Sunday, May 29, 2011

Phil Ochs - protest singer for his time and ours

Music on Sunday @ The Reaction

Richard K. Barry

A few weeks ago a friend gave me a copy of a relatively new documentary about the life and times of singer-songwriter Phil Ochs. Ochs wasn't all that famous in his own time and certainly is not a name that would mean much to those who didn't live through the 60s, but he was a very talented example what I suppose would be called a writer and singer of protest songs.

The doc is called There But For Fortune. I think it has been in theatres. In any case, I highly recommend it. It is very well done though quite sad as it depicts Ochs' rise and fall, which culminated in his suicide in the mid-70s.

The music in it is amazing and it reminds us how much the man had to say and how he left us way too soon.

A while back I wrote something in defence of Bob Dylan to counter the claims by some that his concert in China recently in no way attempted to chastise the Chinese government over their human rights record. He didn't even sing the songs that might have carried that kind of message like Blowin' in the Wind and The Times They Are aChanging. Fine, but as I wrote, while Dylan penned some fine songs that have been used to good effect as protest vehicles, he rejected the label of protest song singer. By his own admission, he did this in part because he understood that such a label was likely to be career limiting.

In contrast, Phil Ochs seemed to run headlong in the direction of protest, with lyrics that could not be mistaken for anything other than what they were: an attempt to take the stuffing out of those responsible for injustices and all manner of unfairness in our society wherever it might be found.

Not to crap on Dylan because I really do love his music, but many of his tunes we typically think of as protest songs are oblique enough to appeal to a wider audience and don't always perhaps name the injustice so boldly, which can serve to make a wider audience more comfortable with what he is saying. I know it's not that cut and dried, but as a rule protest songs tend to be a little more ham-fisted and Dylan was/is more "artistic" than that.

Ochs, on the other had, while very clever, tended to name the beast even if it meant taking a swipe at those who were more on his own side.

For example, in one introduction to the tune featured below, Ochs defines a liberal as "ten percent to the left of center in good times. Ten percent to the right of center if it effects them personally."

The song is Love Me, I'm a Liberal and for my money it speaks across generations to the difficulty many progressives continue to have holding true to their principles especially if they are largely driven by the requirements of electoral success. On that point, I note that the picture below features Ochs at a campaign rally for 1968 Democratic presidential hopeful Eugene McCarthy. If that means nothing to some of you, I would not be at all surprised.

Have a listen to Ochs below, and listen closely to the lyrics. You'll be glad you did.

(Cross-posted to Music Across the 49th)

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