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Music / Phil Ochs

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"One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies."

Philip David "Phil" Ochs (December 19, 1940 – April 9, 1976) was an American Singer-Songwriter, famous for his protest songs (or "topical songs", as he liked to call them).

He was the most active during The '60s, when he wrote hundreds of songs, covering many topics, such as The Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and labor rights. After the events of 1968 (the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon) he became increasingly disillusioned and depressed, eventually leading to severe mental illness which drove him to hang himself in 1976.

You can find the lyrics of his songs here.

Studio album discography during Ochs' lifetime:

  • All the News That's Fit to Sing (1964)
  • I Ain't Marching Anymore (1965)
  • Pleasures of the Harbor (1967)
  • Tape from California (1968)
  • Rehearsals for Retirement (1969)
  • Greatest Hitsnote  (1970)

Posthumous albums of unreleased studio material:

  • The Broadside Tapes 1 (1980)
  • A Toast to Those Who Are Gone (1986)
  • On My Way (1963 Demo Session) (2008)

Live album discography during Ochs' lifetime:

  • In Concert (1966)
  • Gunfight at Carnegie Hall (1974)

Posthumous live albums:

  • There and Now: Live in Vancouver 1968 (1990)
  • Live at Newport (recorded at the 1963, 1964 and 1966 Newport Folk Festivals) (1990)
  • Live Again! (recorded 1973) (2014)
  • Live In Montreal, 10/22/1966 (2017)

Tropes present in his life and work:

  • And I'm the Queen of Sheba: "Another Age".
    The dogs are chasing chicken bones
    Across the lawn.
    If that was an election
    I'm a Viet Cong.
  • Apathetic Citizens: "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends".
    Oh, look outside the window, there's a woman being grabbed
    They've dragged her to the bushes and now she's being stabbed
    Maybe we should call the cops and try to stop the pain
    But Monopoly is so much fun, I'd hate to blow the game.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: "Love Me I'm a Liberal" attacks such people, accusing them of supporting fashionable leftist causes but being unwilling to engage in real revolutionary change, as it might threaten their wealth and privilege.
  • Bowdlerisation: Some radio stations cut out the line "Smokin' marijuana is more fun than drinkin' beer" from "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends", even though the rest of the verse doesn't paint a flattering picture of stoners.
  • Corrupt Church: In "Here's to the State of Mississippi":
    And here's to the churches of Mississippi
    Where the cross, once made of silver, now is caked with rust
    And the Sunday morning sermons pander to their lust
    The fallen face of Jesus is choking in the dust
    Heaven only knows in which God they can trust
  • Crapsack World: Mississippi according to "Here's To The State of Mississippi". It is depicted as a state where murder is prevalent, the citizens are apathetic to the killings, the schools teach hatred, the police is brutal and corrupt, the churches are tolerating injustice, the judiciary is morally compromised and so is the government who had left the U.S. Constitution "drowning in an ocean of decay."
  • Deep South: "Here's to the State of Mississippi".
  • Deus Est Machina: Prior to performing "Another Age" on the album There & Now: Live in Vancouver 1968, he remarks, "If God were a computer, undoubtedly he'd blow up the world."
  • Dirty Cop: In "Here's to the State of Mississippi", he depicts the police in Mississippi that way:
    They're chewing their tobacco as they lock the prison door
    And their bellies bounce inside them while they knock you to the floor
    No, they don't like taking prisoners in their private little war
    And behind their broken badges, there are murderers and more.
  • Draft Dodging: In "Draft Dodger Rag", the narrator lists several ridiculous excuses to avoid serving in the military. Silly as they sound in the song, conditions such as asthma, flat feet and (until recently) homosexuality are all likely to keep you out of the US military, even if you volunteer.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: In the '70s, Ochs increasingly turned to alcohol and drugs to ease his depression. It didn't end well.
  • Elvis Impersonator: One misfire was Greatest Hits, Ochs' homage to Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley. He even wore a gold suit like The King, which was interpreted as selling out. Privately, Ochs expressed anxiety about his career, as well as his plans to craft a popular image for himself: Che Guevara meets Elvis. For this reason, many purists abandoned him for prioritizing his own fame over the music, including Bob Dylan. Ochs gives the impression of a man torn between his healthy-sized ambition and his ideals.
  • Epic Rocking: Many of his compositions could get very long. The longest is probably "When in Rome", which exceeds thirteen minutes in its studio version from Tape from California.
  • Folk Music: He was an important figure in the '60s folk revival.
  • Friendly Rival: For a while with Bob Dylan, though as Dylan moved away from folk music and became more successful and Ochs' mental health issues surfaced, their relationship turned into We Used to Be Friends. They reconciled later in Ochs' life, though. He even briefly appears in Dylan's film Renaldo and Clara.
  • Greatest Hits Album: Subverted; see Non-Indicative Name below.
  • Hurricane of Excuses: In "Draft Dodger Rag", the singer gives a rather dubious list of reasons that he cannot join the military.
  • Hypocrite: "Draft Dodger Rag" is about a red-blooded conservative who's all for that war in Vietnam, so long as he doesn't have to go himselfnote , while "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," is about someone who pays lip service to every left-wing cause until it becomes dangerous, distasteful or personally uncomfortable. ("The people of old Mississippi/should all hang their heads in shame,/I can't understand how their minds work./What's the matter, don't they watch Les Crane?/But if you ask me to bus my children/I hope the cops take down your name ....")
  • I Will Fight No More Forever: The ex-soldier from "I Ain't Marching Anymore."
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Ochs covered "Ballad of the Carpenter" (written by Evan MacColl) that presents Jesus as an advocate for the poor workers, who was killed by the rich because of that, and makes no mention of religion.
  • Just Following Orders: Mentioned in his anti-war song "Is There Anybody Here":
    Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame?
    Is there anybody here who wouldn't mind a murder by another name?
  • Lyrical Dissonance:
    • "Outside a Small Circle of Friends," a jaunty ragtime tune about people's apathy towards murder and poverty.
    • "Pretty Smart on My Part".
  • Messianic Archetype: As the title suggests, "Crucifixion" is about one of these, or possibly a cycle of Messianic Archetypes including Christ and John F. Kennedy. "Possibly" because the song as a whole is a bit of a...
  • Mind Screw: His eight-and-a-half minute long allegoric song "Crucifixion", all the more so because of the discordant orchestral music used on the song (arranged by avant-garde composer Joseph Byrd).
  • New Sound Album: Pleasures of the Harbor marked a move from Folk to Pop, but notably more of a baroque style of Pop, rather than Rock.
  • Non-Indicative Name: His 1970 album Greatest Hits wasn't a Greatest Hits Album; it contained only new material. This may have been Self-Deprecation since he hadn't been very commercially successful.
  • Protest Song: Nearly all of his work.
  • Ripped from the Headlines: Ochs (who studied journalism) called himself a "singing journalist" and titled his first album All the News That's Fit to Sing (after the New York Times slogan "All the News That's Fit to Print").
  • Rule-Abiding Rebel: "Love Me I'm a Liberal" is about people who espouse left-wing causes as long they're convenient.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: "Pretty Smart on My Part."
  • Take That!: A common trait of his songs.
  • "The Villain Sucks" Song: In 1972, during Nixon's re-election campaign, Ochs rewrote "Here's to the State of Mississippi" to "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon".
    Oh here's to the land you've torn out the heart of.
    Richard Nixon, find yourself another country to be part of.
  • "When I'm Gone" Song: "When I'm Gone", obviously.