Remembering Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs (1940-1976)

Michael Schumacher is the author/editor of several books on Allen Ginsberg, (notably Dharma Lion, the 1992 biography, (revised and expanded, 2016), but also this one and this one  – and, most recently, this one) – but it’s the subject of another of Michael’s books that’s our focus today, April 9, (on the anniversary of his passing) – the late great folk singer/ social activist – Phil Ochs

“If the music of Phil Ochs doesn’t ring a bell,”, writes Ryan Smith, in a must-read piece last year in Chicago Reader, “you’re not alone. History has a way of sanitizing, obscuring, or just plain forgetting much of the protest music of the past. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land,” for instance, was never intended to be a paean to our republic but a defiant Marxist response to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” And the radical pro-labor and anti-war tunes contained in the Industrial Workers of the World‘s Little Red Songbook (detailed in a recent Reader feature) are all but unknown today. The same goes for Ochs. He wrote eight albums of fierce and fiery folk songs before he died by his own hand in 1976, but his legacy has been papered over when we think of the protest music of the tumultuous 60s. When Lady Gaga asked, “Anybody know who Phil Ochs is?” before covering his 1967 ballad “The War is Over” at a free concert during the 2016 Democratic National Convention, it got a lackluster response.” 


The contemporary relevance of Phil Ochs can hardly be understated (see Richard Just arguing for it, with prescience, just a couple of years back, in the Washington Post). Re-evaluations of his life and work appear now and then (we might cite “Farewells and Fantasies”, Rhino Records 3-cd compilation from 1997. and, more recently, Ken Bowser’s documentary from 2010, “Phil Ochs – There But For Fortune” – and Pat Thomas’ recent Jerry Rubin volume contributes an illuminating chapter on him – but, there’s no denying that his work (and his message) has been occluded).

Phil Ochs and Allen’s paths crossed numerous times in the ‘Sixties, most notably in Chicago at the ill-fated Democratic Convention in ’68 (they also shared the stage three years later in Ann Arbor at the John Sinclair Freedom Concert and several other times during the early ‘Seventies)

Here’s Allen reading at the 1976 Phil Ochs Memorial Concert at Felt Forum in New York City, one month after his death, reading “Grant Park, August 28th, 1968″ and”Going to Chicago” (which he introduces here as “Flying To Chicago To The Convention”). For footage of the rest of the concert (as it was broadcast on tv station WHYY – see here)

1968 interview on the music industry in the early ‘Sixties 

1973 on Nixon and Watergate

Harry Smith’s legendary recording of Phil Ochs


One comment

  1. When I was Allen Ginsberg’s ‘apprentice,’ at the Naropa Institute in the late 70s, I had many conversations with him about Phil Ochs and sang to him several of his songs. Ochs’s song, The War is Over, was based on an idea (or a poem?) of Ginsberg’s. When I sang to him Tape From California, he interpreted (perhaps correctly) the following lines as a reference to him: ‘The flower power fuller brush man’s farming out his friends …’ Upon hearing some of the songs, he told me that he appreciated not only their politics but also the artistry of their words.

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