Phil Ochs was born December 19, 1940 and died April 9, 1976. Born in Texas but moved around the country with his family.
He was an American protest singer (or, as he preferred, a topical singer) and songwriter who was known for his sharp wit, sardonic humor, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and distinctive voice. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960s and released eight albums in his lifetime.
None of his tunes became hits. He wasn’t a star much less a falling star.
Ochs was inspired to write “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” by the case of Kitty Genovese, who was stabbed to death outside her home in Queens, New York, while dozens of her neighbors reportedly ignored her cries for help. The song’s refrain, and its title, came from a conversation Ochs had with an acquaintance:
It came out of a chance remark, late at night at a coffeehouse. I was talking to a Canadianguy, and he said, “Oh, I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends.” I said, “What’d you say?” and I picked up a guitar and ZOOM, the chords came right away.
The lyrics of “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends” condemn social apathy by relating different situations that should demand action on the part of the narrator, but in each case the narrator evades responsibility by giving a mundane excuse, and invariably concludes that “I’m sure it wouldn’t interest anybody outside of a small circle of friends”.
The song’s arrangement provides a sharp contrast to its lyrics. For ironic effect Ochs wanted an upbeat arrangement which is almost as memorable as the lyrics of the song.
The arrangement added to the irony of the whole song. Tacky piano played by Lincoln and a banjo and small rhythm section, nothing more. It’s almost like a saloon song you shouldn’t pay any attention to, and the lyric means practically everything in the world.
And just as an aside I was reading an article on bullying recently and realised this tune can apply to that topic as well.
Ochs performed at many political events, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, student events, and organized labor events over the course of his career, in addition to many concert appearances at such venues as New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Politically, Ochs 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, which had a profound effect on his state of mind.
Pipes of Peace by Paul McCartney would fit right in
Little children being born to the world
Got to give them all we can til the war is won
Then will the work be done
Help them to learn (help them to learn)
Songs of joy instead of burn, baby, burn(burn, baby burn)
Let us show them how to play the pipes of peace
Play the pipes of peace
“I’m Going to Say It Now”
This was a song pointedly addressed from the young activists during the Vietnam War era to the adults who sought to keep them in check. While many of the topical items in this song are no longer timely, the overall theme of standing up to authority when that authority errs will likely always resonate:
“It’s hard to read through the rising smoke from the books you’d like to burn / so I’d like to make a promise and I’d like to make a vow / When I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m going to say it now.”
He was willing to stick his neck out and look authority right in the eye.
After years of prolific writing in the 1960s, Ochs’s mental stability declined in the 1970s. He eventually succumbed to a number of problems including bipolar disorder and alcoholism, and took his own life in 1976.
His two main interests, politics and music, soon merged, and Ochs began writing topical political songs.
Ochs described himself as a “singing journalist.”
During 1963, Ochs performed at New York’s Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in hootenannies. He made his first solo appearance at Carnegie Hall in 1966. Throughout his career, Ochs would perform at a wide range of venues, including civil rights rallies, anti-war demonstrations, and concert halls.
During the early period of his career, Ochs and Bob Dylan had a friendly rivalry. Dylan said of Ochs, “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better”. On another occasion, when Ochs criticized one of Dylan’s songs, Dylan threw him out of his limousine, saying, “You’re not a folksinger. You’re a journalist.”
Congresswoman Bella Abzug (Democrat from New York), an outspoken anti-war activist herself who had appeared at the 1975 “War is Over” rally, entered this statement into the Congressional Record on April 29, 1976:
Mr. Speaker, a few weeks ago, a young folksinger whose music personified the protest mood of the 1960s took his own life. Phil Ochs—whose original compositions were compelling moral statements against war in Southeast Asia—apparently felt that he had run out of words.
While his tragic action was undoubtedly motivated by terrible personal despair, his deathis a political as well as an artistic tragedy. I believe it is indicative of the despair many of the activists of the 1960s are experiencing as they perceive a government which continues the distortion of national priorities that is exemplified in the military budget we have before us.
Phil Ochs’ poetic pronouncements were part of a larger effort to galvanize his generation into taking action to prevent war, racism, and poverty. He left us a legacy of important songs that continue to be relevant in 1976—even though “the war is over”.
More than thirty years after his death, Ochs’s songs remain relevant. Ochs continues to influence singers and fans worldwide, many of whom never saw him perform live. There are mailing lists and online discussion groups dedicated to Ochs and his music; websites that have music samples, photographs, and other links; and articles and books continue to be written and published about him.
“When I’m Gone”
After Ochs’ tragic death, “When I’m Gone” proved to be a hugely prophetic tune. In it, he sings about all the beauties and obligations of life. From the glory of sunrises and simplicity of breath to speaking out against injustice, the song talks about seizing the day and living fully for the sake of peace and change:
“Won’t see the golden of the sun when I’m gone / The evenings and the mornings will be one when I’m gone / Can’t be singing louder than the guns when I’m gone / So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Blogophilia week 35.5 – A Falling Star
(Hard, 2pts): Incorporate a Paul McCartney song lyric
(Easy, 1pt): Mention the last thing you had to eat (coffee)
I hope I haven’t offended anyone by the post