Category Archives: Folk, Celtic, World & Country

Phil Ochs – I Ain’t Marching Anymore – Classic Music Review

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.

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.

“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.

“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.

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.

Sandy Denny – Sandy – Classic Music Review

I’ve always thought of Sandy Denny as an autumn singer. Some of her best songs are reflections on the passage of time, a phenomenon most acutely experienced during that time of transition between summer and winter, when longer nights and dying leaves remind us of our own mortality. Her brief life embodied the autumnal paradox of beauty and decay, the melancholy tones of her music expressing both the hopeless defiance of time’s passing and the grim acceptance of life’s brevity.

Sandy herself was not entirely comfortable with her natural lean towards melancholy songs, as expressed in an interview with Melody Maker less than a year before she died:

Everyone, when they review my records, seems to say the same thing: another load of dirges. The trouble is that one of the reasons I write those dirgy tunes is that I can’t move that fast on the piano. I’m no Fats Waller, and that’s how it comes out, though it’s a real drag, I know. I don’t want to write miserable songs. Do you know how I feel after I’ve written a miserable sad song? Something that’s really hit me and hurt me. I feel terrible. I go and sit down and I’m really upset by it. I always write on my own. It’s like a vicious circle, being on my own. I tend to think of sad things and so I write songs that make me feel even sadder. I sit down and I write something and it moves me to tears almost. I’m fed up with feeling like that. Why do I have to put myself through it? Why can’t I think about other things, try and relax a little bit more?

Her most desperate attempt to break out of the mold was Rendezvous, her fourth and final solo effort, retrospectively described by Brett Hartenbach of Allmusic as “a flawed attempt at gaining a wider audience, by an artist who deserved better and was capable of the best.” Rolling Stone noted that “casting her as a pop singer didn’t quite work on Rendezvous,” an unusually polite and rare example of understatement from that publication. The most revealing song on the album is the closer, “No More Sad Refrains,” a song that confirms the feelings expressed in the interview and would later be used by Clifton Heylin as the title of his Sandy Denny biography.

Sandy’s excuse that she couldn’t play fast enough to write anything but dirges falls into the category of utter nonsense. The sad songs came out because she was disappointed with life and unreasonably disappointed in herself. Heylin’s biography describes a woman who gradually fell apart because she avoided dealing with the causes of what would probably be diagnosed as some form of depression. Too much drink and too much drama combined with an intense desire for mass-market recognition were symptoms of a deeper emptiness, one that would tragically lead to her too-early demise.

It’s hard to get my head around her sense of failure, of disappointment, of not being good enough. Sandy Denny was the central figure in what is considered one of the greatest folk albums ever made: Fairpoint Convention’s Liege and Lief. Readers voted her in as Best Female Singer in two annual Melody Maker polls. Her songwriting skills were first-rate; “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” was famously covered by such disparate talents as Judy Collins and Nina Simone. And in Sandy, she created a work of surprising sonic diversity supported by outstanding musicianship. But instead of taking justifiable pride in the artistic quality of the album, she was disappointed that Sandy failed to bring her superstardom.

I can’t accept that disappointment, that judgment. “You can try the best you can, try the best you can, the best you can is good enough,” Thom Yorke wrote, quoting his life partner’s advice for escaping the black hole of self-doubt. I have neither the skills nor desire to psychoanalyze Sandy Denny; all I want to do right now is to recognize a genuine musical achievement.

Appropriately, Sandy begins with a song about time and mortality. Without naming it, she uses the metaphor of the river of time, describing it as “the cruel flow” that eventually clutches all of us in the grip of death. Why me? Why now? Though the answer is unknowable, the human mind has to come up with a reason, a cause, an explanation of some kind of orderly process:

Oh, it’s like a storm at sea
And everything is lost,
And the fretful sailors calling out their woes,
As to the waves they’re tossed.

Oh, they are all gentlemen,
And never will they know
If there is a reason each of them must go,
To join the cruel flow.

And it’ll take a long, long time . . .

Though the song is cast in a tempo usually more suited to closing numbers, the music generates sufficient power to grab and hold the listener’s attention. Sandy approaches the vocal deliberately, easing up on the first two lines of the verses before raising her voice to the level of power that she displayed so memorably on songs like “Matty Groves” and “The Deserter.” She enhances her lead vocal with her own background vocals, her voice veiled in deep echo as if she is playing the part of the angel of death. Graciously, she donates most of the recording space to the work of two outstanding guitarists: Richard Thompson on both acoustic and electric and Sneaky Pete Kleinow on pedal steel guitar. The dual guitar solo in the middle section where Kleinow riffs to the verses while Thompson takes the chorus is one of the most beautiful guitar passages I’ve ever heard, a masterpiece of collaboration between true craftsmen. Both gentlemen appear on several tracks, but its Kleinow who heralds the expansion of Sandy’s playing field with his American country music stylings.

Sandy’s depth in British folk allowed her to write credible traditional songs that reflect the form and language of tunes in the Child Ballads anthology. “Sweet Rosemary” is a simple, straightforward song about a girl gathering flowers as she imagines finding her true love and eventual wedding day. The remastered version of the album includes the demo version featuring Sandy accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, and though I appreciate the more demanding vocal variations, the contributions of ex-bandmate Dave Swarbrick on fiddle and the surprising autoharp sweeps of the full studio take, there’s something terribly charming about the less-complicated version with the pretty melody front and center. At the core, a folk song should always sound perfectly fine with a single voice and a single instrument, and “Sweet Rosemary” certainly fits the bill.

Next up is the even more elaborate “For Nobody to Hear,” a story in itself. I’m not exactly sure how they pulled it off in the primitive pre-Internet era, but former Fairport and Fotheringay mate, future husband and producer Trevor Lucas figured out a way to integrate Allen Toussaint’s horn arrangement recorded in Baton Rouge, Louisiana with the master recording safely locked away in Chelsea. I sincerely hope it involved airmail. Today a producer can upload the base arrangement to a secure site, then the musician can download it, add his bits and then producer the can upload the allegedly new-and-improved master. BO-ring! I love stories of people overcoming impossible odds to get things done, and the ’60s and ’70s are full of them. Did you ever see the Apollo 11 moon lander at The Smithsonian? Shit, man, it’s just some low-end Barcaloungers and a teeny weeny computer with 1/1000000 of the power of an iPhone wrapped in aluminum foil! And it went all the way to the fucking moon! I’m becoming more and convinced that digitalization and the now-now-now ethic have destroyed human ingenuity by making things too easy for us. Fuck Amazon! Bring back parcel post! Fuck the iPhone! Bring back phone booths! Do you really need everything RIGHT NOW?

However Lucas pulled it off, his efforts went for naught. The mix on this song is dreadful, with horns, drums and guitar drowning out the singer. I don’t know if they were intimate at the time, but if they were, I’ll bet Sandy gave him an earful when he got home. The lyrics also drift into self-pity (“But it made me for to write no songs/For nobody to hear”), and even a stripped-down version wouldn’t qualify as one of Sandy’s better efforts.

Fortunately, “For Nobody to Hear” is the only turkey on the album. Sandy bounces back pretty quickly with her version of Dylan’s “Tomorrow Is a Long Time,” a song that had already been covered by Elvis, Judy Collins and Rod Stewart. Sandy makes the song her own with her nuanced vocal alternating between tones of reflection and heartfelt passion, riding the comfy tempo with confidence. Sneaky Pete returns with sweet and lovely work on the pedal steel guitar, coaxing the challenging instrument to produce clear, rising tones that seem to drift on air. Sandy’s selection of Linda Thompson to take the role of harmonic support was definitely an inspired choice, as their voices blend especially well, most notably in the rising crescendo on the closing lines.

Sandy takes it to another level entirely with Richard Farina’s adaptation of the traditional song “Quiet Joys of Brotherhood.” The first two verses describe a natural world in perfect harmony (gentle tides, colours blending beautifully in the sand, the thunder of mare and stallion, the blended flower), while the last verse alludes to the destructive tendencies of man and how they wreak havoc on natural harmony:

But man has come to plough the tide,
The oak lies on the ground.
I hear their tires in the fields,
They drive the stallion down.
The roses bleed both light and dark,
The winds do seldom call.
The running sands recall the time
When love was lord of all.

This is the poetic version of the evolutionary history described in Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, where man’s evolution is linked to the blind destruction of thousands of species, flora and fauna alike (the book has many flaws in addition to being positively depressing, but the self-destructive tendencies of our species has been well-documented). What makes Sandy’s interpretation of the story more credible and aesthetically pleasing is the power of her voice, a capella. Singing a capella is always a risky proposition, but when it’s done well, there are few musical forms that command one’s attention so thoroughly. The opening verse is captivating enough, but when Sandy adds three-part harmony (in her own voice) in the second verse, the effect is absolutely stunning—and in the last verse, when she adds a fourth part at the top of her range, the chills run up and down my spine. That fourth voice is not a decorative element, but a voice that expresses infinite sadness, a voice dying in the wilderness. The song could have ended there, but Sandy brought in Dave Swarbrick for the finishing touch: a sensitive violin elegy that expresses mourning more powerfully than words possibly could. This part always makes me tear up, as Swarbrick brings out the feeling of loss through a perfectly executed solo focused on the lower strings of the violin. The backstory is Sandy and Swarbrick didn’t get along all that well, but here they put their differences aside to create a great moment in music.

“Listen, Listen” has become one of Sandy’s signature songs, the title of a solid introductory compilation released at the dawn of the millennium. The strength of the song is its stirring melody, further powered by Sandy’s confident, free-spirited approach. She also handles the foundational 12-string guitar and receives more than enough support from Richard Thompson on mandolin, Pat Donaldson on bass and Timi Donald on the drums. I could have done without the string section, an unnecessary appendage to a song with strong bones. The lyrics are on the awkward side and the storyline (such as it is) eludes my ability to make sense of it all, but the melody and strength of the performances carry the day. There is a French version available on the remastered release (“Écoute, Écoute”) that works if you’re not too bothered by less-than-stellar articulation.

“The Lady” catches the listener’s attention from the get-go with a dissonant E flat augmented chord, inverted to place the G note at the base to make the transition to the main melody less jarring on the ears. Again, I would have dispensed with Harry Robertson’s strings (or turned them down to half-volume), as I think the song would have had much more impact with just piano and Sandy’s exceptionally strong, passionate vocal. Given the heartfelt intensity she displayed, we can assume that the lady in question is Sandy herself, and the picture formed by the lyrics describes a woman who struggles with the feeling of not being good enough (“The lady she had a silver tongue/For to sing she said/And maybe that’s all”), yearns for a moment when the audience is struck dumb by the sound of her voice (“Wait for the dawn and we will have that song/When it ends it will seem/That we hear silence fall”), loves well but probably not too wisely (“The lady she had a golden heart/For to love, she said/And she did not lie”) but still clings to the dream of breaking through cold indifference to transform the world with her music:

We heard that song while watching the skies,
Oh the sound it rang
So clear through the cold.
Then silence fell and the sun did arise
On a beautiful morning of silver and gold.

Those are pretty heavy expectations to carry in a world where people are always looking for the shiny new thing.

Mainly Norfolk, the invaluable source of all things English folk, accurately describes Richard Thompson’s guitar on “Bushes and Briars” as an “obligato,” a musical term used to describe “an instrumental part, typically distinctive in effect, which is integral to a piece of music and should not be omitted in performance.” Imagine “Aqualung” without Martin Barre’s guitar or “Comfortably Numb” without Gilmour’s fabulous solo, and you’ll get an idea of the indispensability of Richard Thompson’s contribution here. While he’s probably not the first name that pops into your head when you think of country gee-tar pickers, Richard channeled enough Sneaky Pete to master the essence of the style while adding his own distinctive mark to the piece. His slides, bends, vibrato, arpeggios are as clean as a crystal stream. Meanwhile, Sandy holds up her end of the bargain with an exceptional performance that spans the mood spectrum from wistfulness to righteousness as she strolls through a bleak winter landscape to arrive at a church, empty save for the “clergy’s chosen man” and the graves of past parishioners:

I wonder if he knows I’m here
Watching the briars grow.
And all these people beneath my shoes,
I wonder if they know.
There was a time when every last one
Knew a clergy’s chosen man
Where are they now? Thistles and thorns
Among the sand.

It should be noted that “Bushes and Briars” is not the song classified as Roud 1027, but a Sandy Denny original.

As is “It Suits Me Well,” a tale about the perpetual wanderer—the gypsy, the sailor, the circus trouper. The attraction is in the freedom, to be able to say “There are no chains about me, I am me own man,” to “stand upon the salty deck and feel the wind blow.” Sandy wrote the song in the old vernacular, a proper choice for a lifestyle that seems to be dying, replaced by a new class of itinerants who have no choice in the matter—the refugees, the homeless forced to live in cars or makeshift shelters. The characters in the song “never had a proper home . . . never had a garden or a place with windows,” finding those trappings to be unbearable attachments that interfere with personal liberty. “The living it is hard, but oh, it suits me well,” they sing, prioritizing validation of the spirit above creature comforts. Though none of the lifestyles described in the song would suit me, I understand the yearning for a life without compromise. Sandy gives us another strong vocal performance, channeling the moods and motivations of the characters to perfection, conservatively limiting her use of portamento to give the vocal gymnastics more prominence. The band of Thompson, Donaldson, Donald, Lucas (on acoustic guitar), John Kirkpatrick (concertina) and an uncredited harmonica stylist fashion a comparatively understated background that highlights Sandy’s vocal (as it should) and echoes the ambivalence of freedom won at such a steep price. One of the strongest compositions on the album, “It Suits Me Well” evokes latent feelings of resistance to conformity that might help listeners survive another day of wage slavery and activate their inner gypsies.

The original album closes with the achingly beautiful “The Music Weaver.” The third time turns out to be the charm for Harry Robertson, whose string arrangement is both rich and thoughtfully restrained, allowing plenty of room for Sandy’s flawless vocal and simple piano patterns. In tone and lyric, this is the most honest song on the album, where Sandy drops her tendency to communicate in passive-aggressive hints in exchange for honest, mask-off communication. In the first verse, she calls herself out for communicating in half-truths:

I’m a long way from you,
I’m a long way from home.
And who cares for the feeling
Of being alone?
The notes and the words
They will always unfold
And I’m left with a manuscript
That will grow old
And the secrets all told anyway.

After a lovely instrumental passage, Sandy shares her closing thoughts with her faraway partner, thoughts that reflect the desire for symbiosis but close with an escape route. Though life for a musician on the road is far more comfortable than the experience of a hobo riding the rails, Sandy feels a bond with those roamers, suggesting that the music they weave embodies the same melancholy displayed in her work.

The remastered version also features two tracks from a single released in support of an obscure, short film called Pass of Arms about two knights pointlessly battling to the death in a forest. While that description may bring up memories of the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, these Don Fraser compositions are both powerful anti-war songs that Sandy delivers to perfection. “Here In Silence” is the stronger of the two, with an arrangement that integrates oboe, piccolo and bugle in the style of Joshua Rifkin’s ear-catching arrangements on Judy Collins’ In My Life album. The most powerful verse in terms of lyrical content and Sandy’s delivery highlights the inexplicable justification for waging war in the name of the Prince of Peace:

Take my children, golden children
Grow them, train them, cut them, kill them
For the justice of your Jesus
For the service of your leaders
Can you feel me, can you touch me
Can you leave me here in silence?

“Man of Iron” features another strong arrangement but the dominant imagery of knights in armor brings up too many images of John Cleese’s armored body shrinking limb-by-limb for me to embrace the song, though I do admire Sandy’s performance.

Both songs were recorded around the time of Sandy, serving as potent evidence that this was the period when Sandy Denny peaked as a solo artist. Like an Old-Fashioned Waltz gave us Sandy’s first attempt to expand her listening audience by introducing jazz and pop influence (an attempt that failed to chart); the aforementioned Rendezvous left her fan base puzzled as to why she refused to play to her strengths. While she expanded her stylistic range on Sandy, the connections between British and American folk are well-established; jumping from British folk to jazz is another thing entirely. Given the evidence of an increasingly fragile psyche, Sandy Denny was not only asking too much of the listening audience but too much of herself.

I wish she were still alive today, for even had she given up music for another calling, a mature version of Sandy Denny would look back and chalk up the mistakes to experience and take justifiable pride in the beauty she created.

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