Posted by: David Harley | October 24, 2015

For Phil Ochs


For Phil Ochs: copyright David Harley, 1977

Rough demo: vocal needs redoing completely when (if) my voice recovers from present croakiness, and guitars could be improved. But at least the tune is now out there.

Groping through the wavebands for a time-check
On a local music station I caught the tail end of the news
Of a singer in New York who’d committed suicide
Too late to catch the name, still I knew that it was you

The way that bad news comes as no surprise
Though till you hear it, you can’t think what could be wrong
In fact I thought of you just the week before
For the first time in years when someone asked me for a song
I’d learned from you

I don’t know how to define what you mean to me now
I never met you, of course, and I don’t sing your songs
Though I did long ago and even now, in a way
There are things I learned from you in songs of my own

I first heard your songs second-hand – the sweeter ones, of course
and bought an album on spec that raised blisters on my soul
In an era where ‘protest’ meant ‘hey man, it’s all wrong’
You were raising real issues and aiming at real goals

And I heard that you’d dried up, or did you just let it pass?
Did you find songs weren’t the weapon we were told that they could be?
No doubt someone has some answers but I’ll never really know
If you just decided snapshots don’t alter history

I’ve been thinking for hours there should be better songs to write
But thinking just makes circles in my head
There’s just a vague ache where my conscience ought to be
And a sour conviction that something true is dead

Only time will tell if I’m repeating your mistakes
Perhaps you’d have survived turning redneck like your peers
The romantics seem to be the real cynics after all:
Could it be the escapists really have the right idea?

And did you just decide living was a bind?
Slops for the body and musak for the mind?

Phil Ochs hanged himself in April 1976, after several very troubled years. Michael Schumacher suggested in his biography that “By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.” [The strangling took place when he was travelling in Tanzania – the assault left him with his vocal range seriously reduced. For some months in 1975 he told people that he was John Butler Train, saying that he’d killed and replaced Phil Ochs.]

The lyric is fairly literal. I did hear the ‘tail end of the news’ on a local station in Berkshire, where I was living at the time. The ‘song I’d learned from you’ was Ewan MacColl’s Ballad of the Carpenter, which I still sing from time to time, and the album I bought was “I ain’t marching any more“. (I often sing the song of that name and go straight into this song – or did when I performed regularly.) At the time I bought it, I was only aware of a couple of his songs sung by others, notably Joan Baez – whose version of ‘There but for fortune’ had made the UK top ten – and ‘Changes’, which I think I first heard sung by Julie Felix. The album actually has a wider range of material than the topical/’protest’ label might indicate, with a couple of the verse settings he did so well and the descriptive song ‘Hills of West Virginia’, as well as the searing ‘Talking Birmingham Jam’ and the darkly comical ‘Draft Dodger Rag’.

Ochs didn’t exactly ‘go redneck’ but his later concerts did reflect an urge to get the attention of the public by mixing his own material with covers of older rock and country material, and I certainly preferred at that time the straightforward topical material of ‘Marching’ and ‘All the news that’s fit to sing’ to the more self-consciously poetic material like ‘Crucifixion ‘. But there may be a hint there that I was already aware that the very English school of socially and historically aware singer-songwriter that I was loosely aligned to (Bill Caddick, Peter Bond et al) was already outgrowing its one-voice-one-guitar roots.

David Harley
Small Blue-Green World
ESET Senior Research Fellow

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