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.
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.
“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”.
“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.
“…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.