By Michael F. Scully
Born in 1954, I was too young to have experienced the revival as it occurred. I came to it in early 1968, in a moment that I recall with great clarity. Walking into the living room of my family's home in Queens, New York City, I saw a guitarist on television singing an explicit antiwar song, a type of song that I had never before heard. "Phil Ochs," said my older sister. At the time, I was a precocious thirteen-year-old with an incipient political consciousness and a developing fascination with the growing anti-Vietnam War movement. I fancied myself a fan of Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary, though I knew nothing of the context in which their careers developed, and I did not truly understand Dylan. I had never heard of Ochs but was immediately in awe of him. I quickly purchased his three albums on Elektra Records, which consisted almost entirely of topical songs drawn, as Ochs acknowledged proudly, from the day's headlines.
The song I had heard on television was "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," from the 1965 album of the same name. By the time I discovered it, the tune had become an antiwar anthem, though neither it nor Ochs had enjoyed anything approaching mainstream success. Like almost every song on those three records, its lyric was a straightfoward expression of Ochs' leftist sociopolitical beliefs. As other albums revelaed, Ochs' art was already moving beyond overt political commentary, but the topical explicitness of his earliest work was perfect, in my case, for educating a teenager ready to embrace the language of leftist "movement culture." I listened to those records virtually nonstop in that tumultuous year, 1968, leading my sister to joke that our neighbors, hearing the subversive sounds emanating from my bedroom window, would surely be calling the FBI. Now, whenever I hear someone pose the insoluble question of whether art can truly mold beliefs, I remember that Ochs' lyrical commitment to humanism, pluralism, and genuine democracy shapes my political value system to this day.