Monthly Archives: April 2012

Songs Of Innocence – Part Two – “Scenes of my young years…”



Scot. And Anglo-Irish

Expr. Regret, irritation etc

 – Shorter English Dictionary

Despite leaving Europe for the USA out of a need to escape oppression and seek prosperity, the Ochs family neverthless kept running into those same problems that they sought to escape.

Which is why they Jack Ochs ended up in Scotland. And for Phil Scotland retained a certain something that would stay with him throughout his life.

Scotland, the place of his mother’s youth, spent in comfort and luxury. The country that welcomed his father when the educators of his home state shunned him. The country of his sister Sonny’s birth. The setting for (according to Marc Eliot at least) Phil’s favourite movie, Tunes Of Glory. The origin of what Phil once claimed was his favourite song, My Bonnie Laddies Lang A-Growing. The place where Phil’s ashes were scattered, from a turret of Edinburgh Castle, while a pipe band played The Flowers of the Forest;

“I’ve seen the smiling of fortune beguiling,

I’ve tasted her favours and felt her decay,

Sweet was her blessing, kind her caressing,

But now they are fled, fled far away”

In an interview with Izzy Young in 1968 at the Folklore Centre in New York City after his return from the chaos and trauma of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, (in the interview during which Phil stated “I’ve always tried to hang onto the idea of saving the country, but at this point I could be persuaded to destroy it”) Phil was asked;

“…But how can you be an enemy of America in America? What can you do? Sabotage?

Phil: No, not that. I might leave the country…I might go back to Scotland”


Upon his return to New York City, with his young wife and child in tow,  Phil’s father Jack struggled to find work. They lived in New York City, then Columbus, New Mexico (where they were living when Phil, named after his mother’s grandfather, was born) then onto San Antonio and Austin, Texas.

Jacob ‘Jack’ Ochs

When Jack was called up he moved the family back to New York City, and was then shipped out to Europe. His family’s struggle in his absence (now including another son, Michael) pale in comparison with what Jack had to endure. He was posted to Belgium and served a medical officer during the Ardennes Offensive, the so-called Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle fought by American troops during the Second World War. Fought during the winter months on 1944 and 1945 it was also the Nazi’s final, desperate, major offensive of the war, an attempt to destabilise the Allied forces unity and capture the city port of Antwerp, a major Allied supply route. During fierce battles in the bitterly cold winter months, some 10,000 Allied troops, mostly American, and some 12,000 Nazi troops, lost their lives. However, by 1945 the Nazis could no longer withstand such losses. Victory at the The Battle of the Bulge ensured that the Allies could finally believe that the Nazi war effort was coming to an end.

Behind the scenes of the battle was extreme tension between British and American troops, characterised by a falling out between General George Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery, who Patton called “that cocky little limey fart”. It is somewhat ironic that Patton, a great hero of the Second World War and of The Battle of the Bulge in particular, should be such an anti-Semite. The kind of anti-Semite who wrote in his diaries that Holocaust surviving displaced Jews were “lower than animals”.

As a medical officer Jack was at the heart of The Battle of the Bulge. He left the army with an honourable discharge, but a shadow of his former self. Soon after returning to his family he left them again, spending the best part of two years at a mental hospital in Long Island and would forever suffer bouts of serious mental ill-health. In February 1947 his family retreated to Edinburgh, and for the second time the city offered refuge to members of the Ochs family.

They travelled by ship, through the icy waters of the Atlantic, offering an uncomfortable reality to the kind of sea-bound adventures that would later spur Phil’s imagination via the silver screen. The four of them, Gertrude and her three children, spent the best part of the six months in Edinburgh. For four months Phil attended Liberton Primary School (motto, at least it is the motto now, Nil Penna Sed Usus – Not the pen but its use), in the village of Liberton, in the south Edinburgh foothills, since demolished and rebuilt in 1954.

After six months in Scotland the family again headed west, back to Rockaway and a reunion with Jacob. Evidence of Phil’s six months in Britain, and of having a British parent is scant in his songs, save for a very un-American usage of the word pavement in In The Heat Of The Summer, I’m Tired and City Boy. Whatever profound effect one might attribute to Phil’s stay in Scotland however, it is worth bearing in mind that he was only seven!

A return to the States brought with a return to Jacob’s nomadic search for meaningful employment, moving from Rockaway to Perrysburg in upstate New York (population less than 500) and finally to Columbus, Ohio, the second Columbus that the Ochs’ called home and the one where they finally settled. It is Columbus that Phil sings of in Boy In Ohio, where the buckeye sun shone in the Buckeye state.

It was whilst in Perrysburg, or rather at school in nearby Gowanda, that Phil took up the clarinet. Never the sexiest of instruments (it is after all the instrument of choice of Woody Allen) it is often a stepping stone towards the far sexier saxophone. Not for Phil though, who apparently excelled at it. It was because of his trusted clarinet that in 1956 Phil chose to enrol at Staunton Military Academy in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia (motto Truth, Duty, Honor), as his mother’s choice, Columbus Academy, didn’t have a marching band.

It does seem odd – Phil Ochs, the protest king enrolled at a military academy, advertising itself as “An ideal home school for manly boys”. Former Staunton superintendent Colonel W. Crawford Moon wrote that;

“For decades Staunton Military Academy (SMA) was the most prestigious military preparatory school in the world. The entire program exceeded infinitely all others at its level. SMA’s magnificent array of alumni attests to the substance of its program.”

Sitting proudly alongside Phil in that “magnificent array of alumni” are Johnny Ramone (of The Ramones) and Lou DiGaimo (the casting director for films such as The Godfather and Rain Man as well the producer of Donnie Brasco, the story of another Staunton alumnus FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone) and somewhat less proudly, the drummer from 70’s metal band Bang!.

William Haines

Another Staunton graduate, William Haines, a native of Staunton, starred in numerous silent-era movies alongside the like of the better known Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford, though at the time he was often regarded (according to IMDB at any rate) as the “#1 male box office draw”. Like so many others however, his career suffered after the end of the silent era. Before his career nosedived completely it came to a crashing stop thanks to Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer (The second M in M.G.M). Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum, leave his lover, James Shields, and enter into a sham-marriage, or wave goodbye to Hollywood. Haines chose love, and Haines and Shields, described by Joan Crawford as the “happiest married couple in Hollywood”, were still together when Haines died of lung cancer in 1973. They lie together in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetary. Haines is now hailed as the first openly gay Hollywood star and like so many who stick to their principles, paid a price. His name lives on however through William Haines Designs, the interior design business he established when Hollywood cast him aside.

Phil left Staunton with more confidence than he arrived at it. It was at Staunton that Philip Ochs became Phil Ochs. At Staunton he’d been turned onto country music, hearing for the first time the songs that would later fill his set-lists. Phil’s sets at Gerde’s Folk City in New York in 1975 were filled with country tunes, with his own songs lost amongst those that took him back to Staunton and the hills of the Shenandoah Valley (the home of Patsy Cline, no less). Phil spoke of himself in his youth being “just an American nebbish*, being formed by societal forces…I was into country and western music. I memorized all these songs, my music teacher being the radio. There was Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Faron Young…” (* Nebbish means someone who is shy and timid.)

Phil’s last ever performance, in front of an audience, was at Gerde’s Folk City in October 1975, some five months before his death, comprised of The Carter Family’s much-covered Jimmy Brown The Newsboy, Hank Williams’ Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals (“…will break your heart someday”) and Irving Gordon’s Two Brothers (The Blue and the Gray), tail ended by Bob Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune;

Lay down your weary tune, lay down, Lay down the song you strum

And rest yourself beneath the strength of strings no voice can hope to hum”.

“…and then I really fell for the Elvis image”. However successful the likes of Hank Williams and Faron Young were, however inspiring they may have been, not just for Phil but for countless American youths, they retained a certain earthiness. Elvis, on the other hand, was a star. Philip Ochs, The “nebbish”, played the clarinet and watched movies. Phil Ochs listened to Elvis Presley, wanted to be a star and got his nose fixed.

You read that right, Phil Ochs got a nose job.




Songs Of Innocence – Part One- “They’ve done this before…”

“Youth of delight come hither

And see the opening morn,

Image of truth new-born.”

 – William Blake

Mr and Mrs Ochs’ parents left Germany separately, though for all too similar reasons. Like many liberal Jews they sought safety, away from the autocratic rulers of Germany and headed west. Perhaps their shared experiences drew them together when they met in Natchez, Mississippi. Two years later, in Nashville, Tennessee, they married and soon after headed north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they started a family, before heading south again, to Knoxville, Tennessee.

It was in Knoxville that their eldest son, at the age of only eleven, with dreams of becoming a journalist, began working as an office boy for the Knoxville Chronicle. At the age of 19 he borrowed $250 to buy a controlling stake in the Chattanooga Times. At the age of 36, again with borrowed money, he bought into the New York Times, giving it the motto, ‘All the News That’s Fit To Print’, transforming it from a struggling paper to a paper with a circulation of over 300,000. Adolph Ochs’ great grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher of the Times, ensures that the name Ochs remains synonymous with that great old newspaper.

Try as he might, Phil Ochs could never find any link between his family of Ochs’s and The New York Times Ochs’s.

Jewish demonstration against Russian oppression, Mlawa 1904

Phil’s father Jacob’s parents’ families left the same northern Polish town of Mława and settled in New York City’s Lower East Side.  The long Jewish history of Mława is riddled with persecution, documented beautifully in 1949 by Dr. Ze’ev Jonis in his work Jewish Mława; It’s History, Development, Destruction. He tells of a segregated existence between Jews and Gentiles, interspersed with periods of hostility. He tells of early Jewish communities having no say at all in the running of the town, before slowly gaining influence. The Russian rule from 1795 became ever more anti-Semitic, the anti-Semitism which must have been a major factor in Jacob Ochs’ parents migration to the USA.

Jewish life in Mława continued, problematically in the Ochs’s absence. Ironically, given the events that would follow, the entry of German troops into Mława in 1914, in pursuit of fleeing Russian troops, brought greater freedoms to the people of the town, with the Germans welcomed as liberators, especially by the one-third of the town who were Jewish. One consequence of these freedoms however was an upsurge in Polish (Gentile) run shops, resulting in a boycott of the once-thriving Jewish-run shops. This anti-Jewish prejudice would pale against the events later in the century.

The website, within its pages documenting the Jewish people of Mława, contains a photograph of the staff and editorial board of the Agudat Yisrael (the political party representing orthodox Jews) newspaper Undzer Tribune, undated but presumably from the early part of the Twentieth century. Each man on the photo is numbered 1-13, each identified by Moshe Peles, Chairman of the Mława Organisation in Israel in April 1999. Of the thirteen one man remains unidentified, one was living in Los Angeles, one died in the USA, three died in Israel and the other six perished in the Holocaust.  According to the Mława Remembrance Initiative over 7000 Jews from Mława were murdered during the Holocaust.


The relative safety of New York City however brought with it its own travails. Jacob’s father ran a grocery store, not dissimilar, one would imagine, to the one run by Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud’s terrific novel The Assistant. In Malamud’s book there is a conflict between the necessities of business and the Bober families struggle to maintain their Jewish identity. By the time Phil was growing up, as Marc Eliot notes in his book Death Of A Rebel, “being Jewish meant nothing to [the Ochs children], other than getting off school for the Jewish holidays”.  What the Ochs’s and the Bober’s lacked in prosperity, they made up for in a kind of stoic dignity borne of strong will and self-preservation.

In 1914, as German troops entered their home town, Fanny and Joe Ochs moved their young family away from New York City to Rockaway Beach in the borough of Queens, New York, having branched out from grocery store owner to building bungalows. Rockaway Beach retains an aura within pop-culture far separate from the very real place that two generations of Ochs’s called home. Thanks to The Ramones it is a place that symbolises escape, escape from the oppressive heat of a New York City summer, a place of sanctuary for the beach-loving Dee-Dee Ramone;

“It’s not hard not far to reach/

We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach”.

Gertrude Ochs, nee Phin

In the early part of the 1900’s Rockaway Beach changed from a rather up-market neighbourhood, to a more open area, a place for average New Yorkers to day-trip and summer, amongst the arcades and trestle boardwalks. By the time The Ramones wrote about it so evocatively it had fallen into disrepair, a shadow of its former self, a place where, according to Nancy Trejos of The Washington Post, “crime and drugs were almost as ubiquitous…as hot dogs and French fries”. Rockaway couldn’t compete with moneyed and modernised amusements at Coney Island and Jones Beach. Perhaps it is fitting that it was there, in his sister Sonny’s place, the year before The Ramones released their ode to Rockaway, that Phil Ochs took his life.

Whatever relative prosperity enabled the Ochs family to head out of the city to Far Rockaway was still something of a shock to Gertrude, Phil’s mother. The daughter of middle class comfort, she had grown accustomed to the comforts afforded by her father’s tobacco business in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to Michael Schumacher’s book There But For Fortune, she took some persuading that Jack Ochs, this excitable young American was husband material. Not so her parents. Handsome, Jewish, medical student…he fit the bill. And the stories he told of his family’s bungalow by the sea, the glamour of New York, the possibilities afforded by life in the U.S.A…

The site of Phil’s grandfather’s tobacco shop in 2011, now a charity shop

Jewish American medical students were hardly a rarity in Edinburgh in the 1930’s. In 1933 some 2052 American medical students were studying abroad, mostly in Scotland and Switzerland. Of these, 90% were Jewish; a direct consequence of the Jewish quota at work in American medical colleges, known as ‘Numerous Clausus’, for the sake of wrapping prejudice in fancy sounding language. According to Leon Sokoloff’s study the quota system, unofficial of course, derived from a “wide perception that the country had too many Jewish medical students and that the ‘racial imbalance’ should be controlled”. In 1934, for example, The Association of American Colleges reported that more than 60% of applicants to American medical colleges were Jewish. Between 1920 and 1940 at least half of medical students at New York University and the Long Island College of Medicine, the most likely places for Jack Ochs to have applied, were Jewish. Sokoloff states that “the administration of the city colleges literally discouraged prospective candidates from applying to medical school”.

Between 1902 and 1931, as the standards for the teaching of medicine in American universities were tightened, the numbers of medical school in the U.S. dropped from 162 to 76. Colleges were forced into limiting the number of successful applicants, regardless of ability. College application forms began asking for information regarding religion or ‘racial origin’ and when these proved controversial, ‘mother’s maiden name’. W.S Ladd, the dean of Cornell University Medical College admitted in April 1940 that “we limit the numbers of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state”.

According to Sokoloff, “Scottish [medical] schools had advantages beyond their historical religious tolerance: they did not require learning a new language. They were relatively inexpensive. The academic quality was high”. So it was, that to escape prejudice, Jacob Ochs went in the opposite direction to his grandparents, and headed east, to Edinburgh, Scotland.