There But For Fortune

Album: 5 (1964)
Charted: 8 50

Songfacts®:

  • This was written and originally recorded by the protest singer Phil Ochs, who released it on his album New Folks/Vol. 2 in 1964. Joan Baez covered the song for her album 5, giving her a second hit, following "We Shall Overcome." The song was far more popular in the UK, where Baez had earned a degree of celebrity.
  • The phrase "there but for fortune" is similar to the biblical saying "there but for the grace of God go I." It means our station in life is largely determined by events that are out of our control, often dumb luck. We'd like to think our success is owed to hard work and merit, but in most cases we had some help and got a few breaks along the way. On the other side, a bad turn could land us in dire straits through no fault of our own. The song advocates compassion: When you look at a prisoner, think about the many reasons why he could have ended up in jail, and about how easily it could have happened to you.
  • This is not an anti-war song per se, but it does mention the capricious nature of combat in the lines:

    Show me the country where bombs had to fall
    Show me the ruins of buildings once so tall


    At the time, the Vietnam War was building. Ochs and Baez were both actively protesting it, which was not a popular stance - many felt the Americans needed to intervene in Vietnam to stop the spread of communism.
  • This was the biggest hit Phil Ochs wrote, which surprised him. "I'm amazed that 'Changes' wasn't a hit," he told Bruce Pollock. "'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."

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