Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Man Who Lived What He Sang

So you've heard of Bob Dylan?
Of course.
But have you heard of Phil Ochs?

Like Dylan, he was an uncategorizable folk singer,
a poet with a guitar,
a protester,
a musician.

But unlike Dylan,
who hid his private opinions behind Ray-Ban Wayfarers,
Ochs made his opinions
on political topics
and current events
very obvious.

He called himself a "singing journalist"
and often performed at anti-war or labor rallies.
He admired JFK
and wished he were a mix
of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara...

But it's the music of Phil Ochs
that really sticks with me,
the way it rambles and literally speaks,
not in some vague or dramatic sort of way,
but very plainly.
The lyrics are alliterative, talky, sardonic, witty.
The music jumps, hums, drums, and lulls you into a smiling satisfaction...
only to be bitten by the striking poignancy of his hypocrite-hating words.


You can't listen to Phil Ochs without feeling challenged.
He pushes you to be more humane,
to love more, to be truer, to laugh;
He pricks your conscience
and shouts what too many are too fearful to say.

He didn't shy away from criticizing his country,
and yet he's arguably more patriotic than any of us all who prefer quiet complaints.


One thing he criticizes in his songs most often is war.
Having marched us through America's many battles
through the eyes of the universal soldier, he sings:   "Call it peace or call it treason / call it love or call it reason / but I ain't marching anymore. No, I ain't marching anymore."


In another more honky-tonk song called "Draft-Dodger Rag," he adopts the persona of an eighteen-year-old kid who, though patriotic enough and nothing too atypical, has his share of reasons not to fight. Then again, bouncing around on his guitar, and letting the reasons accumulate becoming more and more ridiculous, Ochs probably intends for us to chuckle at his silly caricature. And then wonder, in the aftermath, What's the point?  Why kill? Why fight? Why hate?

Phil Ochs was also rather vocal about the Civil Rights Movement, and made a lot of people unhappy, singing "Here's to the State of Mississippi."


One of Ochs' songs you should definitely know -- it could be the nation's alternate anthem -- is "The Power and the Glory."

And one of my favorites: "Love Me, I'm a Liberal."
(Listen to it on Grooveshark. I could only find the lyrics.)

And if you have time, there's a documentary of this anti-hero singer-man,
showing at New York's IFC Center among other theaters, called There But For Fortune.

Basically, I love this man.
And want everyone to be more aware of what he did and wrote and sang.
And be inspired.

If you've ever been less than satisfied with the state of the U.S.A.
Then Phil Ochs is the man for you.

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