Saturday, 24 January 2009

For the Hell of It: The Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman

by Jonah Raskin

Long before their plans became finalized, Abbie and Jerry--now an inseparable movement duo--were publicizing Chicago as well as promoting themselves. Folksinger Phil Ochs interrupted a Carnegie Hall performance to invite them on stage to announce the demonstration. "Fuck Lyndon Johnson, fuck Robert Kennedy, and fuck you if you don't like it," Abbie shouted. The Carnegie Hall management cut the power, leaving the hall in darkness.

Abbie, Jerry, and their friends also took part in Phil Ochs's "War Is Over" demonstration in New York on November 25. Allen Ginsberg, America's poet-legislator, had urged that peace activists should "simply declare the war over." He inspired Phil Ochs, who'd been singing protest songs for most of the decade, to write the song "The War Is Over," with its refrain: "I declare the war is over / It's over." On November 25 Ochs met with demonstrators in Washington Square Park, sang his song, and then led a march up Fifth Avenue to Times Square. The war in Vietnam, he explained, was "only a figment of our propagandized imagination, a psychodrama out of 1984." George Orwell's fantasy had become a reality. If enough people saw the war as an illusion and refused to believe it, then the war would really end, Ochs suggested.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Behind the Songs: Ballad of Oxford (Jimmy Meredith)

"There was hate, cold hate, in their hearts,
Shot from their souls like a gun
And as they threw their stones and bricks,
They screamed, 'See what you have done!'"
--Phil Ochs, "Ballad of Oxford (Jimmy Meredith)"

An American Insurrection: James Meredith and the Battle of Oxford, Mississippi, 1962

In 1961, a black veteran named James Meredith applied for admission to the University of Mississippi — and launched a legal revolt against white supremacy in the most segregated state in America. Meredith’s challenge ultimately triggered what Time magazine called “the gravest conflict between federal and state authority since the Civil War,” a crisis that on September 30, 1962, exploded into a chaotic battle between thousands of white civilians and a small corps of federal marshals. To crush the insurrection, President John F. Kennedy ordered a lightning invasion of Mississippi by over 20,000 U.S. combat infantry, paratroopers, military police, and National Guard troops.

Based on years of intensive research, including over 500 interviews, JFK’s White House tapes, and 9,000 pages of FBI files, An American Insurrection is a minute-by-minute account of the crisis. William Doyle offers intimate portraits of the key players, from James Meredith to the segregationist Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, to President John F. Kennedy and the federal marshals and soldiers who risked their lives to uphold the Constitution. The defeat of the segregationist uprising in Oxford was a turning point in the civil rights struggle, and An American Insurrection brings this largely forgotten event to life in all its drama, stunning detail, and historical importance.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Nameless Bodies You Will Find

It was the wrong body. The finding of a negro male was noted and forgotten. The search was not for him. The search was for two white youths and their negro friend.

--CBC documentary, 1964
While the FBI searched for the bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner in 1964 (the infamous "Mississippi Burning" case), they uncovered the bodies of two black youths who had been murdered in a separate crime. Underlining the racial element to the two cases, the former case with two of the victims being white, received major media attention, while the latter was soon forgotten. Phil Ochs wrote of the latter in "Here's to the State of Mississippi": "If you drag her muddy rivers, nameless bodies you will find." The case was the subject of the documentary film Mississippi Cold Case.

From Democracy Now (September 10, 2008):

Here in the United States, a federal appeals court has overturned the conviction of a former Ku Klux Klan member sentenced to life in prison for his role in the murder of two black teenagers in 1964. James Ford Seale was convicted last year after the case was reopened after more than four decades. He was first arrested shortly after the killings, but the charges were thrown out after the FBI turned the case over to local authorities. On Tuesday, a three-judge panel ruled Seale should never have been tried, because a five-year statute of limitations on kidnapping-related charges had expired. Seale had been thought dead but was discovered by the brother of one of the victims. During the trial, Seale’s cousin Charles Marcus Edwards testified he and Seale had abducted and attacked the black teenagers. Edwards said Seale and other Klansmen then drove the teenagers across the Louisiana border. They put duct tape over their mouths and dumped them into the Mississippi River alive. The victims, Henry Hezekiah Dee and Charles Eddie Moore, were both nineteen years old. Their bodies were found about two months later, when authorities were conducting an intensive search for slain civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Behind the Songs: Do What I Have to Do

"Oh, I'm afraid of trouble, yes I'm afraid of jail
But I'm more afraid, lord, not to try
More afraid of what happens, now, if we fail
What happens now if we fail"
--Phil Ochs, "Do What I Have to Do" (1964)

Sing for Freedom: The Story of the Civil Rights Movement Through Its Songs

This 2007 volume of civil rights songs--issued appropriately in the seventy-fifth anniversary year of the Highlander Folk Center--was originally two books. The first, We Shall Overcome, was published in 1963 when the civil rights movement was in full bloom. Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Emmett Till's murder (1955), the Montgomery bus boycott (1955-56), and the Little Rock school crisis (1957-58) were still fresh in the nation's consciousness. And the student sit-in movement, the Freedom Rides, the early stirrings of voter registration, and the major SCLC campaigns in cities like Albany, Birmingham, and St. Augustine were still happening as Guy and Candie Carawan collected the songs they and others were singing in protests, demonstrations, mass meetings, conferences, and jails across the South.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

Gunfight at Carnegie Hall

Gunfight At Carnegie Hall was Phil Ochs' final album, comprising songs recorded at the infamous, gold-suited, bomb-threat shortened first set at Carnegie Hall in New York City on March 27, 1970, though it contains less than half of the actual concert. The shows recorded that day served to surprise Ochs' fans, from his gold lamé Nudie suit modeled after Elvis Presley's to his covers of Presley, Conway Twitty, Buddy Holly and Merle Haggard songs, to his own re-arranged songs. Some attendees at the show were unhappy with the music he was playing, wanting only to hear "old" Ochs, but before he had a chance to convince them, the concert was cut short by a telephone bomb threat. Some angry fans — who had paid for a full concert — confronted Phil at a between-show dinner, and he took their names, promising to get them into the second show for free. But the box office was locked — Ochs smashed the glass, severely cutting his thumb. Breaking into the lockbox was the last straw. While they let Ochs perform the second show, he was immediately afterwards banned from performing at the venue permanently. He appeared onstage at the second show with a bandaged hand, telling the audience the story.

On the Gunfight album, before performing a medley of Buddy Holly songs, Ochs gives an introduction where he describes Holly's influence on the songs he would become famous for, like "I Ain't Marching Anymore." Ochs says that these songs were "just as much Phil Ochs as anything else." When some of the audience shout and boo after this set, Ochs admonishes them to "not be like Spiro Agnew," saying that their prejudice against certain forms of music was bigotry: "You can be a bigot from all sides. You can be a bigot against Blacks; you can be a bigot against music." Many in the audience cheer this sentiment.

The second show, starting at midnight, went on for over three hours - when Carnegie Hall cut the power to the mics while Ochs was performing a medley of Elvis songs, Ochs shouted out and the remaining audience started chanting "We want power!" until the mics were turned back on. (Though the Gunfight album is comprised of performances from the first show, the chant from the second show is included.) Many loyal fans remained to the very end of the concert, cheering and dancing, enjoying this chance to share what was felt to be an historic moment with Ochs.

Ochs begged his then-label, A&M to release an album of his gold-suited Carnegie Hall concerts in late 1970. They refused, and it languished for four years in the vaults until the label relented, releasing fifty minutes of material, mostly the covers (four of sixteen originals performed were released, compared to five of seven covers). The album's release, however, came with a catch. It was only released in Canada, and Americans had to wait twenty-plus years to see an American release. It appeared on compact disc in 2000, strangely packaged with Rehearsals For Retirement in a two-disc set. There is no talk of a release of either show, though an additional cover, Chuck Berry's "School Days" appeared on the 1997 British anthology, American Troubadour and an acoustic version of "Crucifixion" was released on the 1976 compilation Chords Of Fame and later on the 1997 box set Farewells & Fantasies. Bootleg copies, however, of the entire second show have been known to be traded among fans. Ochs had been drinking between sets, and his voice was not in as good shape as it had been for the first show, though the between-song patter gives many insights into his frame of mind and the motives behind Greatest Hits and the subsequent gold-suited shows.

Track listing

1. "Mona Lisa" (Ray Evans, Jay Livingston) – 3:49
2. "I Ain't Marching Anymore" (Phil Ochs) – 4:23
3. "Okie From Muskogee" (Roy Burris, Merle Haggard) – 2:49
4. "Chords of Fame" (Ochs) – 4:49
5. "Buddy Holly Medley : Not Fade Away / I'm Gonna Love You Too / Think It Over / Oh, Boy! / Everyday / It's So Easy / Not Fade Away" (Charles Hardin, Norman Petty, Joe B. Maudlin, N. Sullivan, Sonny West, Bill Tilghman, Jerry Allison) – 7:18
6. "Pleasures Of The Harbor" (Ochs) – 5:59
7. "Tape From California" (Ochs) – 5:09
8. "Elvis Medley : My Baby Left Me / Ready Teddy / Heartbreak Hotel / All Shook Up / Are You Lonesome Tonight? / My Baby Left Me" (Arthur Crudup, R. Maralasco, Robert Blackwell, Jerry Leiber, Mike Stoller, Otis Blackwell, Roy Turk, Lou Handman, – 10:12
9. "A Fool Such As I" (B. Trader) – 2:00

Group Members

* Phil Ochs - guitar, vocals
* Bob Rafkin - guitar, backing vocals
* Lincoln Mayorga - piano
* Kenny Kaufman - bass, backing vocals
* Kevin Kelley - drums

Behind the Songs: Spanish Civil War Song

"And don't forget the churches and the sad role that they played
They crucified their people and worked the devil's trade
But now the wounds are healing with the passing of time
So we send them planes and rifles and recognize their crime"
--Phil Ochs, "Spanish Civil War Song" (1963)

The Spanish Civil War

A masterpiece of the historian's art, Hugh Thomas's The Spanish Civil War remains the best, most engrossing narrative of one of the most emblematic and misunderstood wars of the twentieth century. Revised and updated with significant new material, including new revelations about atrocities perpetrated against civilians by both sides in this epic conflict, this "definitive work on the subject" (Richard Bernstein, The New York Times) has been given a fresh face forty years after its initial publication in 1961. In brilliant, moving detail, Thomas analyzes a devastating conflict in which the hopes, dreams, and dogmas of a century exploded onto the battlefield. Like no other account, The Spanish Civil War dramatically reassembles the events that led a European nation, in a continent on the brink of world war, to divide against itself, bringing into play the machinations of Franco and Hitler, the bloodshed of Guernica, and the deeply inspiring heroics of those who rallied to the side of democracy. Communists, anarchists, monarchists, fascists, socialists, democrats--the various forces of the Spanish Civil War composed a fabric of the twentieth century itself, and Thomas masterfully weaves the diffuse and fascinating threads of the war together in a manner that has established the book as a genuine classic of modern history.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Behind the Songs: Ballad of John Henry Faulk

"His wife and children trembled, the time was runnin' short,
When a man of law got on their side and took them into court,
And there upon the stand they could not hide behind their eyes,
And the cancer of the fascist was displayed before our eyes"
--Phil Ochs, "Ballad of John Henry Faulk" (1963)

John Henry Faulk: The Making of a Liberated Mind

Austin writer Michael C. Burton has produced the first biography of this celebrated humorist, folklorist, raconteur and champion of the First Amendment. The author conducted extensive interviews with Faulk, and with family and friends, including Studs Terkel, Lee Grant and Pete Seeger; and received counsel from Faulk's close friends such as Austin humorist Cactus Pryor. The author concentrates on Faulk's formative years in South Austin in the twenties when, as son of a well-known and eccentric attorney, he associated more with his poor black neighbors and rather earthy cedar choppers than the middle-class members of the Methodist church. John Henry came under the influence of J. Frank Dobie and John Lomax at the University of Texas, where he was encouraged to develop his native ability for folklore. After World War II, when he served in the Merchant Marines, the Red Cross and finally was accepted into the Army, he began to fine tune his talents as a humorist and folklorist. His first big break came when Alan Lomax, who worked for CBS Radio in New York, introduced him to radio executives. From disc jockey to radio host and later a television personality, Faulk's career skyrocketed. But when the Un-American Activities Committee and Senator McCarthy ushered in the notorious "Hollywood blacklist," John Henry was caught in the crossfire. His eventual lawsuit exonerated him, but the damage had been done. His return to Austin to rebuilt the shambles, his stint on the Hee-Haw series, and his continued fight as a champion of the First Amendment are chronicled in the closing chapter. His grand finale, from 1986 to 1989, was "Pear Orchard, Texas," a revised version of his "Deep in the Heart" one-man play. He had already established his legacy by the time of his death in 1990.