Phil Ochs

by Bruce Pollock

Through his archive of interviews with songwriting legends, renowned music journalist Bruce Pollock tells their stories in their own words. This is taken from his 1974 interview with Phil Ochs.

Although his life ended in 1976 in a haze of drugs and alcohol and depressive behavior, Phil Ochs was remarkably cogent about himself and his career when I spoke to him in 1974.

"For me songwriting was easy from 1961 to 1966 and then it got more and more difficult," he said. "It could be alcohol; it could be the deterioration of the politics I was involved in. It could be a general deterioration of the country. Basically, me and the country were deteriorating simultaneously and that's probably why it stopped coming.

"Part of the problem was that there was never any pattern to my writing. The point of discipline is to create your own pattern so you can write, and I haven't done that. I always make plans to do that. I'm now 33 and I may or may not succeed. But ever since the late '60s that's constantly on my mind - discipline, training, get it together, clean up your act. I haven't been able to do it yet, but the impulse is as strong as ever. To my dying day I'll always think about the next possible song, even if it's 20 years from now. I'll never make the conscious decision to stop writing."

When he arrived in Greenwich Village, the next possible song was usually about five minutes away, just waiting for the next social or political crisis. Each month at the Sunday Songwriters Workshop held at the Village Gate, crowds of expectant fans lined up to wait for another batch of Ochs' originals, and each month a new edition of instant current events analysis in song form would issue from him.

"This was the period when folk music was on the rise, when John Kennedy had just come in and Fidel Castro had just come in. Those forces just sort of took me over. I mean Kennedy got me superficially interested in politics, and Castro got me into serious politics, socialism, and anti-imperialism. He became the teacher of anti-imperialism of that time period by surviving. And at the same time, I started writing songs. I'll never know why, but out they came. My first regular song was called, 'The Ballad of the Cuban Invasion.' Those early songs were all sort of political, about Freedom Riders, Billy Sol Estes, the AMA. They just came out, no effort, no strain, absolutely no training, just bang-o-songs - one after another, and it lasted from 1961 to 1970."

Ochs began his songwriting career in, of all places, jail. "I was down in Florida and I was arrested for vagrancy. I spent 15 days in jail and somewhere during the course of those 15 days I decided to become a writer. My primary thought was journalism. I'd been to college for two years and I didn't have a major, so in a flash I decided - I'll be a writer, and I'll major in journalism. At school [Ohio State] my roommate was Jim Glover of Jim and Jean. He gave me a few guitar chords and that week I wrote a song. It was the impulse of journalism, you know, you've got to get that story in. The infatuation with folk music and '50s rock, the newness of politics... all fused in my first songs. In school, I had my own paper called The Word, which was a very radical paper, which is where I saw the fundamental weakness of journalism. I had an editorial saying, at the peak of the anti-Castro hysteria, that Fidel Castro is perhaps the greatest man that this century has produced in the Western Hemisphere. And this caused a giant storm, and I was taken off political stories in the local newspaper. So, I saw the way bureaucracy censors people. At the same time, I went to a journalism fraternity meeting where I saw the same people who sacked me swearing an oath of allegiance to Truth. I had one of my first impulses to murder, which I still haven't lost.

"I would sing the songs for Jim right away. I sang with him for six months in a group called the Sundowners. Sort of Bud and Travis stuff, early Seals and Crofts. He loved the songs. After we both quit school we split up. I got a job in a club called Faragher's in Cleveland, which was good training, considering that I'd only been playing a half a year. To go public with new songs at a point when new songs weren't fashionable, before Dylan had entered the scene, was a very tough experience. I was opening act to a lot of really good people like Judy Henske, the Smothers Brothers. Bob Gibson was a big influence on me musically. So, I quickly gained the professionalism onstage. I did my early political songs and a couple of, say, Kingston Trio things thrown in.

"Everybody said go to New York and I figured, well, New York is the tiger's den, I can't go up against those pros. But I went to New York and right away I met Dylan and I said, 'Oh my God, this is the guy!' As soon as I heard him sing his first song I flipped out. And, of course, there were also a good 10 or 15 other people around who wrote songs. At that time songwriting was still unfashionable. I mean it was still the euphoria of ethnic folk or commercial folk. Folk being defined by age, songwriting being defined as pretense. You can't write a folk song, that argument. You can't use it for propaganda. You can't use folk music for politics was also a side argument. The breakthrough was Newport '63, with the Freedom Singers, Dylan, Baez, the songwriter's workshop, where it suddenly became the thing. It moved from the background into the foreground in just one weekend.

"After that I got an album out and I was completely prolific; I was writing all the time. Quickly followed by another album, followed by a concert. My thought throughout this whole period was, all right, here we have the form of a song, how important can a song be? Can it rival a play? Can it rival a movie? Can it make a statement that's as deep as a book? And by making a simple point can it reach more people than a book ever can? I saw it with my own eyes; I sang the songs, they came through me, and I saw they had a political effect on the audience.

"I was writing about Vietnam in 1962, way before the first anti-war marches. I was writing about it at a point where the media were really full of shit, where they were just turning the other way as Vietnam was being built. It was clear to me and some others – I.F. Stone – but The New York Times, CBS, Walter Cronkite, and all those other so-called progressive forces chose to look the other way for several years before they decided it had gone too far. But it had already gone too far back then. People had seen the handwriting on the wall.

"It's always been a question of will it stand the test of time? That was one of the things in the very early days, before Dylan left politics, when he and I were writing political songs. There were two attacks: You can't write folk music, and you can't use folk music for propaganda. Besides, it's topical and it'll be meaningless two years from then. And so, to sing 'Small Circle of Friends' seven years later and still get the same response, gives the lie to that attack. Whether the audience is hearing it for the first or the 15th time it still holds up. It could be nostalgia for some people, but on the other hand, there's some essential truth locked up in that song, and it's locked up to a 13-year-old kid that hears it today for the first time. He responds to it because the truth is there.

"I'd just like to add that I never had anything against Dylan when he stopped writing political songs. In that controversy, I was always completely on his side. The thing that's important about a writer is whether or not he's writing good stuff. It's not important if he's writing politics, leftwing, rightwing, or anything. Is it good, is it great, does it work? When Dylan made the switch, I said he's writing as good or better. And when he made his Highway 61 album I said, this is it, his apex. But after his hiatus, when he came back and made his recent albums, at that point I couldn't go along with Dylan, because he'd reached his heights, and I couldn't accept what I considered lightweight stuff."

During the early-to-mid-'60s, Greenwich Village was a mecca for songwriters, some of them based there, others just passing through, among them Eric Andersen, Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Tom Paxton, Patrick Sky, and Buffy Sainte-Marie. "That period in the Village was incredibly exciting, super-euphoric," Ochs said. "There was total creativity on the part of a great number of individuals that laid the bedrock for the next 10 years. But everything goes in cycles, everything has a life span and I guess this life span just ran out. The important thing to bear in mind in terms of a whole life is, I mean you take a whole life, whether it's 10 years or 60 years and say, what has this person done, what has he accomplished, if anything? He's now dead, what has he left behind him of value? And I think the people who made that contribution in the '60s can rest on that."

Ochs may have been creating his own epitaph with that statement, as his career never reached the heights it did during the heyday. "The old-time songwriters were more trained," he observed. "Everything I wrote was on instinct. There was some sort of psychic force at work in those songs and I don't know what it was. It's a strange way of giving birth; ideas giving birth in song form. And when the songs came they came fast. I don't think I ever spent more than two hours on any one song. Even 'Crucifixion' was done in two hours. But if I liked a song I had total confidence in it and it doesn't matter if people said it's a great song or a lousy song. Hysterical praise or hysterical attacks didn't affect me at all. It's always been between me and my songs, not about the critics, not about the public, not about sales or anything else. 'Crucifixion,' 'Changes,' 'I Ain't Marchin' Anymore,' 'There But for Fortune,' and a couple of songs I liked that the general public didn't, such as 'I've Had Her,' 'Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and Me,' are my personal favorites.

"I'm amazed that 'Changes' wasn't a hit. We've got about 20 recordings on it. Done by Roberta Flack or Anne Murray I'm sure it would be a number one song. 'There But for Fortune' was a hit, but it certainly wasn't written as one. Joan Baez just happened to pick it up and it caught on. I think 'Flower Lady' could catch at any time with the right group. At one time the Byrds were going to do it, that's one of my disappointments. I think if they had done it, it could have been a hit."

If you wanted to guess what Ochs' favorite recording of one of his songs is, you'd be guessing for quite a long time. It's "The Power and the Glory," by the middle-of-the-road crooner and anti-Gay Rights activist Anita Bryant. "She did it on her patriotic record, Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory. It's straight patriotic stuff and it's unbelievable, I mean really incredible. I think if a song has enough meaning it can survive anything."

February 17, 2020
More Legends of Songwriting:
Buffy Sainte-Marie
Paul Simon
Randy Newman

More Songwriting Legends In Their Own Words

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