Phil Ochs

Phil OchsFrom: El Paso, TX, USA

Phil Ochs was an American singer/songwriter who delved heavily into protest music. He was known for his sharp wit, sardonic humour, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and distinctive voice. Ochs wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s, and released a total of eight albums in his much-too-short lifetime. Ochs took part in many political events, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies. He described himself as a “left social democrat” who became an “early revolutionary” after the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to a police riot. This majorly effected Ochs’ state of mind, changing him forever. Ochs spent the better part of the 1960s writing some of the best protest music. In the 1970s, his mental stability declined, and he eventually succumbed to problems that included bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and he took his own life in 1976.

There were a number of influences on the sound of Phil Ochs and his music. The likes of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Bob Gibson, Faron Young, Merle Haggard, John Wayne, and John F. Kennedy were very important to Ochs.

Phil Ochs was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1940 to parents Jacob and Gertrude Ochs. His parents met and married in Edinburgh, where Jacob (Jack) was attending medical school. After they married, the couple moved to the United States where Jack was drafted into the army and sent overseas at the end of World War II. This experience affected him greatly, and he received an honourable medical discharge in November 1945. Due to Jack’s work, the family moved to Far Rockaway, New York, when Phil was a teenager, then to Perrysburg, where he first studied music. Phil had an older sister, Sonia (Sonny) and a younger brother Michael. Their father was eventually hospitalized for depression, and he died in 1963 from a cerebral hemorrhage.

During his teen years, Ochs was recognized for his talent as a clarinet player. These musical skills allowed him to play clarinet with the orchestra at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Ohio, rising to the status of principal soloist before he was 16 years old. Although he played classical music, Ochs was becoming more interested in the sounds he heard on the radio, such as Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley, as well as country artists Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Sr., and Johnny Cash. Ochs was also a big fan of the movies, and he especially liked stars John Wayne and Audie Murphy. Later on he developed an interest in the works of Marlon Brando and James Dean.

Between 1956 and 1958, Phil Ochs was a student at the Staunton Military Academy in Virginia. He returned to Columbus upon his graduation and enrolled in the Ohio State University. After the first semester, Ochs took a leave of absence, heading off to Florida, where he was jailed for two weeks for sleeping on a park bench. Ochs recalled this moment stating, “Somewhere during the course of those fifteen days I decided to become a writer. My primary thought was journalism … so in a flash I decided—I’ll be a writer and a major in journalism.” Upon his return to Ohio State, Ochs studied journalism and developed a strong interest in politics. He was particularly interested in the Cuban Revolution of 1959.

While at school, Ochs met Jim Glover, another student who was devoted to folk music. Glover introduced Ochs to the likes of Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and The Weavers, and taught him to play guitar. The two also liked to debate politics. Ochs began to write newspaper articles, often times very radical pieces. The student paper refused to publish his work, so Ochs started his own underground paper called The Word. His interests in music and politics soon formed together, and Ochs began writing songs. He and Glover formed a duet called the Singing Socialists, later changing their name to The Sundowners. However, the duo split before their first professional performance and Glover moved to New York to become a folk singer.

By the early 1960s, Ochs’ career began to take off. He went to New York in 1962 and began performing in a number of small folk nightclubs, soon becoming an integral part of the Greenwich Village folk music scene. Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist,” saying he built his songs around stories he read in Newsweek. In 1963, he was invited to perform at the Newport Folk Festival, where he sang “Too Many Martyrs,” a song that was co-written with Bob Gibson, “Talking Birmingham Jam,” and “Power and the Glory.” Ochs was invited back in 1964, but not in 1965, the year Bob Dylan played “Maggie’s Farm” during his infamous electric set. While Dylan was widely criticized for this move, Ochs admired his courage in defying the establishment.

Phil Ochs’ first three albums were recorded for Elektra Records: All the News That’s Fit to Song (1964), I Ain’t Marching Anymore (1965), and Phil Ochs In Concert (1966). According to critics, each of these albums was better than the one that came before it, and it seemed that the public agreed, as sales increased with each new release. During the early part of his career, Ochs had a friendly rivalry with Bob Dylan. Dylan once said “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better.” However, on one occasion, Ochs criticized one of Dylan’s songs, and Dylan threw him out of his limousine and said “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.” At this stage in Ochs career, he was managed by Albert Grossman, also the manager of Bob Dylan. Grossman was followed by Arthur Gorson.

In 1967, Ochs left Elektra for A&M Records, moving to California. He was now managed by his brother Michael. He recorded another four albums for A&M, including the ironically named Greatest Hits (1970), an album that was made up of entirely new material. On the A&M albums, Ochs moved away from the simplistic approach of his previous releases, experimenting more with ensembles and orchestral instrumentation. This new direction was not welcomed by critic Robert Christgau of Esquire. None of Ochs’ songs became big hits, but his music spoke to many people, and his albums sold relatively well.

As time went on, Ochs continued to identify with the counterculture crowd, partaking in many of the rallies and peace gatherings that took place. In the mid-1970s, Ochs’ health was deteriorating at a rapid pace. He started drinking more and more, and he became increasingly erratic. He ultimately took his own life in 1976. Phil Ochs will always be remembered as one of the most prolific artists of the folk revival. ~Wikipedia

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Tracks played on Psychedelicized…

From the 1965 album I Ain’t Marching Anymore
I Ain't Marching Anymore

  • I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore