Phil Ochs 80 years on: his songs still burn bright

Phil Ochs
Phil Ochs would have been 80 in December 2020. Photo: Kenneth Tash-CC-BY-SA-4.0

Here in 2020, 80 years since the birth of a number of singers and musicians – John Lennon, Billy Fury, Tom Jones, Frank Zappa, Chris Farlowe – and in the wake of a fraught US presidential election I ­wonder what Phil Ochs, who took his own life in 1976, would make of this world and what his response in song would be. He would have turned 80 on 19 December.

If you are unfamiliar with Phil the first thing to clear up is the pronunciation of his surname – it is as in Oaks not Ox. He was a contemporary of Bob Dylan, who was just five months younger, and they both inhabited and polished their craft in the coffee houses of Greenwich Village, New York.

Phil pretty much stuck to his journalistic protest songwriting throughout and espoused many causes from Kentucky miners to leftwing Chilean detainees and was heavily involved in the civil rights movement and grassroots politics. He declared The War Is Over at the height of the Vietnam conflict in 1966-67, singing to crowds of 150,000 at mass anti-war rallies in Los Angeles, Washington and Chicago.

He was a regular contributor to Broadside magazine and had a number of albums to his name but commercial success eluded him, though his There But For Fortune was a minor hit for Joan Baez.

His songs, however, have not faded, being sung by artists including Richard Thompson, Billy Bragg and Harvey Andrews. Just this year Martyn Joseph released a whole album of Phil’s music, Days Of Decision. Tribute songs have been written by Tom Paxton and Bragg, with perhaps Andrews’s Song For Phil being the most poignant.

Phil’s sister Sonny keeps his songs alive in North America with annual autumn Phil Ochs song nights. Artists including John Gorka, Pat Humphries and Kim and Reggie Harris are among those who keep the songs and spirit alive.

The 1998 double CD What’s That I Hear?: The Songs Of Phil Ochs on Sliced Bread Records brings many of those artists together singing Phil’s songs with passion and humility.

The superb a cappella US quartet Windborne, who tour the UK, have recorded Phil’s When I’m Gone on their latest album, due for release soon. It is a call to action with its refrain “So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here,” and is usually the closing song at any Phil Ochs song night.

The Wisconsin-based author Michael Schumacher’s biography There But For Fortune: The Life Of Phil Ochs is in my view the best available and the 2011 Kenneth Bowser documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune has some fine footage of Phil in his natural environment, performing to crowds.

Phil has many quotations to his name including: “America is two Mack trucks colliding on a superhighway because all the drivers are on amphetamines” and my ­favourite, “A protest song is a song so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit.”

He was born in El Paso, Texas, on 19 ­December 1940 and died in Far Rockaway, New York, on 9 April 1976, aged just 35.

Phil’s ashes were scattered from the walls of Edinburgh Castle. His mother, Gertrude Phin Ochs, was born in Scotland in 1912 and married Phil’s father, Jacob, an American medical student who was studying to be a doctor in Edinburgh.

This article appeared in Folk London 310, December-January 2020-21