Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs took his life 35 years ago in 1976, during the Bicentennial, at the age of 35. Composer of the patriotic anthem The Power and the Glory - second only to This Land Is Your Land in its melding of the American landscape with a profound identification with its people - Ochs raised the modern protest song to a high art. With such classics as I Ain't Marching Anymore, Draft Dodger Rag and There But for Fortune he became the voice of the antiwar movement; with such classics as Here's To the State of Mississippi, and The Ballad of Medgar Evers he became a voice of the civil rights movement.

He began as one of "Woody's Children" at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village, penning songs as fast as Woody Guthrie had a generation before; when Pete Seeger took him and Bob Dylan up to the offices of Broadside Magazine at the beginning of 1963 to hear songs they had written in just the past two weeks - and which Broadside would be the first to publish - Seeger came away astonished at both their creativity and productivity; he concluded that "Here were two of the greatest songwriters in the world, only no one knows it yet." By the end of 1963 everyone did.

Two years later, when Dylan went electric, Phil Ochs went classical, surrounding new songs like Pleasures of the Harbor and Small Circle of Friends (on the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in broad daylight) with piano accompaniment and orchestral settings. But he also continued his musical and political activism, becoming a founding member of the Yippies at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, and testifying on their behalf at the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial. All of the defendants were acquitted.

But Phil Ochs did not need a conspiracy to organize effective protests against the war in Vietnam; he was a one-man movement who brought together thousands of people in the famed The War is Over demonstration in 1970, inspired by his song of the same title. Unlike his hero James Dean, Phil was a rebel with a cause, and he was not afraid to rebel against even his own fans; at his landmark concert Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, he wore Elvis's gold lame costume and mixed in his favorite Elvis and Buddy Holly songs along with his classic protest material, to the chagrin of his audience, who had come to see a folk singer, not a rock and roll star. So Phil documented the traumatic event in his song Chords of Fame, with the telltale line "God help the troubadour who tries to be a star."

Shortly thereafter, at the threshold of the depression that would eventually take his life, he wrote No More Songs, a brutally honest look at an artist who was coming to the end of the road, after a decade-defining outpouring of songs that - were all the books and speeches of the time to be burned in a Fahrenheit 451 nightmare - would enable historians to reconstruct both its highs of idealism, hope and quest for social justice and its lows of failed dreams and cynical politicians that led to Watergate and Cambodia.

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