Kenneth Tash, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons
“Once I was caught playing hooky from school
They found me home in the evening
I confessed I had been to the movie show
When I was a boy in Ohio”
-Phil Ochs, “Boy in Ohio
It’s tragic that Phil’s lifelong fascination with Hollywood movies failed to earn him enough karma to guarantee a happy ending to his life.
Suffering from a deadly mix of bipolar disorder, depression and disillusionment with an America that steadfastly refused to live up to its promise, Phil took his own life at the age of thirty-five. He left behind a diverse catalog of songs both comic and tragic filled with remarkably perceptive insights on American culture and politics that remain relevant to this day.
Though Phil died five years before I was born, I relate to his work more than any other American songwriter. Like Phil, I experienced profound disillusionment with the United States: I left the country and have never looked back; Phil stayed behind to write songs in a worthwhile but ultimately hopeless attempt to inspire Americans to change their country’s trajectory. Way back in the 1960s Phil wrote about many of the problems that continue to bedevil the United States: racism, Christian hypocrisy, the endless wars, the rotten justice system, ethnocentrism, poverty, latent fascist tendencies and political cowardice. His songs have often moved me to laughter and tears; his insights helped me understand how the American Dream became a nightmare for so many of its citizens and the world at large.