Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Songs of Phil Ochs

"Ochs is a major new writer worth watching."
Robert Shelton, New York Times

"Phil Ochs has reached maturity as a . . . writer that few acquire in a lifetime of work."
Josh Dunson, Sing Out


Introduction (4)
Foreword (5)
What's That I Hear (7)
Hills of West Virginia (8)
There But For Fortune (9)
Bound For Glory (10)
Draft Dodger Rag (11)
William Moore (12)
Talking Plane Disaster (14)
Talking Vietnam (15)
Thresher (17)
Lou Marsh (18)
Remember Me (19)
Firehouse 35 (20)
No Christmas In Kentucky (21)
Celia (22)
Links On The Chain (23)
That Was The President (24)
What Are You Fighting For (25)
Automation Song (26)
Power And Glory, The (27)
Another Country (28)
Too Many Martyrs (29)
I Ain't Marchin' Anymore (30)
Iron Lady, The (32)


I got interested in politics after wasting a couple of years drifting through college. Around the same time, I became interested in learning the guitar, and luckily won an old Kay in a bet on the election of John Kennedy for President. As a journalism major, I was writing for several campus papers, so it was pretty natural to slip some of my ideas between the chords I was learning.

This book contains about a fifth of the songs I've written since then. Many people have asked me how I write a song, and after thinking about it for a while, I decided that all my good songs were written subconsciously. That is to say, I'm never able to sit down and decide that I'm going to write a song. Rather, a song idea will come out of the blue and I'll get the proverbial light-bulb sensation. But I always try to keep my mind conditioned to thinking of new ideas. When I get one, my brain almost acts like a reflex muscle in following up a new thought. Sometimes I have stayed up past daylight pursuing a song idea until it was trapped in rhyme. But once you get the original idea, the rest is relatively easy, --- and rewarding. Some of the most exciting and satisfying moments of my life have been in the writing of a song.

I hope this book will inspire some readers to try their hand at songwriting. You'll never know how good you might be without a few honest attempts. I think many potentially good songwriters have been still-born by their own inhibitions.

Most of my early songs were straight journalistic narratives of specific events, and the later ones have veered more in the direction of themes behind the events. All of them, though, are trying to make a positive point, even the ones that deal with tragic events. However, I do have to concur with some of the right-wing groups that consider topical songs subversive. These songs are definitely subversive in the best sense of the word. They are intended to overthrow as much idiocy as possible, and hopefully, to effect some amount of change for the better.

I'd like to dedicate this book to the memory of Joe Hill, the Wobbly songwriter who received his royalties in the form of bullets from a firing squad.

by Gordon Friesen

To me, this first book of songs by Phil Ochs marks an important milestone in the current development of fresh new directions for American song. It brings between two covers the already solid achievement of a young poet-songwriter who is contributing much to the present revitalization of the nation's "folk-type" singing tradition. Phil Ochs is one of the most significant leaders, I think, of the band of young creators who are boldly taking America's folksong revival down new and exciting roads.

This whole group of young men and women, almost spontaneously it seems, began writing "contemporary folk songs" about two years ago. Their output has been terrific; this book represents only a small portion of the songs Phil Ochs has written in that time. And not only writing them, but getting them printed and recorded and sung all over the country. Their influence has extended in widening circles until now we see a concentration on "songs of protest" even by the established commercial folk music groups, to many of whom "songs with a message" were something to be strictly avoided only a few months ago.

This new trend was summed up recently in a statement in the Saturday Evening Post by folksinger Carolyn Hester. Indicating why she (and by inference many another folksinger today) was switching from the old traditional ballads to singing more and more of the newly-composed "topical folksongs", Miss Hester said: "People are demanding more of a folk singer. You must stand up and say what you believe, what you think ... Writers --- that's what's new in folk singing today."

Among these new writers Phil Ochs stands at a certain apex, because many of the streams of this movement to restore vitality and meaning to our country's songs (and not only "folk", but song in general) converge in his work. We find in Phil's songs, for example, the bitterness of a Bob Dylan, but redeemed by a sharp sense of humor. Even the love song rises to a new level in Phil's hands. It is true that the love songs composed by many of these young writers, Dylan, Len Chandler, Eric Andersen, Peter La Farge, tower high in their realism above the sentimental ersatz in which American popular song has been wallowing since the 20's. But Phil, in his lyrically and musically beautiful "Celia" -- based on the real life Pomeroy case -- adds something quite significant: he makes of it specifically a love song of our special times, when so many dark forces keep a man and a woman apart.

Meaningful song, of course, is not alien to America; it has only seemed that way these past few decades. Songs crying out against injustice and reaffirming a faith in liberty and reason exist from Revolutionary days straight on through the 1800's and through the labor struggles, Great Depression and World War two of this century. Such songwriting waned, along with virtually all creative activity in general, in the stifling atmosphere of McCarthyism. But even during that dark period the spark of topical song was kept alive by such composers as Pete Seeger, Lee Hays, Malvina Reynolds, Ernie Marrs and others. And standing tall behind them, the influence of the giant, Woody Guthrie.

It is against this background that the Phil Ochses, the Dylans, the Chandlers, the Tom Paxtons, the Buffy Sainte-Maries, began working. They have come far in a short time. Phil, only 23, is already being listed in Who's Who; recognition of his poetry also has come from abroad. (The world-famed French poet and novelist, Luis Aragon, paid homage to Phil in his latest volume of poetry). Two years ago, Phil was a student at Ohio State University vitally interested in journalism because he felt he had so many things to say. But his dim experience with the campus press left him unconvinced that there was much freedom of expression in the newspaper world. So he turned to one of the traditional areas where a man can still stand up and say how he feels about things -- folksinging. He began to put his ideas into song.

But songs must have a considerable dimension above and beyond editorials. This is something Phil never loses sight of. As folk music critic Robert Shelton said in a recent New York Times article "(Phil Ochs) is a fighter who uses ridicule and humor as his weapons. He comments in song on Cuba, Vietnam, militarism, civil liberties and civil rights, but with such a flair for lyric-writing that his songs rarely sound like pamphleteering."

"But all is not criticism. He has learned some of Guthrie's patriotic affirmation, especially in 'The Power And The Glory' and 'What's That I Hear?' ... Ochs is a major new writer and singer worth watching."

Another ingredient absolutely essential to good songs is good music. And that you will find too in this songbook of Phil Ochs'. Music critic Josh Dunson, writing in the New York publication BROADSIDE, where Phil's songs -- and those of many of the new young songwriters -- first appeared, says Phil has created "some of the most beautiful tunes produced by topical singers to date. 'Bound For Glory,' the restrained and thoughtful tribute to Woody Guthrie; 'Lou Marsh,' the ballad of the New York Youth Board worker killed last year; and 'The Automation Song,' a deftly painted picture of the plight facing America's working man, all are moving and lasting compositions..." (Incidentally, it is in Phil's song about Woody that many listeners find most comparison to Woody's own songwriting; they in "Bound For Glory" the same spirit which pervades "This Land Is Your Land.")

These songs of Phil's and others in this book are already becoming quite well-known, through the singing of them by professional performers like Joe & Eddie, Joan Baez, Ronnie Gilbert, the New World Singers, and amateur groups and individuals, especially on college campuses, in various parts of the land. Quite a few have also been recorded, by the Goodtime Singers, Pete Seeger, Phil himself on Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 (Folkways), on Vanguard's "New Folks Vol. 2", and his solo Elektra album, "All The News That's Fit To Sing" ("Hey! these are good songs," Pete Seeger said after listening to Phil's L-P).

Phil, like Dylan and the others, is a "working" singer as well as a songwriter, earning a living by performing his own material. He has appeared at Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, has sung the circuit of clubs, haunts and coffeehouses. When he can, he travels for a firsthand look at the things he wants to write songs about; his Hazard, Kentucky, songs came out of several visits to the impoverished miners' families there; on a trip to Atlanta, Ga., he absorbed the feeling behind the Negro people's struggle for freedom.

What we have here is an admittedly condensed sketch of the forthright young American who created the songs in this book. You will get much more of a picture of him from the songs themselves. Read them, sing them, enjoy them, listen and learn from them.

(Mr. Friesen is a contributing editor of the topical folk music publication "BROADSIDE").

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