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


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


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.



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.



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


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


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.



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.



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.


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.



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