Monthly Archives: May 2012

Lou Marsh

Lou Marsh

Writing in Broadside #22 in late March 1963, Phil wrote that “after the first draft is completed, the [topical song] writer must be his severest critic, constantly searching for a better way to express every line in his song”. Lou Marsh is very much a case in point.

Between its appearance in Broadside #21 in late February 1963 as The Ballad of Lou Marsh and as track four, side one of All The News That’s Fit To Sing in April 1964, Lou Marsh had changed almost completely;

The Ballad Of Lou Marsh (Broadside  #21, late February 1963)

(1)My story is a sad one,

It’s ugly and it’s harsh,

About a social worker,

His name was Lou Marsh,

He walked our slums and alleys,

And he died there in his tracks,

For one man is no army,

When a city turns its back

(chorus)

For now the streets are empty,

Now the streets are dark,

So keep an eye on shadows,

And never pass the park,

For the city is a jungle,

When the law is out of sight,

And death lurks in El Barrio,

With the orphans of the night

(2)

There were two gangs approaching

In Spanish Harlem town,

The smell of blood was in the air,

The challenge was laid down,

With patience and with reason,

He tried to save their lives,

But they broke his peaceful body,

With their fists and feet and knives.

(chorus)

(3)

In this city of corruption,

Other gang wars will be fought,

And as you listen to my song,

Your officials can be bought,

So don’t hide behind policemen,

Or politicians lies,

But fight till every dirty slum,

Is torn down before your eyes.

(chorus)

 

Lou  Marsh (All The News That’s Fit To Sing, April 1964)

(1)On the streets of New York City,

When the hour was getting late,

There were young men armed with knives and guns,

Young men armed with hate,

And Lou Marsh stepped between them,

And died there in his tracks,

For one man is no army,

When the city turns its back

(chorus)

For now the streets are empty,

Now the streets are dark,

So keep an eye on shadows,

And never pass the park,

For the city is a jungle,

When the law is out of sight,

And death lurks in El Barrio,

With the orphans of the night

(2)

He left behind a chamber,

Of a church he served so long,

For he learned the prayers of distant men,

Will never right the wrongs,

His church became an alley,

And his pulpit was the street,

He made his congregation,

From the boys he used to meet.

(chorus)

(3)

There were two gangs approaching,

In Spanish Harlem town,

The smell of blood was in the air,

The challenge was laid down,

He felt their blinding hatred,

And he tried to save their lives,

And the answer that they gave him,

Was their fists and feet and knives.

(chorus)

(4)

Will Lou Marsh lie forgotten,

In his cold and silent grave?

Will his memory still linger on,

In those he tried to save?

All of us who knew him will,

Now and then recall,

And shed a tear on poverty,

Tombstone of us all.

(chorus)

These changes were – in part at least – at the insistence of Pete Seeger, who recorded the song for ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 2.’ (the altered lyrics to which appeared in Broadside #27). A version by Phil, recorded on April 5th 1963 by Roy Connors, (released in 2010 as part of On My Way, 1963 Demo Session) contains almost identical lyrics to the latter version, albeit without the second verse. It seems it wasn’t long between the appearance of The Ballad Of Lou Marsh in Broadside and Phil’s desire to alter it considerably.

Compare for example “With patience and with reason/ He tried to save their lives” with “He felt their blinding hatred/ And he tried to save their lives” and it’s obvious that topicality, that writing songs so soon after the event, is not perhaps always such a good idea. The earlier Broadside version tells us the story of Marsh’s death, perhaps based solely on the facts as they presented themselves so soon after his murder. The later version tells us the story of Lou Marsh, the man and not merely the news item, perhaps inspired by Gertrude Samuels’ article on Lou Marsh, ‘Death Of A Youth Worker’, which appeared in the Saturday Evening Post in April 1963.

Unlike others who inspired Phil’s other tribute songs (Joe Hill, Medgar Evers, Jimmy Meredith or James Dean for example) Lou Marsh appears to be perhaps the only lasting tribute to the song’s protagonist. The final verse asks “will Lou Marsh lie forgotten, in his cold and silent grave?” It seems that but for Phil’s song, the answer would be yes. As with William Worthy the fact that Lou Marsh’s story is largely forgotten justifies Phil’s writing of it.

*

Louis Marsh was born and brought up in a tough neighbourhood of North Philadelphia. Unlike so many others however, Lou and his brothers were able to escape the ghetto and went to University before taking up careers perhaps atypical of those from such a background. Until being diagnosed with epilepsy Lou trained to be a doctor. Instead he began studying Sociology at Yale before training to join the Ministry. Unhappy with the rigidity of formal religion Lou took up full-time the youth work that was among his ministerial duties.

In 1958 he took part in an exchange programme with the U.S.S.R, learning how differences between nationalities and races could be overcome. Upon returning to the U.S. Lou began working for the Youth Board in New York City, assigned to work with the Young Untouchables, a Puerto Rican street gang from East Harlem. Lou said that; “I feel such kids have a lot of potential. I have confidence I can have some influence on their lives”.

Progress was frustratingly slow however. Lou took it upon himself to make visits to the kids homes and organise trips for them. Unused to adults treating them with anything other than disdain, the kids continued to treat Lou with suspicion; “I don’t seem to be able to get through to them” he admitted.

Lou’s next step was to find them a home from home, a safe environment away from their family home and off the streets. Community Centre 102 became a thriving base, where the kids could play pool and basketball, initially only with fellow gang members before beginning to mix with other boys. For a while at least, the community centre, and not the streets, became their playground. The streets however, were being left to other gangs. Older boys, former Untouchables who still held sway over the younger boys, believed that the streets, previously controlled by the Young Untouchables, were being overrun by other gangs, notably the Playboys of East 11th Street.

Samuels takes up the story;

“Monday, January 7 [1963], was a cool, clear evening in East Harlem. Louis Marsh, a street-club worker with the New York City Youth Board, walked along East 113th Street near Jefferson Houses, a city housing project. This clean, dead-end street, fringed by the red-brick high-rise buildings of the project, stood in sharp contrast to nearby streets, dirty and lined with tenements…”.

Lou went out to talk with some old Untouchables who had come to the centre to confront the younger gang members who they felt had betrayed their gang leaving their streets to the Playboys. As Phil sang; “The answer that they gave him was with their fists and feet and knives”.

Lou Marsh died two days later.

*

Lou Marsh was killed, not because a bunch of young ruffians from the tough streets couldn’t be saved, but because they could. As Samuels wrote; “He died because he was doing his job so well”.

Phil’s song asks; “Will his memory still linger on in those he tried to save?”

Samuels’ article gives some kind of an answer;

“The boys remember Lou. They remember his as a person who was close to them, who believed in them. Against the fears and threats of their parents, they went, in their clean clothes, to the service for Lou at Judson Memorial Church…they flinched when they were asked how they felt. ‘Don’t ask us that’, one answered bitterly. ‘Lou was our friend’”.

*

One of the things that makes Lou Marsh such an effective song is Phil’s genuine attempt to engage with its subject and not just offer stark facts surrounding the story as reported in the press. Phil sings “All of us who knew him…” suggesting that Phil at least tried to get to know him whilst also inviting the listener to meet with Lou too.

Of course there is also an obvious attempt to draw attention to the wider implications of what happened to Lou, most starkly expressed in the final, somewhat overly dramatic line, “and shed a tear on poverty, tombstone of us all”. While such a statement may be somewhat unecessary, it doesn’t feel anything like as shoe-horned in as The Ballad of Lou Marsh’s bit about how “your officials can be bought” and “politicians lies“.

This then is Phil showing restraint, telling a shocking story simply and without too much preaching, letting the story largely speak for itself, helped by a few cinematic touches (“So keep an eye on shadows…“) that we would soon be well acquanited with.

**

Tagged

Talking Vietnam

The Family Diem

Talking Vietnam

The Oxford Dictionary Online describes the talking blues as “a style of blues in which the lyrics are more or less spoken rather than sung”. While that is undoubtedly true, there is much more to it. There is a tradition to respect and as such rules which to adhere.

The “folk” element of the “folk boom” derives largely from what its practitioners borrowed from folk music styles rather than simply creating folk music itself, for example borrowing tunes. The talking blues is perhaps the most obvious example of this. In taking up the talking blues style Dylan, Paxton and Ochs were tapping directly into the Woody Guthrie tradition – satiric, humorous, audience pleasing. The point is to make a point, and not allow anything so trite as a melody get in the way.

Chris Bouchillon

The popularity of the talking blues can be traced back to The Greenville Trio, whose 1926 recording ‘Talking Blues’ sold over 100,000 copies in the years after its release. One of the Trio, Chris Bouchillon became known as the “talking comedian of the South” thanks to his use of the talking blues style. The style continued to be used in popular music (Tex Williams is particularly fun, his ‘Smoke, Smoke The Cigarette’ is proto-rap) but it was Woody who added the element of social satire that informed not just the style of Phil’s talking blues, but also their content.

When Phil made his first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in July 1963 it was his performance of Talking Birmingham Jam that won the crowd over. Here’s this rather urbane young man (in a suit!), never worked a hard day in his life (probably), university educated (nearly) but playing a song strictly in the Woody tradition, playing it straight, at once paying respect to Woody, the talking blues form and, ultimately, his audience.

Returning to Newport in 1964 he told the audience;

“I’ll do a talking blues. This is Talking Vietnam. I wrote this with the aid of young liberal songwriter named Bob…[pause for effect] McNamara. Vietnam is an island only ninety miles off our shores. This song is dedicated to Johnson and all the liberals”.

There is real energy in his performance, excitement even. So excited that he cannot help but follow “Them commies never fight fair” with “dirty yellow bastards” and “make damn sure they’re free” with “like me! YEE!” There is a beautiful simplicity to Phil’s songs of this period that doesn’t translate half as well to record as they did to a live setting, where Phil was able to build a rapport with an audience, enabling them to share in his enthusiasm. That energy seems lost on record, stymied by a precision and a carefulness of performance that seems, for the most part, somewhat at odds with Phil’s natural style.

Sometimes then, listening to these first few Phil Ochs albums, it may be necessary to use one’s imagination a little, and imagine hearing these songs being sung at you, hearing names and places and ideas that otherwise seemed dull and depressing suddenly come alive and seem suddenly fun and important. Listening nearly fifty years later of course it takes some effort to find a pulse in these previously ‘topical’ songs, but there is no little satisfaction in that.

*

“Sailing over to Vietnam, Southeast Asian Birmingham”

The two great, overwhelming even, topics that filled the pages of Broadside in the first half of the 1960’s were peace (of the general kind) and civil rights. U.S. involvement in Vietnam however, was nowhere near the big deal that it would later become. It is perhaps notable that the connection that Phil makes here between the civil rights abuses in The U.S. (for which Birmingham, Alabama was virtually synonymous) and the U.S. abuses of power in Vietnam would become a galvanising force in the later growth of the Anti-Vietnam war movement, a point made clear by Eldridge Cleaver who wrote that “the link between Americans undercover support of colonialisation abroad and the bondage of the Negro at home becomes increasingly clear”.

*

“Well I walked through the jungle and around the bend, Who should I meet but the ghost of President Diem”

Early versions of the song would see Phil meet Diem, while later versions (for example at Newport in 1964) would have Phil meet “the ghost of President Diem”. The reason for this is simple. On the first of November 1963 a coup d’état deposed the government of Ngo Dinh-Diem, and his brother Ngo Dinh-Nhu, and the next day they were assassinated.

Diem, the “puppet who danced for the power” in Phil’s epic We Seek No Wider, became the first President of South Vietnam after France’s withdrawal in 1955.  Though Diem seized power initially by legal means, he consolidated power through, according to John Prados in his essay ‘Kennedy and the Diem Coup’; “a series of military coups, quasi-coups, a government reorganisation, a referendum on his leadership, and finally, a couple of staged presidential elections”, elections that became easier to win after Diem banned all political parties except his own. According to Richard West, Diem was considered “a Catholic bigot, a recluse who would not listen to counsel except from his brother, the still more tyrannical chief of police, and Madame Nhu”.

While the Kennedy administration tried to pressure Diem into making his leadership more democratic, at the same time they continued to increase military aid to his forces, embroiled in a civil war against the Communist National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, led by Ho Chi Minh.

When news reached Washington of a plot to topple Diem’s regime, the US decided to support it. Reporting to Kennedy just prior to Diem’s assassination General Maxwell Taylor found that the Diem regime was in Stephen Graubard’s words “a cauldron of intrigue, nepotism and corruption”. There remains some debate regarding the extent of the Kennedy administration’s involvement in the Diem brothers’ assassinations, with some arguing that Kennedy himself ordered it. What is beyond debate however is that their murder paved the way for greater U.S. involvement in the civil war in Vietnam leading directly to the beginning of a ground war in 1965.

*

He said you’re fighting to keep Vietnam free, for good old Diem-ocracy

So tickled was Phil with his “Diem-ocracy” pun, that he used it twice, here and in his earlier Vietnam, written around October 1962; “Well, I don’t really care to die for the new frontier, and make Vietnam safe for Diem-ocracy”. In Broadside #14 Phil defines Diem-ocracy as “rule by 1-family dictatorship backed by 10,000 US troops”.

*

 “I’m the power elite, me and the Seventh Fleet

The 7th Fleet is the U.S. Navy’s Permanent Force based in Yokohama, Japan, in existence since March 1943.

*

Chiang Kai-Sheck.

It sure beats hell out of Chiang Kai-Sheck

In Phil’s later song I’m Gonna Say It Now, he sings “You’re supporting Chiang Kai-Sheck while I’m supporting Mao”, somewhat worryingly aligning himself with Mao, whilst using Chiang as a metaphor for stodgy, old anti-communists. Christ almighty, things were simpler back then…

Chiang was leader of the Chinese Nationalist Party (the KMT) from 1925 up until 1949 when the civil war that had begun three years earlier saw the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, led by Phil’s mate Mao Tse-Tung. Chiang and the rulers of the KMT fled to Taiwan (then known as Formosa) where he led a government in exile for the next 25 years, a government recognised by many as the rightful rulers of China, while much of the liberal west held Chiang in contempt.

The U.S. had sent 50,000 troops to Northern China to help Chiang in his war with Mao’s communist army in 1945. That they were unsuccessful didn’t exactly bode well for the war they would later wage against Ho Chi Minh’s Communist forces in Vietnam.

*

He said ‘Meet my sister Madam Nhu…”

Actually, Madame Nhu was Diem’s sister-in-law. At the time of Diem’s assassination, Madame Nhu was in Los Angeles and is reported to have commented; “whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies”.

Madam Nhu became something of a media-darling in the United States, before hre media image became at odds with her extreme viewpoints and level of power within her brother in-law’s regime. Richard West refers to her as Nhu’s “lovely but frightening sister-in-law”. Given power thanks to Diem’s nepotistic regime, she is quoted as saying “Power is wonderful. Total power is totally wonderful.” She used this power to promote her rampant Catholicism in the Buddhist majority Vietnam, outlawing divorce, abortion, contraception and, as is the won’t of the power crazed, the twist (and this was before The Fat Boys even existed!).

Of the Buddhist monks who set themselves alight in protest at their persecution by Diem’s government, she told the New York Times; “I would clap hands at seeing another monk barbeque show, for one cannot be responsible for the madness of others”.

*

…the sweetheart of the Dien Pien Phu

Dien Pien Phu is a city in North-Western Vietnam and is the site of what historian David L. Anderson called “the decisive military engagement of the Franco-Vietminh War”. It was defeat here, in May 1954, in what was described by Douglas Welsh as “one of the greatest battles of the post World War Two era” that hastened France’s exit from Vietnam and led to North Vietnamese sovereignty. In something of a foreshadowing of the American experience, at the heart of the French defeat was a catastrophic underestimation of the Vietminh guerrilla forces.

*

Families that slay together, stay together

Father Peyton’s Family Theatre sponsored numerous Catholic approved T.V shows in the 1950’s and 1960’s and made the phrase “Families that pray together, stay together” famous, using it for the first time in a broadcast on 6th March 1947. The phrase is said to have been coined by Al Scalpone, a professional commercial writer. Phil liked the joke (used here as a comment on the violent Diem government’s suppression of opponents, primarily Buddhists) so much that he also used it in Talking Pay T.V where “Families that pay together, stay together”.

The ‘Cassell Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins’ gives two further examples of cheeky corruptions of Father Peyton’s phrase; “the family that shoots together, loots together” and somewhat more worryingly “the family that flays together, stays together”.

*

Gen. Douglas Macarthur and Syngman Rhee.

Me and Syngman Rhee…”

Syngman Rhee was President of South Korea from 1948 until his toppling by a student uprising in 1960. In fact he was South Korea’s first President.

Educated in The U.S he initially became President in exile, after his part in protests against the Yi Dynasty. After the Second World War he returned to Korea and became the most prominent right-wing, U.S. backed politician before becoming President. Typical of his ilk (right-wing, U.S backed) his ruling style was authoritarian, dealing with critics and opponents without  impunity.

The U.S. withdrew from South Korea in 1949, apparently believing it to be of little consequence, only for North Korea to attack and capture Seoul in 1950. Thanks to U.N intervention, with fifteen countries sending troops to defend the South under General MacArthur, Rhee remained in control after the Korean War. As before though, his regime remained authoritarian, corrupt and inefficient.

In 1960 he was spirited away to Hawaii by the CIA after the voting in of an opposition Vice-President led to violent protests against Rhee’s Government. He lived the next few years in comfortable exile before dying of a stroke in 1965.

*

Like I said on ‘Meet The Press’…”

In the October before the assassination of the Diem brothers, Madame Nhu, appeared on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press’, the longest running show on American network T.V, to defend the Diem government and announced;

“I don’t know why you Americans dislike us. Is it because the world is under a spell called liberalism? Your own public, here in America, is not as anti-communistic as ours in Vietnam”.

She didn’t seem like a terribly nice lady.

Madame Nhu.

*

…I regret that I have but one country to give for my life

Nathan Hale was a Lieutenant in the Continental Army when in September 1776 he volunteered to go into British territory to rather intelligence. Hale was captured and interrogated and, on September 22nd, executed. His final words were said to be; “I regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”.

*

It is only in retrospect that it becomes easy to slate Phil for stating the obvious in his songs, at least as far as Vietnam was concerned. As Phil himself stated; “I was writing about Vietnam way before the first anti-war marches. I was writing about it at a point where the media were really full of shit…all those so-called progressive forces chose to look the other way for several years”.  To the general public, Vietnam was virtually a non-topic in 1962, and even as late as 1967 something like 70% of the American public were either happy with Johnson’s handling of the war in Vietnam or wanted further escalation. It was only in 1968 that the tide of popular opinion would begin to turn, six years after Phil first began to sing about it – evidence that Phil was both ahead of his time and perhaps slightly mistaken in his belief that his songs could effect genuine change. After all in Vietnam he sings, with bittersweet naivety;

“Well, if you want to stop the fighting over there, over there,

Then you better stir up action over here,

Drop your congressman a line, let him know what’s on your mind,

And the crisis will be over, over there”.

Thirteen years after writing these lines, it was all over.

Tagged

The Thresher

The Thresher

“In the long course of history, having people who understand your

 thought is much greater security than another submarine.”

– J. William Fulbright

Phil recorded a version of The Thresher for inclusion in Broadside, but it didn’t make the cut. Broadside #25, in late April 1963 instead printed ‘The Submarine Called The Thresher’ by Gene Kadish (which, as with Phil’s Lou Marsh, was also covered by Pete Seeger on ‘Broadside Ballds Vol. 2’). The next issue wrote of their being six more Thresher songs which they simply didn’t have room for. Proof if needed, that the sinking of the Thresher was, at the time, a big deal.

The story behind the song is simple, but devastating;

“On the morning of April 10th, 1963, the USS Thresher (SSN 593) proceeded to conduct sea trials about 200 miles off the cost of Cape Cod. At 9.13 a.m., the USS skylark received a signal…indicating that the submarine was experiencing minor difficulties…”.

No transcript of this message exists, but it is thought that the message ran something like “Experiencing  minor difficulties. Have positive up angle. Am attempting to blow. Will keep you informed”

The next message came through at 9.18 a.m., as Robert Gannon reported in Popular Science in 1964;

“The [Skylark’s] loudspeaker rattled with sound, accompanying a voice garbled and indecipherable”.

The $45 million nuclear submarine sank. Experts reckoned that due to the subs weight she would have plummeted towards the oceans depth at 100mph..

Later that day Admiral George W. Anderson gave a press conference in Washington, D.C. that began;

“To those of us who have been brought up in the traditions of the sea, one of the saddest occasions is when we lose a ship”.

All hands were lost – 112 military and 17 civilian.

*

However chilling the facts, The Thresher will always be thought of as Phil’s other submarine song. While it offers a neat rundown of the events, and some possible insight into the complacency that enabled such a tragedy (“And the builders shook their hands, And the builders shared their wine”) it pales in comparison with Phil’s later The Scorpion Departs But Never Returns, which uses the sinking of a submarine as merely the starting point of a more far-reaching song. This song is very much an early Phil song, ripe with emotion, somewhat leaden with unnecessary facts (“Then they put her on the land, for nine months to stand, And they worked  on her stem to stem”) but is effective none the less.

In terms of trying to understand the cause of the disaster, Phil gets himself into something of a pickle, starting off with suggesting that it was the vanity of the shipbuilders and the Navy that is at the heart of the matter, before finally trying to suggest something more mysterious. The New York Mirror lead story of April 12th opens in such a fashion – “Was it the machine? Or was it man?” This air of mystery pervades the song, with Phil offering no insight beyond sharing in that mystery and pointing out the grim irony that; “She was a death ship all along, died before she had the chance to kill”)

The Thresher introduces a theme that would run through many of Phil’s songs – the sea. Indeed the sea almost becomes alive in Phil’s songwriting, able to comment upon or reflect emotions (consider That Was the President or Santo Domingo). While it is overegged somewhat here (“for the ocean has no pity, and the waves they never weep”) there is a definite striving for something beyond mere reportage, something that Phil’s harshest critics seem to overlook.

Beyond the tragedy lies another story here, that of trust, or rather the lack of trust, in military leaders. Later Phil would sing, wearily, “trust our leaders where mistakes are almost never made” (The War Is Over), but here such a stance is less obvious. The New York Mirror article quotes Vice Admiral Hyman G. Rickover’s optimistic declaration that “I can assure you there is no radioactive hazard as a result of this unfortunate accident”. Like the submarine itself, The Thresher promises more than it delivers, never quite able to deliver a telling blow.

Typically Phil was somewhat out of step with the mainstream view of the message behind the loss of The Thresher, perhaps best summed up by pop-psychologist Dr Joyce Brothers ‘Profile of a Submariner’ which spoke of a “special kind of sadness, mixed with universal admiration for the men who choose this type of work”. She goes on to write of the “challenge of masculinity” that attracts men to become Submariners, a job that “certainly is a test of man’s prowess and power”. What Brothers ignores, and Phil is all too keen to point out, that as much one may like to blame these same men’s loss on the “power of the sea”, it is as much a case of hubris as tragedy; “they thought that they had mastered the sea“.

Billy M. Klier (and Billy Junior, EN1(SS)-P2. Thresher crewman.

*

In July 1964 reporters were allowed onto the USS Dace (SSN 607), the Thresher’s replacement. As a sign of confidence the Dace’s skipper, Cmdr. John A. Walsh, brought along his two young sons for the test cruise. “The Dace would go about her career with little fanfare, save for her lone ‘kill’ in March 1975 – a fishing boat that the submarine collided with in the Narraganset Bay off the coast of Rhode Island”.  (www.mesotheliomaweb.org/mesotheilomia/veterens/submarines/ussdace)

The USS Dace was decommissioned in December 1988.

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One More Parade

Ohio State ROTC is all its glory

One More Parade – (Ochs/Gibson)

“He went totally pale.

‘A parade? A par-ade?’

He stared at the details offered by imagination.

‘Why you cheap, flag-rubbing bastard'”

 – Richard Condon, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’

In amongst the 25 albums released by Elektra in 1964 you may have noticed Bob Gibson’s Where I’m Bound, the last of the four records Gibson would release through Elektra. Elektra released two albums featuring Bob Gibson albums in 1961 – Bob’s own Yes I See and Gibson and Camp at the Gate of Horn, featuring Bob with Bob Camp, later known as Hamilton Camp, the same year that Gibson performed at Faragher’s with a 20 year old Phil Ochs in support.

In his autobiography Gibson wrote;

“I was a real mentor to Phil Ochs, musically. His very first gigs as a performer were in Cleveland. I was the headliner and he was the opening act. I heard some of his stuff like The Battle of Billy Sol Estes and it was nice stuff. We began to talk and got to know each other”.

Born in New York City, by the time he performed with Phil, Gibson was based in Chicago. However it was in Cleveland that he got his folk music education, collecting local songs that he would record as Folksongs of Ohio. He was far from a folk purist and had to contend with the barbed comments of those that were. Gibson, who collected songs, but changed them as he saw fit, said that he was “looking to introduce people to folk music as an entertainment medium”.

Gibson’s chief inspiration to pick up a banjo (and then guitar) was Pete Seeger, from whom he learned the rudiments of banjo playing (though as he wrote in his book; “I didn’t have to master a lot of technique – I just wanted to make music”). Gibson’s influence on Phil would be every bit as profound. As Dave Van Ronk said; “It was a marvellous that he and Bob collaborated on songs. It was like Bob collaborating with his political self, or Phil collaborating with his non-political self. It was perfect”.

What Phil learned from Bob was the need for folk songs (or topical songs) to have a sense of melody, to make the listeners enjoy it as a song before the message kick in. Not that they agreed totally on the purpose of song;

“I wrote a few songs with Phil Ochs. Some were protest songs, songs of youth; preachy songs telling people where it’s at…music will not change a damn thing. It will not affect anyone’s thinking about anything. I’m sorry. I wish it did. Phil Ochs and I used to write songs together and think that, “wow, this will change everybody’s mind”. The only people who want to hear that kind of stuff are those of that attitude or persuasion. But they’re good for that reason, that kind of reinforcement of the group ideas”.

It seems that regardless of what Gibson may have thought, “reinforcement of group ideas” became Phil’s stock in trade for quite some time. One More Parade (which Gibson annoyingly keeps referring to as “Start The Parade” in his book) as track one, side one of Phil’s debut LP, was just the start.

Written in the summer of 1961, One More Parade may well be the very the first topical song to deal with Vietnam, albeit indirectly. What it deals with somewhat more directly are the very first protests that Phil became a part of.

The newly politicised Phil, at the instigation of Jim Glover, began organising protests at the R.O.T.C (Reserve Officers’ Training Corps) training that was compulsory for all male students at Ohio State, as well as at numerous other colleges and Universities around the United States. While such practises were expected at Staunton, the militarisation of American culture was something that was a hot-topic even before the growth of the anti-Vietnam war movement.

As with many of the major protests of the era, it was Berkeley in California that took the lead. Their campaign began in 1956, with freedom of choice at the heart of their argument. Indeed, their argument was such that even the then Assistant Secretary of Defence, Charles C. Finucane supported freedom of choice with regards R.O.T.C.

The notion that American campuses should force their male students to undertake R.O.T.C training derives from the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862 which gave land to individual states in order to provide funds to build and maintain state colleges. However, the Act stipulated that these colleges must provide courses in mechanics and agriculture, and in a later amendment, courses in military tactics.

In the summer of 1960 a meeting was held, excitingly enough for Phil, at Ohio State University, where representatives of over forty Universities met with officials from the Department of Defense to discuss the issue of the R.O.T.C. By the end of the meeting everyone present (including the Navy and the Air Force) supported the notion of voluntary R.O.T.C training, except the Army.

The following summer R.O.T.C training became voluntary at Ohio State, after the Army finally agreed with the Department of Defence. Phil’s very first protest had ended in a victory, perhaps giving him the impetus that such youth-led campaigning can be a success. In Berkeley they would have to wait another year or so before R.O.T.C training became voluntary, five and a half years after their protest began. In September 1962, a few months after it had been made voluntary, R.O.T.C enrolment at Berkeley had dropped by 90%.

*

Anyone stumbling across this song expecting a thumping protest tune may be somewhat surprised. It’s actually rather restrained, with Gibson’s melody to the fore, carefully played, with the fade-in intro a rather nice touch.

Lyrically it isn’t much cop – pretty descriptive with little real insight (the “a few years ago their guns were only toys” bit brings to mind Rolf Harris’s ‘Two Little Boys’) and the theme is dealt with far effectively in Is There Anybody Here? from 1966’s ‘Phil Ochs In Concert’. Compare for example One More Parade‘s All march together, everybody looks the same, so there is no one you can blame“, (which is only half an idea at best) with the latter song’s more direct, more immediately arresting “Is there anybody here who thinks that following orders takes away the blame?“. Both songs (and The Men Behind The Guns as well) are almost sarcastic, hiding their barbed criticism’s amongst bland praise (“So young, so strong, so ready for the war”, “I wanna shake his hand…pin a medal on the man”, “Off with your hats…“) an idea that would reach its peak with Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends, but is least successful here.

If Phil’s career as a songwriter starts here, then knowing the heights he would later reach, this is an inauspicious start, but a start none the less!

Tagged

All The News That’s Fit To Sing

Irwin: Yes. That’s good.

Hector: No, it’s not good. It’s…flip…it’s glib. It’s JOURNALISM.

– From “The History Boys” by Alan Bennett.

All The News That’s Fit To Sing

Elektra, April 1964, in Mono and Stereo.

Original sleevenotes by Gordon Friesen and Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham.

2001 Re-issue sleevenotes by Peter Doggett

  • Production Supervisor – Jac Holzman
  • Recording Director – Paul A. Rothchild
  • Engineering – Mastertone Studios, New York City
  • Second Guitar – Danny Kalb
  • Cover Design – William S. Harvey
  • Cover Photo – Jim Frawley

“The L.P gives a fine example of the use of modern folk music for the purpose it was originally styled, the making of social comment”

– Variety.

 “As important in 1964 as Bob Dylan’s ‘Freewheelin’’ album was in 1963”

 – Josh Dunson, High Fidelity.

 “Mr Ochs is certainly no genius although he might be a hero, and he isn’t much of an artist. His songs are lacking in imagination and taste and tend to be overemotional”

 – Los Angeles Free Press.

*

Gavan Daws, in the introduction to the book he co-authored with Jac Holzman (‘Follow The Music’, 2000), wrote that “in the creative social turmoil of the times, Jac Holzman was a significant agent of change”. Just to be clear, Jac Holzman released records.

Holzman started up Elektra records (named after Electra, the Greek demi-goddess who was said to preside over artistic muses, but given a ‘K’ as Holzman stated “Electra with a ‘c’ struck me as too soft”, [funnily enough the same spelling used by Marvel Comics for their super-hero]) in 1950, as a nineteen year old with a $300 loan. Elektra was part of a burgeoning scene of new labels established in the early part of the 1950s as new technologies, and new trends in listening habits, saw the birth of labels such as Atlantic, Vanguard and Folkways.

Elektra’s first release – ‘New Songs’ by John Gruen, poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and E.E. Cummings set to music,  was recorded in the studio run by Peter Bartok, the son of Bela – sold less than 100 copies. It’s sleevenotes stated that “‘New Songs’ marks the first release of Elektra records which shall continue to offer disks of unusual and worthy musical fare”. Holzman’s record store, The Record Loft, which he opened in 1951, became a hub of the New York folk-scene, a meeting place and purveyor of folk LPs and a link between Holzman and the wider folk music community. Out of this community would spring the musicians and singers that would help put Elektra at the forefront of the New York folk scene and capture the birth and growth of the “folk boom” (not the nicest of phrases, but handy none the less).

Elektra’s second, and first folk LP, was the prosaically titled ‘Jean Ritchie Singing Traditional Songs of Her Kentucky Mountain Family’ which sold close to 1000 copies. Jean got paid 22c per record sold and was given three free copies. As Holzman stated “everyone cared deeply about what they were doing, and as a secondary consideration you might even be able to make a living”. For the next ten years or so, Elektra’s roster was made up of a virtual revolving door of recording artists (Shep Gindandes and Cynthia Gooding [who’s 1953 LPs featured artwork by Maurice Sendak], Tom Paley, Theodore Bikel. Ed McCurdy, Oscar Brand and Geula Gill to name but a few) with their records interspersed with some notable additions, from the legendary (Art Blakey, Sonny Terry) to the leftfield (Joyce Grenfell, Jean Shepherd) to the oddball (Zacherley, he of Dinner With Drac’ “fame”).  Along the way they also released an LP by Alan Arkin and in 1963 ‘New Dimensions in Banjo and Bluegrass’ by Eric Weissberg and Marshall Brickman, who went on to co-write several movies with Woody Allen, including ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’. Weissberg and Brickman also recorded Dueling Banjos, later used, to great effect, in the 1972 John Boorman movie ‘Deliverance’. Brickman was also in The Tarriers alongside label mate Alan Arkin, who released ‘Once Over Lightly’ in 1955 before a successful acting career that saw him win an Academy Award for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ in 2007.

Chippewa Falls’ finest…
Annie Hall and Judy Henske

 According to Elektra historian Andy Finney it was in 1956, it was the release of Josh White’s ‘Josh at Midnight’, that heralded the start of “mainstream Elektra”. While earlier albums were released and largely ignored and/or forgotten, ‘Josh at Midnight’ would stay on the Elektra catalogue for some twenty years. The same old names would continue to have records released by Elektra (just where did Theo Bikel find all those Israeli folk songs?) but new names started appearing too. In 1958 a various artist LP named ‘Our Singing Heritage’ featured two songs by Dave Van Ronk. Van Ronk would remain a staple of the Greenwich Village scene, a link perhaps between the older generation of native New Yorkers and the new wave that was on the verge of invading. The first of this new generation to record with Elektra was Seattle, Washington native Judy Collins who released two albums in 1962 – ‘Maid of Constant Sorrow’ and ‘Golden Apples of the Sun’. The same old names (Ed McCurdy, Josh White, Cynthia Gooding, Theodore Bikel) saw releases before Judy Henske, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, (keen readers may notice that Chippewa Falls is also the hometown of Annie Hall in the movie of the same name. Marshall Brickman must have paying attention!) released her eponymous debut. That same year Oscar Brand with his Sand Trappers released his ‘Songs Fore Golfers’. I’m guessing it wasn’t terribly groundbreaking.

The competition

And then in 1964, after the releases of Bob Gibson’s ‘Where I’m Bound’, ‘Cough – Army Songs out of the Barracks Bag’ by Oscar Brand, Fred Engleberg’s ‘The Songs of Fred Engelberg’, The Even Dozen Jug Band’s eponymous LP (featuring Stefan Grossman, John Sebastian, who would later form The Lovin’ Spoonful and play harmonica on Phil’s Bound For Glory, Steve Katz, later of Blood Sweat and Tears and part of the Blues Project that played back-up to Phil on his “electrified” version of I Ain’t Marching Anymore, and Geoff Muldaur who married bandmate Maria D’Amato who then became the far-more-famous Maria Muldaur), Judy Collins’ ‘3’, Judy Henske’s ‘High Flying Bird’, Rey De La Torre’s ‘20th Century Music for the Guitar’, Fred Neil’s debut ‘Tear Down The Walls’, released with Vince Martin, ‘The Patriot Game’ by The Irish Ramblers, ‘Adventures for 12-String, 6-String and Banjo’ by Dick Rosmini (who, much later, added pedal steel guitar and harmonica to Phil’s Greatest Hits), yet more Thedore Bikel, thirteen LPs worth of sound effects, (Volume 8, side one, track 12, ‘Griddle’), the various artist ‘Blues Project’ featuring two tracks by Dave Van Ronk, two tracks by Mark Spoelstra (who also appeared on ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 1’)as well as Danny Kalb (who would provide second guitar to All The News That’s Fit To Sing and an appearance on piano of Bob Landy, really Bob Dylan, on Geoff Muldaur’s Downtown Blues), The Dillards’ ‘Live!!! Almost!!!’, Jean Carignan’s ‘The Folk Fiddler who Electrified the Newport Fold Festival’, ‘Lots More Blues, Rags and Hollers’ by Koerner, Glover and Ray, The Ian Campbell Folk Groups eponymous debut and before the releases of ‘Swing Hallelujah: the Christian Tabernacle Church of New York City with Reverend WM O’Neil’, Woody Guthrie’s ‘Library of Congress Recordings’, ‘Happy All The Time’ by Joseph Spence, Jean Redpath’s ‘Laddie Lie Near Me’, Juan Serrano’s ‘Bravo Serrano’, the various artist ‘Old Time Banjo Project’, Tom Paxton’s debut ‘Ramblin’ Boy’, Hamilton Camp’s ‘Paths of Victory’ and the various artist ‘The Iron Muse – A Panorama of British Industrial Folk Music’, came… Elektra EKL 269 (Mono) and EKS 7269 (Stereo) All The News That’s Fit To Sing by Columbus, Ohio’s very own, Phil Ochs.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that when Phil left Elektra for A&M in 1966 following the release of his third album Phil Ochs in Concert , one of the reasons he cited was lack of support from the record company. As one of 25 Elektra releases in 1964, plus the thirteen special effects LPs, Phil was a part of a genuinely hip movement. That he didn’t get lost amongst it, that he rose to gain some notoriety, is testament to something rather special. Of that lot, only the Judy’s Henske and Collins and Tom Paxton could be counted as Phil’s immediate peers. And while it may not have been the giant leap towards world domination that Phil was hoping, standing out from that crowd and getting a record released was no little achievement.

 

Tagged

Songs Of Innocence – Part Three – Broadside Ballads Volume One

Continued…

broad’side –  the side of a ship: all the guns on one side

of a ship of war: their simultaneous discharge: a critical attack.

Chambers 20th Century Dictionary

Perhaps Broadside’s success as a mouthpiece for the folk scene is best illustrated by the fact that though Phil’s first appearance didn’t arrive until issue 13, the first issue had only appeared seven months earlier, in February 1962.  The songs, from Phil and others, were arriving quicker than Sis and Gordon could type them up. Writing in his fine introduction to The Broadside Tapes Vol. 1 (which was issued as ‘The Broadside Ballads Vol. 14’ by Folkways in 1980, a fitting finale to the series of recordings instigated by Phil in 1963), Paul Kaplan wrote of Phil as; “the most prolific” Broadside contributor, arriving at the Broadside offices “hungry and with his pockets stuffed with scribblings. After eating he would sit down before the ancient Revere tape recorder and sing his new songs”. These were recorded (onto a tape recorder donated by the ever-helpful Pete Seeger) for Sis to transcribe for inclusion in the next issue.

Writing in Broadside #20 (an issue that includes Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ as well as Malvina Reynolds ‘Little Boxes’, and Phil’s Hazard Kentucky. Heady days!) Josh Dunson gives an evocative description of life at West 104th Street, New York City, the home of Sis and Gordon as well as the home of Broadside;

Broadside’s home is a small little home that’s got chairs and a sofa with a tape recorder finishing off the bottom wall piece…Boy, this room was so jammed packed with people that there was real foot and banjo and guitar shifting necessary to get Phil Ochs close enough to the mike to record his three new songs. Phil Ochs. What a guy! Quiet, soft spoken, but there with his guitar he spun some of the most real verses that’s going to be written about the death of New York Youth Board worker Louis C. Marsh and the miners striking in Hazard, Kentucky. There was an immediateness about those two songs Phil did…”.

That last song, Hazard, Kentucky, also appeared in issue #20 and was sung that night by Pete Seeger at a Hazard Miners’ Benefit. The song about Louis C. Marsh, Lou Marsh (also known as The Ballad of Lou Marsh) made it onto All The News That’s Fit to Sing, as well as into Broadside #21, alongside A.M.A Song (another Cleveland era song) and Talking Cuban Crisis (which also made it onto All The News…).  It is this “immediateness” that demonstrates the importance of Broadside to Phil’s topical songs. While Lou Marsh would later appear on Phil’s debut album, All The News That’s Fit To Sing wasn’t released until April 1964, well over a year after Lou Marsh’s death. The same song appeared in Broadside #21, released barely a month after Lou Marsh died. Of course there is more to these songs than mere topicality…

The following issue (Broadside #22 released in March 1963) contained Phil’s first Broadside article, “The Need For Topical Music”, de-facto propaganda for the topical song movement, where he proclaimed that “one good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies”. By this issue Phil, and Bob Dylan’s influence at Broadside was such that they were beginning to be credited as contributing editors. Fittingly, Broadside #22 also features the first announcement of the impending release of Broadside Ballads Vol. 1.

*

According to Marc Eliot it was Phil who organised the recording of Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 sometime in 1963, as a kind-of thank you to Sis and Gordon for all their support. He got eager yes’s from all the performers, all except Bob Dylan, who eventually appeared, under the alias ‘Blind Boy Grunt’. Obviously irked by a loss of editorial control (never an issue with the print version of Broadside), Gordon Friesen wasn’t exactly bowled over with the finished LP, but recognised its significance in the continuation of this new ‘folk’ movement;

“It is not enough” he wrote “to merely put a song into print. It’s very hard to make it come alive. So, as you may know, we’ve issued an LP…We’re not too satisfied with it, but actually we’ve had very little to say regarding its final content (it’s published by Folkways)”.

In a manner of speaking, and in a decidedly low key way, Phil had made it. If there was an in-crowd, he was in it. It remained though a crowd dominated by Dylan, with Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 a case in point. Of the fifteen songs, a third are by Dylan, three recorded by Blind Boy Grunt (‘Jon Brown’, ‘Only A Hobo’ and a couple of verses of ‘Talkin’ Devil’) while The New World Singers’ (namely Gil Turner, Bob Cohen and Happy Traum) version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ opens the albums and Happy Traum’s version of ‘I Will Not Go Under The Ground’ closes side one. This was the first appearance on record of both The New World Singers as well as ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ (though Dylan had recorded ‘Freewheelin’’ before Broadside Ballads, it would be released after).

Phil’s William Worthy (which as The Ballad of William Worthy, with a few very minor changes, also features on Phil’s debut LP All The News That’s Fit To Sing) is side one, track five, between Peter La Farge’s As Long As The Grass Shall Grow and Gil Turner’s Benny Kid Paret. Compared with the mannered approach of Dylan and the deep voiced La Farge, Phil sounds so young and earnest. He sounds almost sweet, keen to win our hearts as much as the argument. Songs of innocence indeed.

*

Newport 1963

Nineteen sixty-three had barely got started by the time Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 was recorded. Apart from seeing his first song cut into vinyl, nineteen sixty-three would be the year Phil got married (in May, to Alice). In September Phil’s daughter Meegan was born. In July he made his first appearance at The Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Isalnd, as part of “Topical Songs and New Singers” workshop that included fellow Broadsiders, Tom Paxton, Peter La Farge and Bob Dylan. Quite separate from the festival proper (which included Johnny Cash as a star attraction), which had grown in stature and popularity since its inception in 1959, and was now attracting audiences upwards of 13,000, the audiences for the workshops were more like 500-600, perhaps more for Dylan’s set. All the same, this was a big crowd for performers more used to the cosiness of the clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village. The festival, held in Fort Adams State Park, began as a little brother of festival founder George Wein’s other festival, the renowned Newport Jazz Festival. With the help of Wein’s fellow board members, and folk music heavyweights Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman, Newport quickly established itself as a big deal for folk performers. Joan Baez’s performance in 1959 (as a guest of Bob Gibson as it happens) for example, played a large part in her rise to stardom. The 1963 festival offered a chance for the Broadside crowd to break out of their New York ghetto.

Phil at Newport 1963

In typical fashion, Phil’s appearance at Newport didn’t exactly go smoothly. He had been ill prior to the festival, so ill in fact that a doctor (and an equally worried Pete Seeger) had warned him not to travel, let alone perform. In just as typical fashion, Phil ignored them both. Seeger, acting as MC, stepped up to the mic;

“The next person I’m going to introduce, [when] somebody asks him “are you a folk singer?” “No, I’m a topical singer”. His name is Phil Ochs and he’s a most prolific young gentleman, come over here Phil…”

When he should have been resting, Phil was instead performing the most important concert of his life so far.

Phil’s risk to his health paid off, as Josh Dunson wrote in his piece “Workshops Key To Newport” published in Broadside #31;

“The city bred music of Phil Ochs drew the only standing ovation of the workshop, a real tribute to this talented young writer. He had been ill for several weeks with severe headaches and dizziness, and his first song “Medgar Evers”, though well received, lacked his usual power of delivery. However, every line of his second song, “Talking Birmingham Jam” came out strong. Phil’s humour struck deep. One by one and then in waves the crowd rose from the grass, first clapping, then yelling for more”.

“Medgar Evers” would later appear on All The News That’s Fit To Sing as Too Many Martyrs (co-credited to Bob Gibson), while Talking Birmingham Jam would make it onto I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Phil’s second LP, released in February 1965, a full eighteen months after its performance at Newport. Both songs would also make it onto Vanguard’s LP ‘Newport Broadside – Topical Songs at The Newport Folk Festival 1963’ released sometime in 1964, sandwiched between the old-school Ed McCurdy and hip young(ish) Peter La Farge on an album topped and tailed by Dylan, performing duets with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

The significance of Phil’s set at Newport was highlighted by the first issue of Broadside after the festival (Broadside #30) having Talking Birmingham Jam on its cover. The second Broadside Ballads LP, ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 2 – Broadsides Sung by Pete Seeger’ also included a song of Phil’s, The Ballad Of Lou Marsh (included on All The News That’s Fit To Sing as simply Lou Marsh). It was plain to see that Phil was part of a scene that encouraged his creative talents. He was a player in a scene that was in danger of going global. Dylan may have been its shining light, but Phil wasn’t far behind. What Phil may have lacked in star quality, he more than made up for with energy and enthusiasm. Nineteen sixty-three had been a terrific, prolific year.

In late January 1964, Broadside #38 announced the imminent release of three LPs featuring Phil;  ‘New Folks Vol. 2’ on Vanguard, ‘Newport Broadside’, also on Vanguard and another LP named ‘All The New Songs Fit To Sing’. The next issue gave the correct title – All The News That’s Fit To Sing, Phil’s debut album.

**

Tagged

Songs Of Innocence – “…but it’s here I wanna stay…”

Continued…

“Voices leaking from a sad café,

Smiling faces try to understand,

I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand,

On Bleecker Street”

– Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bleecker Street’

When Phil hit New York, hoping to reconnect with Jim Glover, he found that Jim was singing, and living, with Jean Ray.  As ‘Jim and Jean’ they found some success and are notable as, perhaps, the finest interpreters of Phil’s songs. In his sleeve notes for their album ‘Changes’ Phil wrote;

“Jim & Jean, a true blend of Americana, the kind of couple who might well persuade people from Iowa to buy U.S. Savings Bonds.”

I’m not entirely convinced I know what that means.

Jim and Jean. Lovely.

Their clean-cut act, for the most part devoid of the overt politicising of Phil’s music, (their choice of Phil songs is a case in point; Crucifixion, Changes, Flower Lady, Cross My Heart, The Bells and There But Fortune. Though they did also do Ringing of Revolution, renamed Rhythms of Revolution)  provided the inspiration for the characters of Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest’s lovely, movie A Mighty Wind.  Jean died in August 2007, a year after her timely reunion with Jim, as they performed one last time as Jim and Jean at the People’s Voice Café in New York City in March 2006.

Phil was on his own. He’d been playing guitar for barely two years and he was in a new town. But for a tyro singer-songwriter filled with piss and vinegar, New York City in 1962 was a hell of a place to be. Writing songs was not a problem, he found inspiration every time he picked up a newspaper. There were places to play them, audiences to listen to them, fellow musicians to play with, conspire with, inspire and be inspired by and magazines to share songs. Finally, and most crucially to Phil, record companies to record them. There wasn’t a finer time nor place to be Phil Ochs.

For all the hype surrounding the latter generation of folk-inspired musicians that would congregate around Greenwich village in the early 1960’s, the folk music scene was very much in place before Phil got anywhere near it. The streets around Bleecker and MacDougal teemed with clubs such as The Commons, The Bitter End, Café Wha? and The Gaslight, some born as folk clubs, some changed into folk clubs.

Alice Skinner, later Alice Ochs

When Phil arrived on the scene Jim and Jean were appearing at the lesser known Café Raffio (described by Robert Shelton as “probably the dingiest in the village”) where Alice Skinner (later Alice Ochs) worked as a waitress. Jim and Jean’s Thompson Street apartment provided a base for Phil to get settled into New York life for at least for as long as the two of them could stand Phil’s Pigpen tendencies. Somewhat further up the folk scene strata than Café Raffio, Gerde’s Folk City’s hoots offered Phil a readymade platform for this out of town nobody to get noticed and become a somebody.

Phil Ochs. The scruff

Phil’s first Gerde’s hoot saw him secure his first gig. The MC for that Folk City gig was Gil Turner, who acted as a conduit of sorts between the folk scene and Broadside (in Paul Kaplan’s words, “a magazine devoted to circulating new topical songs”) run by Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and Gordon Friesen out of their apartment at West 104th Street, just south of Harlem. Endearingly DIY and closer in spirit to a punk fanzine than a glossy publication, Broadside explained its mission on the front page of its very first issue;

“Topical songs have been an important part of America’s music since the early colonial days. Many people throughout the country today are writing topical songs, and the only way to find out if a song is good is to give it wide circulation and let the singers and listeners decide for themselves. BROADSIDE’S aim is not so much to select and decide as to circulate as many songs as possible and get them out as quickly as possible”.

That first issue also contained a song by a young man who would come to dominate the Greenwich Village folk, Bob Dylan, a twenty year old from Hibbing, Minnesota (even though his short biog in Broadside #2 states “Bob Dylan is a young new songwriter and singer from New Mexico”). That song, ‘Talking John Birch’, was the first of twenty-two of his songs that would appear in Broadside, a number that would certainly have been greater had Dylan not outgrown Broadside, the village, the folk scene and indeed folk song itself.

Phil, on the other hand, would go on to become Broadside’s most prolific contributor, with a total of sixty-nine of his songs making into its pages (by way of comparison Tom Paxton contributed forty-three, starting with ‘Rambling Boy’ in issue #26 in May 1963). Broadside #2 contained a short mission statement, describing itself  as; “a publication to distribute topical songs and stimulate the writing of such songs”. In Phil’s case at least, it was incredibly successful. Of the (very approximately) 173 songs Phil is known to have written, around half of them date from 1962 or 1963.

Key to an understanding of Phil’s songwriting during those early days, and the success he had in getting them appreciated by the Broadside crowd, lies in an article that appeared in Broadside #11 and #12 in August 1962, the issue preceding Phil’s first appearance. Entitled Whither American Folk Music? It seeks to create a distinction between the commercialised ‘folk’ music of the likes of The Kingston Trio and the politicised ‘topical’ music that Broadside sought to publish. The article, which drew an unflattering comparison between the booming UK folk scene and its U.S. counterpart, was preceded by a quote from U.K. based Peggy Seeger, who said that; “songs have always been used to comment on the times and it’s always been a function of folk music to protest the status quo”.

The article (no author is given, but one can assume it’s Sis writing) speaks of the “shadow of the upraised club, threatening ostracism, blacklisting, economic deprivation and even jail itself” hanging over “not only songwriters and singers but everyone in the cultural field” in the U.S. The consequence of this, according to the article (which ends by stressing that it is intended to encourage debate), was of the growing popularity of apolitical folk songs (an example used is ‘Tom Dooley’) and of bluegrass, noting that; “it is interesting to discover how deeply they [the bluegrass folkies] are involved in learning musical techniques while showing only the barest minimum of interest in the lyrics of the songs they play”.  Reading this one can easily imagine the kind of discussions that would take place in Sis and Gordon’s apartment and the warm appreciation they must have left for Phil’s political charged, simply crafted and terribly topical tunes. Whether or not Si and Gordon’s rather blinkered view of how folk music should be is correct is beside the point. What is certain is that Phil Ochs was a perfect fit.

Phil’s first song to appear in Broadside was Billie Sol (also known as The Ballad of Billie Sol), the tale of corrupt Texas business man Billie Sol Estes, that dates from Phil’s very earliest shows back in Cleveland and Columbus, which appeared in Broadside #13 in September 1962. “Billy Sol”, as it appeared in Broadside, (to the tune “Jesse James”) differs greatly from the version that would later appear on A Toast To Those Who Are Gone in 1986, with the first two verses changed completely. The Broadside version may therefore be closer to the song that Phil sung at Faragher’s, and offers an indication of just how hard Phil worked on his songs, and how much he was willing to change them.

Broadside #13 serves as Phil’s formal introduction to the New York folk in-crowd. The editorial read;

“21 year old Phil Ochs is of the excellent new crop of topical song writers. Starting a year ago, he has written a dozen good ones; THE A.M.A., VIETNAM, JARAMILLIO, etc. We plan to print as many as possible. He also writes fine “white” blues. Born in El. Paso, Texas, kept moving –New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Scotland and New York. Studied journalism at Ohio State for 3 years, then quit when, as he says, ‘I realised it was impossible to be true to my convictions and still be a success in journalism – in or out of school’.”

True to their word, Phil’s contributions to Broadside were relentless, indeed two of the songs mentioned, Vietnam and Jaramillo (later recorded as Bullets of Mexico) made into the very next issue. Indeed, between issue 18 in late December 1962 and issue 30 in August 1963, at least one Phil Ochs song appeared in every issue, with regular contributions right up to issue 89 and the inclusion of The War Is Over.

The influence of Broadside on Phil’s writing wasn’t always subtle. The front page of the October 1962 issue (Broadside #14) read;

“Broadside is waiting for a song about one of the most important events of this year – the enrolment of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi. His courage is as deserving of the Distinguished Service Cross as any soldier’s bravery on the battle field. Perhaps more so, since he stands alone. The least tribute we could pay him would be a good lasting song in his honor”.

The front page of the next issue in November was filled with Phil’s next contribution: The Ballad of Oxford, Mississippi. The following issue printed songs on the same subject by Gene Greenblath, Richard E. Pook, Carl Stein and Bruce Jackson (who’s ‘Ballad of James Meredith’ ends; “perhaps they’ll sink the whole damned state into the gulf of Mexico”) and the Broadside #17 (in December 1962) featured Dylan’s take, ‘Oxford Town’.

If Phil was going to make it, he certainly had a lot of competition.

Continues…

Tagged

Songs Of Innocence – “Sliding on simple strings…”

Continued…

Gather ’round us you Americans,
If you believe in right and wrong.
The newspapers have ignored this;
I’ll tell it in a song.”

 – The Ballad of Old Monroe,

Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds

Considering this is supposed to be the story of someone who made his name as a guitar-toting political folk song-writer, there are several glaring omissions from the tale so far, namely a guitar, politics, folk music and song-writing. So far we have a military academy trained nebbish, from a middle-class Jewish family affected by persecution and prejudice with a nose job and dreams of being a star.

Then Phil Ochs met Jim Glover.

Phil enrolled at Ohio State University in Columbus in 1958 with a new nose and a new outlook. He never settled during his first year at Ohio State, troubled by campus politics and his own dreams of stardom. He quit and headed south, to Miami. Instead of stardom Phil found himself arrested, charged with vagrancy and jailed (where he wrote his first song, Three Dreams). He returned home, and re-enrolled at Ohio State, eventually to major in journalism. The next time he quit, tantalisingly close to graduation, he left for New York City, where his friend Jim Glover had moved with his own dreams of stardom. This time he was somewhat more successful.

Phil and THAT guitar

Jim Glover introduced Phil to folk music, to Woody and The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Josh White.  Jim, and his father, also turned him on to left-wing politics,putting some meat on the bones of information the U.S. media was reporting about Castro in Cuba and Mao in China. Castro, and Kennedy, became true heroes to Phil, every bit as handsome and gallant as John Wayne and Gary Cooper, but with added ideology. The inherent contradiction of idolising such seemingly polarised people as Fidel and J.F.K would become something of a feature in Phil’s work and politics – call him what you like, but Phil was never one for dogma.  It was from Jim that Phil won his first guitar, in a bet on who would be elected president, Kennedy or Nixon. Phil went with Kennedy, and stayed with him till his assassination in 1963. Folk music, guitar playing, left-wing politics all arrived in Phil’s life together, and would remain inseparable.

The simple riposte to Dylan’s sly remark that Phil was a journalist not a singer would have been “actually, he’s both”. Regardless of Phil’s motives (his friends speak of his genuine belief that singing topical songs could make him a star) he wrote an awful lot of songs that fall squarely in the camp of singing journalism. Which isn’t to say they were a simple re-hashing of facts, set to music. They were opinion pieces, editorials, broadsides aimed squarely at the bastions of corrupt power, prejudice, unjust violence, war, poverty, rampant capitalism, all the meaty shit that would soon seem just so passé. It’s not like Phil stumbled upon the idea of singing topical songs, it was all he’d ever done.

After the near-mythical Three Dreams (of which all that remains is the title) Phil’s first composition was probably The Ballad of the Cuban Invasion (also known as Bay of Pigs), using the template of turning newsprint into caustic song that would stay with him for several years to follow;

“A thousand went to take the island
Chances strong(?) as broken twigs
And a thousand stayed there at the island
Met their fate at the Bay of Pigs

They were told when they arrived
They’d be helped by Castro’s men
But they found out, those who survived
That the CIA was wrong again

Why were they wearing my country clothes?
Why were they spending my country’s gold?
Who were the friends and who were the foes?
The headlines were lying, why wasn’t I told?”

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The Singin’ Socialist Sundowners

 

 Jim and Phil began performing together, first as the unsubtly titled The Singing Socialists, and then as The Sundowners, named after the 1960 Fred Zimmerman movie starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr (“Across six thousand miles of excitement…”).  They became regulars at the coffee houses around the Columbus campus (such as the groovily named The Sacred Mushroom) and the folk clubs of Cleveland (Jim’s hometown and to where Phil’s parents had moved) such as LaCave and Faragher’s.

La Cave, a former pool hall, was open for only seven years but became a hub of the Cleveland folk and rock scene from 1962, playing host to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground (who played there five times, including on October 2nd 1968,  Doug Yule’s first ever appearance with the band after John Cale got the boot), Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Jefferson Airplane. The clubs owner, Stan Kain, turned a struggling coffee shop (called LaCave de Café) on the verge of closing into a folk venue by paying Josh White $400 dollars to perform a weekend residency; “the opening night was a sellout, and we had a line around the block”. The concert to mark the 48th Anniversary of the opening of the club, held at Wilbert’s Food and Music, Huron Road, Cleveland, featured Josh White Jr., Carolyn Hester, a onetime Greenwich village contemporary of Phil’s, and low down on the bill, without much fanfare, Jim Glover. The building that was La Cave is now a parking lot.

Faragher’s Back Room (also known  as the Rising Moon Room) was opened by Bill “Red” Faragher in the spring on 1961 in a storefront next to his main bar, in University district of Cleveland Heights. Faragher sold it in 1964 to open a driving school. Under new ownership, it closed in 1973. Deanna Adams cites Phil’s performances at Faraghers in 1961 as the birth of the folk revival in Cleveland. This may or may not be the case, but Faragher’s certainly played a key role in the birth of Phil’s musical career. Faragher’s gave Phil the missing link in his musical career – an audience. The key word in the phrase “folk music”, and much overlooked, is “folk”, a people to sing for, to represent. The regular audience at Faragher’s (where Phil would continue to perform after splitting with Jim) were a ready-made sounding board for his songs. Phil could write a song during the day and perform it that evening and get an instant response. In this setting “topical” meant just that, “news” retained its new-ness. Even by the time he came to record his first album, the songs topicality were being stretched. As an unknown, raw and keen to learn, his songs had a directness and an audience for an instant response, far removed from the careful, considered and weathered responses from record critics and music journalists. The audiences at Faragher’s gave Phil confidence.

For several years, Phil hardly wrote a single song that didn’t concern a political or social issue. Song writing gave him the freedom to air his politics and opinions that had been denied to him in print journalism. Phil had written passionately in defence of Castro’s Cuban revolution for The Lantern, the campus newspaper of Ohio State. Asked to tone down his radical views by The Lantern’s editors, he refused, a contributing factor to his being over-looked as editor in-chief, a decision that became a contributing factor to his getting the hell out of school and heading to New York City.

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Continues…

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