass and watch my country turn into a tinpot, white supremacist dictatorship. The Democrats are going to fuck this thing up one way or another and I can’t let that happen. I’ve got to go back and do what I can do to stop this.”
That made no sense to me, so I called him on it. “Dad, if you think the Democrats are going to fuck things up, then isn’t it game over? I mean, what can you do about it?”
“I don’t know yet. I’ll figure it out when I get there. But I have to do what I can. I owe it to myself to at least try.”
“But dad, the fix is in. And even if it weren’t, Americans don’t give a shit about saving democracy. Half of them don’t bother to vote most of the time. I haven’t heard anything about mass protests or strikes like we’ve had here. As long as Americans are making money they couldn’t care less about who’s running the country. I don’t think you’re going to find many people who’ll want to play with you.”
“Well, I do give a shit about saving democracy, so I’m going. End of story.”
“Ari, you’re not going to talk him out of it,” my mother said. “He must follow his conscience.”
I continued to press my case for a few more minutes, but maman was right—dad was immovable. Taking action to protest injustice and advocate for peace has always been part of his DNA.
During the early and mid-’60s, there was a relatively brief period when public protests against injustice helped raise consciousness and change minds. My dad was there, an ardent participant in sit-ins, marches, and moratoriums with other like-minded folks determined to speak out against the madness of racism and war. And when they marched, they marched to spirituals and protest songs. Though Americans have been writing and singing protest songs for almost two centuries, the ’60s were a particularly fertile era for the genre, and protest songs frequently appeared in the regular rotation of AM stations and the Billboard/Cashbox Top 10 lists. Folk music dominated the protest scene in the first half of the decade, but the rockers started catching up once they realized there was more to life than boy-girl relationships. There was some blowback—Nina Simone’s career certainly suffered after she released “Mississippi Goddam,” and some radio stations banned Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”—but these backhanded attempts to silence non-establishment perspectives only served to heighten public interest and encourage more artists to join the movement. Protest songs remained quite popular in the USA through the end of the decade and into the early ’70s.
But where are all the protest songs now? Where are the anthems like “If I Had a Hammer,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “We Shall Overcome” and “Blowin’ in the Wind?” While American musicians have raised their voices in protest in the intervening years, there is no sense of a unified movement against The Establishment as there was in the ’60s. And when you listen to some of the most popular protest songs from the last thirty years—“Killing in the Name” by Rage Against the Machine, Green Day’s “American Idiot,” “We The People” by A Tribe Called Quest—they all fall short in one important respect: they express the rage but fail to bring the inspiration. “The world is fucked, so fuck you” seems to be a common theme. The great protest songs of the ’60s not only exposed the outrageous practices of the powerful but inspired people to get off their asses and do something about injustice instead of fast-forwarding to the next song on the playlist.
Man, we could really use Phil Ochs right now.
Phil Ochs entered the scene right around the time that Bob Dylan was starting to distance himself from political themes. He established himself as an important new voice in the genre on his first official album, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, where he applied his penetrating wit and genuine empathy for the disadvantaged to interpretations of current events. Ochs also revealed himself as a remarkably talented fortune teller, releasing the first protest song about Vietnam (“Vietnam Talking Blues”) a full four months before LBJ perpetrated the fraud known as the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. The album title reflects his background in journalism, and though his work certainly displayed an editorial slant, you get the sense that even at this early stage in his development as a songwriter, his primary mission was to uncover the truth about the world we inhabit.
Once upon a time, that’s what journalists were expected to do.
I Ain’t Marching Anymore was released in February 1965, featuring songs he had written in the transitional years of 1963-1964 and a few adaptations of the works of other poets and folksingers. On this second album, Ochs dispensed with the superfluous second guitar used on his debut, increasing the prominence of his lyrics and distinctive voice. While the folksinger-with-a-guitar model was pretty much standard operating procedure in those days, the contrast between his performance on All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marching Anymore is striking. Phil’s voice is less tentative, his sense of urgency more obvious, and his authenticity undeniable.
Phil proves he didn’t need a second guitar with his spirited picking in the intro to “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” The narrator is the archetypal soldier who fought in every goddamned American war from 1812 onward. Our hero has finally figured out that there are no wars to end all wars, but only old men with delusions of grandeur who peddle the outrageous notion that war is the ultimate test of one’s masculinity. Through the generation of patriotic fervor, the powers-that-be manipulate young men into enlisting so they can show the world what they’re made of:
It’s always the old to lead us to the war
It’s always the young to fall
Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun
Tell me is it worth it all?
When I lived in the States I heard a lot of bitching about the many “undeclared wars” of the post-WWII era, but undeclared wars have formed the modus operandi for the United States since its founding. War is defined as “a state of armed conflict between different nations or states or different groups within a nation or state,” whether declared or not. Most Americans prefer to hide behind the declared/undeclared distinction, but not Phil Ochs, who refused to exclude one of America’s most brutal and lengthy wars:
For I’ve killed my share of Indians
In a thousand different fights
I was there at the Little Big Horn
I heard many men lying
I saw many more dying
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore
The subsequent verses record the increasingly gloomy history of American combat: Polk’s single-minded determination to achieve manifest destiny by inventing the original Gulf of Tonkin on the Rio Grande and suckering Congress to declare war on Mexico; brothers killing brothers in the Civil War; the unimaginable slaughter known as World War I; “the mighty mushroom roar” that signaled the end of WWII and demonstrated the sick ingenuity of the human race when it comes to killing. The closing verse describes the unintended consequences of what Eisenhower described as “the military-industrial complex” and the ugly truth that short-sightedness and the profit motive both play significant roles in the decision to send young men to their deaths:
Now the labor leader’s screamin’ when they close the missile plants,
United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore,
Call it “Peace” or call it “Treason”
Call it “Love” or call it “Reason”
But I ain’t marchin’ anymore.
I wish every person in uniform would wake up one day and say, “Fuck it. Fight your own goddamned battles, you sick bastards.” We haven’t evolved to that point, but there is no doubt that draft-age men in the Vietnam era took the song’s message to heart. When Phil performed “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” for the protesters camped outside the Democratic Convention in ’68, hundreds burned their draft cards, a moment that Phil called the highlight of his career.
Listen to “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” on YouTube.
Everybody knows about Watts, but the series of riots in prominently African-American neighborhoods during the mid-’60s began the year before with disturbances in Philly, Chicago, Rochester, Harlem, Bed-Stuy and several cities in New Jersey. Ochs explores the dynamics of the riots in those two New York neighborhoods and the failure of the white power structure to understand those dynamics in the song “In the Heat of the Summer.” Though the poetry here isn’t his sharpest, Ochs does expose the obliviousness of those in power to the underlying causes: the cops prefer confrontation to communication, the mayor is too busy right now, and the newspapers have swallowed “the tranquilizing drug of gradualism”:
For shame, for shame, wrote the papers.
Why the hurry to your hunger?
Now the rubble’s resting on your broken streets
So you see what your rage has unraveled.
Blame the victims for their uncontrollable rage! That’s the ticket! Ochs then answers the question on every white listener’s mind, “Why would they destroy their own neighborhood? It doesn’t make any sense!”
And when the fury was over
And the shame was replacing the anger.
So wrong, so wrong, but we’ve been down too long
And we had to make somebody listen
Of course it doesn’t make any sense! People feeling rage can’t make sense! The GOP would soon exploit this white obliviousness and put Ronald Reagan in the Governor’s Mansion and Richard Nixon in the White House, getting the voters to guzzle that law-and-order bullshit like beer from the keg.
Ochs wisely follows that sad, minor-key tune with the more sprightly and satirical “Draft Dodger Rag.” Note that the Senator Dodd mentioned in the song isn’t the Dodd who co-sponsored the Dodd-Frank bill after the 2008 financial crisis and who was called a “lying weasel” by the New Haven Register. This Senator Dodd is his father, Thomas J. Dodd, a fervent anti-communist on the payroll of a Guatemalan dictator who was censured by the Senate for converting campaign donations to personal cash.
Note to America: You really have to get over your fetish with nepotism. One seat per family per every other generation, please.
The rag does not deal with political corruption but with a guy who received the dreaded letter from the draft board. Instead of freaking out and losing his cool, he adopts a strategic approach and enters the interview fully prepared:
Oh, I’m just a typical American boy from a typical American town
I believe in God and Senator Dodd and a-keepin’ old Castro down
And when it came my time to serve I knew “better dead than red”
But when I got to my old draft board, buddy, this is what I said:
Sarge, I’m only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, and my feet are flat, and my asthma’s getting worse
Yes, think of my career, my sweetheart dear, and my poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain’t no fool, I’m a-goin’ to school
And I’m working in a DEE-fense plant
I’ve got a dislocated disc and a wracked up back
I’m allergic to flowers and bugs
And when the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits
And I’m addicted to a thousand drugs
I got the weakness woes, I can’t touch my toes
I can hardly reach my knees
And if the enemy came close to me
I’d probably start to sneeze
His interview strategy turns out to be a smashing success, and he graciously ends his visit by leaving the door open for future opportunities:
So I wish you well, Sarge, give ’em Hell!
Kill me a thousand or so
And if you ever get a war without blood and gore
I’ll be the first to go
“Draft Dodger Rag” is a humorous song with a serious purpose. From the Wikipedia article on Draft Evasion:
Other young men sought to evade the draft by avoiding or resisting any military commitment. In this they were bolstered by certain countercultural figures. “Draft Dodger Rag”, a 1965 song by Phil Ochs, circumvented laws against counseling evasion by employing satire to provide a how-to list of available deferments: ruptured spleen, poor eyesight, flat feet, asthma, and many more.
Draft resistance was one of the more successful protests of the era, leading to the establishment of an all-volunteer army. “The head of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s task force on the all-volunteer military reported in 1970 that the number of resisters was ‘expanding at an alarming rate’ and that the government was ‘almost powerless to apprehend and prosecute them’.” (Wikipedia) Musicians like Phil Ochs and Arlo Guthrie really did make a difference . . . eventually. The all-volunteer army did not become a reality until 1973. Lesson: If you’re going to commit your life to a protest movement, realize that you have to play the long game. The political and legal systems in place in the USA were not designed for immediate change.
Ochs took some heat from American socialists for “That’s What I Want to Hear” because in the song he tells an unemployed worker to stop whining about his misfortune and join the fight for full employment.
Editorial Comment: Based on my experience living in two left-wing, left-coast cities for the first thirty-odd years my life, I can say with utmost confidence that American socialists are the dumbest fucking people on the planet. I would describe them as a bunch of immature, naïve, dogmatic assholes who believe they are the sole owners of truth and anyone who doesn’t agree with them is a heretic. I guess they were as dumb then as they are now.
Phil was (again) way ahead of his time in discouraging self-victimization in the working class, as that was exactly the flaw that he-who-shall-not-be-named exploited in the 2016 election.
And you tell me that your job was taken away
By a big ol’ greasy machine
And you tell me that you don’t collect no more pay
And your belly is growing lean
Now if I had the jobs to give
You know I’d give them all away
But don’t waste your breath calling out my name
If you don’t have nothing to say
Phil’s advice to the self-pitying is “get together and fight” instead of feeling sorry for themselves. That’s damned good advice that any therapist would endorse. The vocal is a bit on the cheeky side, featuring flashes of Phil’s vibrato that would become more prominent on Pleasures of the Harbor (sometimes too prominent).
Though his Marxist friends couldn’t understand why Ochs would bother to write a tribute to the fallen JFK, “That Was the President” captured the deep and enduring grief many Americans experienced after the assassination. There was an earlier version of the song that took a more chronological, biographical approach, describing Kennedy as “a man of peace . . . born in the middle of the war” and listing his most notable achievements (the inspirational inaugural address, the Peace Corps, his support for civil rights). There’s one line in the older version I wish he would have saved: “And still I can remember, and still I can’t believe.” The line resonates because when I started getting interested in American history in my teens, I asked my dad about Kennedy, and his closing comment still sticks in my mind: “You know, I still can’t believe he’s really gone. Almost thirty years later and I still can’t believe it.” You might attribute this extended mourning to the fact that my dad came from an Irish Catholic family who took exceptional pride in having an Irish Catholic president, but I think it was more than ethnic and religious affiliation. JFK symbolized hope and progress for many people, and his assassination represented a big black line between a confident vision of the future and an America constantly troubled by seemingly unsolvable problems.
Even with the absence of that line, the song is an intensely moving piece, with Phil attenuating his voice to intensify the sense of loss. The suddenness of the event served to intensify the shock and fortify the sense of disbelief:
I still can see him smiling there and waving at the crowd
As he drove through the music of the band
And never even knowing no more time would be allowed
Not for the president and not for the man.
Ochs also makes an interesting argument for Kennedy’s enduring legacy by pointing to the worldwide grief as evidence of his enormous potential:
Everything he might have done and all he could have been
Was proven by the troubled traitor’s hand
For what other death could wound the hearts of so many men?
That was the president and that was the man.
Listen to “That Was the President” on YouTube.
“The Iron Lady” attacks the practice of capital punishment, and though both the music and poetry are rather awkward, Ochs lands a few good punches in his assault on this barbaric practice. He was certainly fighting an uphill battle and would still be fighting that uphill battle today: no Gallup poll dating as far back as 1937 has shown majority support for the elimination of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder in the United States, and only once have the results shown a plurality in favor of abolition (47-42 in June 1966). While support for the death penalty has declined from a high of 80% in the ’90s (yikes!), a majority of Americans are still fond of the idea. While Ochs points out the two obvious flaws in the system (that we “sometimes send the wrong man to the chair” and “a rich man’s never died upon the chair”), the song falls short in the area of emotional impact. I’m also not particularly enamored by his musical interpretation of Alfred Noyes’ “The Highwayman,” a rather ornate and contrived piece of melodramatic poetry drowning in alliteration (i.e., “Over the cobbles he clatters and clangs . . .)
Phil takes on the labor unions in “Links on the Chain,” another song that offended the purists. His basic argument is this: when unions inspire collaboration among workers in the struggle against the system, the shared experience forges a link that strengthens the chain that binds them together, resulting in a higher quality of life for union members (and making the union a more attractive option for the unorganized). However, when unions fail to empathize with and support those who are also engaged in the struggle against institutional power (in this case, African-Americans), they damage their credibility and weaken the chain.
Unions were much more powerful in the ’60s, and power not only corrupts but encourages protect-what-we’ve-got thinking that discourages risk-taking, even if the risk involves “the right thing to do.” In the first three verses, Phil describes the rise of the unions as they built solidarity in the face of police brutality and “fascist” efforts to break them. Once the leaders became comfortable and corrupt, the unions stopped serving as agents of change and progress, protecting their members through exclusion and win-lose bargaining. In effect, they became part of The Establishment. Long before George Wallace became the darling of northern union members and right-wing racist character Archie Bunker was accepted by the viewing public as the prototypical hard-hat union man, Phil Ochs called out the unions for engaging in institutional racism under the guise of protecting union jobs:
And then in 1954, decisions finally made,
The black man was a-risin’ fast and racin’ from the shade,
And your union took no stand and your union was betrayed,
As you lost yourself a link on the chain, on the chain,
As you lost yourself a link on the chain.
And then there came the boycotts and then the freedom rides,
And forgetting what you stood for, you tried to block the tide,
Oh, the automation bosses were laughin’ on the side,
As they watched you lose your link on the chain, on the chain,
As they watched you lose your link on the chain.
Very perceptive of Phil to see that racism and exclusivity simply played into the hands of the owners. In the final verse, he raises his voice in justifiable outrage at union members who support racist union policies:
For now the times are tellin’ you the times are rollin’ on,
And you’re fighting for the same thing, the jobs that will be gone,
Now it’s only fair to ask you boys, which side are you on?
As you’re buildin’ all your links on the chain, on the chain,
As you’re buildin’ all your links on the chain.
All of Phil’s predictions of doom came true. When he wrote the song in the mid-’60s, a third of the U. S. private sector was unionized; that percentage is now around 7% (note that the decline in union membership is a worldwide phenomenon). American unions demonstrated their short-sightedness when they failed to launch any credible effort to organize Silicon Valley and confirmed their impotence when they failed to protect union jobs during the mass layoffs of the ’70s and ’80s. Ronald Reagan put the nail in the coffin when he broke the air controllers’ union (PATCO) after the union overplayed its hand.
For some reason, I find this song (and Phil’s stirring performance) incredibly moving though I really don’t think much of unions. I now live in a country where strikes are as common as sunshine in Arizona. I avoid Air France like the plague. Guess what? Union membership in France is 6-8%! Our strikes and stoppages get more press because they involve public transportation. The truth is, the French don’t need unions to make a point, because the French take to the streets like ducks take to water. The disturbing part of all this is that the worldwide decline in union membership correlates fairly well with the income inequality that threatens democracies everywhere.
Listen to “Links on the Chain” on YouTube.
“The Hills of West Virginia” begins as a Guthrie-esque travelogue, eventually morphing into a haunting description of the environmental devastation brought on by coal mining (“And the rocks they were staring cold and jagged/Where explosions of the powder had torn away the side”). It’s followed by a heavily edited version of a Spanish-American War poem by a very minor American poet by the name of John Rooney, “The Men Behind the Guns.” Both versions make the point that while the admirals and other manifestations of top brass get all the headlines, we should not forget the men who do the actual killing. The key difference is Rooney celebrates their “bravery” while Ochs focuses on the traumatic reality of those who fire the guns. Verdict: Phil by a landslide.
“Talking Birmingham Jam” is in a Guthrie-influenced format that gives a performer wide latitude in spinning a story and the opportunity to update a song to include relevant new events (which explains why the version on this album differs from the performance you hear on Live at Newport). The differences in the song’s text aren’t substantial, but I do wish the album version had included Phil’s Newport intro, where he notes: “Well, I think, whenever there’s a deep tragedy, there’s also present something of the ridiculous.” The horrors of Birmingham were anything but funny, but bringing the perspective offered by satire to bear on tragedy highlights the utter absurdity of inhuman behavior:
Well, I’ve seen travelin’ many ways,
I’ve traveled in cars and old subways.
But in Birmingham, some people chose
To fly down the street from a fire hose,
Doin’ some hard travelin’,
From hydrants a-plenty!
The image of those children tumbling down the street is unforgettable and unforgivable, and I think Phil’s “naive traveler” perspective is designed to remind the listener that some human beings actually believed that firehosing was just one of many standard options the police had in their toolbox to “keep the peace.”
I really can’t comment on Phil’s version of Ewan MacColl’s “Ballad of the Carpenter” because anyone can cherry-pick from the gospels and “prove” that Jesus was on their side. I suppose this qualifies as the “liberal” interpretation (Jesus was a workingman fighting for the poor), but there are so many different takes on what the Bible means that I don’t feel I can trust any of them. I will say that the most ridiculous biblical interpretations I’ve read can be found in the book God in the Stadium: Sports and Religion in America by Robert J. Higgs:
As spiritual awakening becomes equated with worldly success, enlightenment with sliding effectively into second base, Jesus becomes more and more a model for athletic achievement. Says Brett Butler, “I believe if Jesus Christ was a baseball player, he’d go in hard to break up the double play and then pick up the guy and say, ‘I love you.'”
Oh, oh, oh, oh for fuck’s sake.
“Day of Decision” reflects the spirit of the times, in particular the widely-shared sense that the human race had arrived at an inflection point and big decisions had to be made on a variety of issues. JFK helped frame the dialogue for Americans in his acceptance speech to the Democratic convention: ” . . . the New Frontier of which I speak is not a set of promises—it is a set of challenges.” The challenges that emerged in that decade were both plentiful and diverse: nuclear proliferation, the struggle for equal rights, America’s role in the world, environmental degradation, urban blight, etc. In retrospect, the decade’s challenges triggered a nationwide identity crisis involving two competing world views based on two very different sets of values. As the decade progressed, the term “polarization” appears more frequently in editorials, confirming both the division and that such a division was not “normal.” The standard response when faced with conflict—“Hey, come on, we’re all Americans here”—no longer resonated with the populace. Some longed for a return to a simpler world; others found the challenges exciting and engaging. In essence, one side fought for an America that prioritized equality, peace and caring for the needy while the other side trumpeted the virtues of individual freedom, free markets and American military might.
As is usually the case, reality did not reflect that beautifully simple dichotomy, and many Americans spent the decade torn between one view or the other. The true poster boy of 1960’s America was Lyndon Johnson because he tried to play to both sides and wound up pissing off everyone.
In 1964, the dominant challenge involved race. The argument that it was time to shit or get off the pot and choose one side or the other in the struggle for racial equality is the primary thrust of “Days of Decision”:
Oh, the shadows of doubt are in many a mind,
Lookin’ for an answer they’re never gonna find,
But they’d better decide ’cause they’re runnin’ out of time,
For these are the days of decision . . .
There’s many a cross that burns in the night,
And the fingers of the fire are pointing as they bite,
Oh you can’t let the smoke keep on blinding all your sight,
For these are the days of decision.
Phil Ochs was a human being of great moral clarity, and for him, the choice was a matter of right or wrong. At roughly the same moment in history, another man of great moral clarity also argued that Americans faced an important choice involving right or wrong:
Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.
I can hear old liberals sputtering, “Tha-tha-that’s Barry Goldwater! He was a nut! He wanted to lob a few nukes into the men’s room in the Kremlin! He was a racist who voted against the Civil Rights Act!”
Hmm. There’s plenty of evidence that Goldwater was not a racist (nor a homophobe). He just held a very naïve belief that regular people could work out this discrimination thing all by themselves. Let’s look at another perspective on extremism and moderation:
My reason for believing in extremism—intelligently directed extremism, extremism in defense of liberty, extremism in quest of justice—is because I firmly believe in my heart that the day the black man takes an uncompromising step and realizes he’s within his rights, when his own freedom is being jeopardized, to use any means necessary to bring about his own freedom or put a halt to that injustice, I don’t think he’ll be by himself. [Emphasis added.]
That comment was made by Malcolm X at a 1964 debate sponsored by the Oxford Union Society where two sides argued for or against Goldwater’s assertion. Obviously, Malcolm argued for the affirmative side, and I’m 100% sure that Phil Ochs would have endorsed Goldwater’s sentiments as well. He was a passionate defender of civil liberties and could get quite testy on the subject of moderates: “They’ll listen close, with open ears/They’ll help us out in a couple a hundred years.” Your interpretation of the message depends entirely on your definitions of “liberty” and “justice.”
And there’s the rub. If it’s a day of decision for your side, it’s a day of decision for their side. Human beings have never figured out how to resolve value conflicts, and until we do, one side is always going to demonize the other side. While my beliefs are highly simpatico with Phil’s beliefs, I have to accept that half the people in the world neither share them nor respect them. I might think they’re crazy or backward but I can’t deny their existence any more than they can deny mine.
Listen to “Day of Decision” on YouTube.
Serendipitously, the closing track on the album (except on other editions that include the electric version of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) deals with this very issue and shows that Phil completely understood that value conflicts were irresolvable. In “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” his solution to the apparent values gap between Mississippi and the rest of the country is short and to the point: “Get lost!”
Here’s to the state of Mississippi,
For underneath her borders, the devil draws no lines,
If you drag her muddy river, nameless bodies you will find.
Oh, the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes,
The calendar is lyin’ when it reads the present time.
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of,
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of!
In stark language teeming with exasperation and despair, Ochs catalogs the seemingly endless accounts of unthinkable brutality and rampant corruption in the Magnolia State, where the Stars and Bars still fly in the upper-left corner of the state flag. The intensity of the performance combines with the power of the words to make a compelling argument for a divorce based on mutual incompatibility:
And here’s to the government of Mississippi
In the swamp of their bureaucracy they’re always bogging down
And criminals are posing as the mayors of the towns
And they hope that no one sees the sights and no one hears the sounds
And the speeches of the governor are the ravings of a clown
Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of
Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of
Yes, but . . .
In my teens, I often wondered why Lincoln wanted to “save the union” when it was obvious that the South was a constant barrier to progress before the Civil War (and long after). Then I started reading stories about white supremacists in the Pacific Northwest, neo-nazis in Illinois and the demonization of immigrants in the liberal paradise of California. If you were to cut out all the racist-sexist-homophobic areas out of the United States, the map would look like a torn piece of Swiss cheese. If you cut out all the liberal oases, you would lose the majority of your major cities and metro areas. This morning I read a piece about how Eastern Oregon wants to join Idaho so they don’t have to live under the tyranny of those Portland progressives. It seems that every American’s solution to their bucketful of problems comes down to this: MAKE THE BAD PEOPLE GO AWAY.
Hey! Americans! You finally agree on something!
Well, before you ask Anthony to send your foes to the cornfield (sorry, I’m an original Twilight Zone junkie), you might want to think about this: when they’re in power, they’ll ask Anthony to send you to the cornfield.
And that’s where America stands right now, locked in eternal conflict with both sides flinging shit at each other. There is no doubt in my mind which side is right, and Phil Ochs felt the same sense of certainty. If he was with us now, he’d sing of the fundamental inhumanity of family separation and putting babies in cages, expose the web of corruption and deceit in every corner of government through brilliant and pointed satire, sound a clarion call to save our dying planet and, as always, call out the hatred and racism that divides and destroys us.
Then again, I wonder if anyone would pay attention. Americans still get their paychecks, still have their Super Bowl parties, and still have a million entertainment options to help them avoid dealing with reality. Americans have become the Germans of the 1930s, some celebrating the destruction of democracy in hate-filled rallies, the rest silent accomplices to the establishment of a cruel and heartless dictatorship.
And though I’m pretty sure America is done for, I admire my father for staying true to himself and for fighting the good fight.
I’ll close this post with a verse from “Power and the Glory,” one of Phil’s most revered songs from All the News That’s Fit to Sing. The verse doesn’t appear in the original release but has appeared on bootlegs. I’m using it for the close because Phil’s words succinctly describe the current situation in the United States and his cherished belief that people working together can successively fight against hate and injustice:
Yet 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.
I wish with all my heart that the dream will come true. Love you, dad, and I’m immeasurably proud to be your daughter.
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[…] about my qualifications! I have had the privilege of leading tours through three Phil Ochs albums: I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Pleasures of the Harbor and Rehearsals for Retirement. I was scheduled to lead tours for one or […]
Phil Ochs did not have a happy ending. In his mid-thirties he descended into alcoholism, tried to change his identity, was diagnosed as bipolar, and finally committed suicide at age 35. A few weeks later, Bella Abzug, an outspoken anti-war Congresswoman, entered this into the Congressional Record:
“Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago, a young folksinger whose music personified the protest mood of the 1960s took his own life. Phil Ochs—whose original compositions were compelling moral statements against war in Southeast Asia—apparently felt that he had run out of words.
“While his tragic action was undoubtedly motivated by terrible personal despair, his death is a political as well as an artistic tragedy. I believe it is indicative of the despair many of the activists of the 1960s are experiencing as they perceive a government which continues the distortion of national priorities that is exemplified in the military budget we have before us.
“Phil Ochs’s poetic pronouncements were part of a larger effort to galvanize his generation into taking action to prevent war, racism, and poverty. He left us a legacy of important songs that continue to be relevant in 1976—even though ‘the war is over’.
“Just one year ago—during this week of the anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War—Phil recruited entertainers to appear at the ‘War is Over’ celebration in Central Park, at which I spoke.
“It seems particularly appropriate that this week we should commemorate the contributions of this extraordinary young man.”
Beautiful and touching. Bella Abzug was before my time and all I knew about her was her big hats and passing mention in feminist literature—now I want to learn more about her.
I salute your father. And it’s Ginsberg. 🙂
And I salute you, for crediting your father. I wish I still had my father, but he’s been dead for 26 years now. He was a quiet man, not a super demonstrative one, but I always knew he loved me.
Like your reviews very accurate and quite interesting!
I appreciate you dwelling on the sixties time period.
Keep it up. Why don’t you tone down the profanity?
You are good at what you do.
It takes from your profile.
Just a suggestion, not a judgement.
Thank you! Mom and dad were both teens/young adults in the 60s, so I grew up hearing more 60s music than music from my generation (and frankly the quality of ’60s music is consistently higher than ’90s and 21st century music). My parents also taught me there’s no such thing as profanity; they were probably influenced by the stories of Ginzburg and Bruce (dad grew up in San Francisco) and public displays like The Fish Cheer at Woodstock. While I know I lose readers sensitive to such language, I’m much more uncomfortable with the idea of self-censorship (enter Steve and Eydie singing “I’ve Gotta Be Me”).
Like his other albums, this one blew me away when I first heard it in 2014, when we had seemingly reached maximum levels of complacency and denial about what kind of nation we are. A few songs on side 2 could have been cut but even those are pretty good, and the rest is basically the best acoustic guitar music ever made. Iron Lady is just as intense and heavy as any metal song. The subtle shifts in mood and constant buildup as the story progresses in The Highwayman are so impressive to me. Very hard to play guitar like that and have it sound good. Links on the Chain and That’s What I Want to Hear is basically punk 12 years early. That Was the President and In the Heat of the Summer are very moving and frankly still hit very close to home. Anyone saying his music is too dated lyrically is only wishing for that to be the case.