Sunday, 30 August 2009

Leaders from the 1960s: A Biographical Sourcebook of American Activism

By David DeLeon

The radicals and liberals of the 1960s expressed ideas that continue to both attract and repel people decades later. Nostalgia books relive the Woodstock festival and the protests; past Presidents Bush and Reagan remember the era with unease; and scholars skirmish over the meaning of the period. DeLeon is the first to provide information on activists of the period and their continued activities into the 1990s. With major sections on Racial Democracy, Peace and Freedom, Sexuality and Gender, the Environment, Radical Culture, and Visions of Alternative Societies, the book includes entries on a wide selection of nationally prominent personalities of the 1960s. In addition to those who dominated those years, the volume includes earlier activists who came into prominence in the 1960s and those who have come into the limelight since the 1960s. Each entry provides a biographical sketch, but the focus is on the person's basic concepts or the essence of his or her work or persona and the reponse to these. The volume also includes extensive bibliographies on the individuals and the period.


When Phil was a teenager, the Ochs family moved to Columbus, Ohio. Phil spent his last two years of high school at Staunton (Military) Academy in Virginia, where he played in the band and quickly became, in the words of his buddies, "Mr. Universe." In 1958 he enrolled at Ohio State University, wearing a red jacket similar to that worn by James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. That spring he dropped out of the university, telling his mother he was wasting her money and his time. He headed to Florida in search of singing jobs, worked washing dishes and selling shoes, spent fifteen days in jail (vagrancy), and took the Greyhound bus home. The following fall he returned to Ohio State intent on a journalism major. There he met Jim Glover, who was also interested in music. Glover introduced Ochs to the work of the Weavers, Pete Seeger, and the Legendary Woody Guthrie. Glover's father was a Marxist, and the friendship reinforced the music of Guthrie, the Weavers, and Seeger to turn Ochs's thoughts to the plight of exploited workers and the evils of capitalism. Glover and Ochs became a folk duet, the Sundowners, singing traditional folk songs and topical songs Ochs composed himself. Although Phil was writing extensively for the Ohio State newspaper, The Lantern (columns and musical reviews), he grew quickly dissatisfied with its studied neutrality on hard political and social issues, and founded his own paper, The Word. He also published letters to the editor in commercial newspapers, including the Cleveland Plain Dealer. When The Lantern decided he was too controversial to make a good editor, he left Ohio State, one semester short of graduation, for New York City.

In New York he gravitated naturally to Greenwich Village, to Gerde's Folk City with its Monday talent night. In March 1963 Ochs opened at Gerde's for John Hammond, who also introduced him to Broadside magazine, for which he began to write as he had written for The Word: prolifically and with spirit. "There was no question that Phil was major, from the very outset," Dave Van Ronk recalled. The Bleecker Street apartment of Phil and Alice Ochs became a meeting place visited regularly by virtually every significant Village musician and most visitors to the Village. When folk music achieved national popularity in 1963, Ochs expected - and was expected by others in the Village - to ride its popularity to national fame. But when the popular ABC television program "Hootenanny" passed over Peter Seeger and the Weavers because they "wanted better folk singers," first Joan Baez refused to appear on the program, and then Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton (against the advice of Seeger, who understood better than they the politics of the possible) organized a formal boycott of the program. "Hootenanny" was ultimately cancelled by ABC, thereby aborting the folk flowering on national television and cutting Ochs, and others, off network TV.

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