Power and The Glory

Power and The Glory

“While there is a lower class I am in it,

While there is a criminal element I am of it,

While there is a soul in prison I am not free”

 – Eugene Debs (Five-time Socialist Party Presidential Candidate)

Ed Sanders (of The Fugs and other things) takes up the story;

“[Phil’s] sister Sonny recalls visiting him at his apartment on Thompson Street in [Greenwich] Village. ‘He was sitting on his couch,’ she wrote, ‘playing a chord progression over and over on his guitar. I said, ‘what is that supposed to be?’, ‘the greatest song I’ll ever write,’ Phil replied. He told her he had not yet written the words. ‘So how do you know it’s the greatest song?’ she wanted to know. Phil looked up: ‘Because I know.’”

The title is taken from the 1940 Graham Greene novel (released as ‘The Labyrynthine Ways’ in the United States incidentally), whose title is itself taken from a hymn (“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory, now and forever, amen”) and the lyrics are a little bit Woody and a little bit Johnny Horton (maybe?), but only Phil Ochs could have written it. It is patriotic (“Phil’s most patriotic song” according to Ed Sanders) but with a point to make and a huge “but” at the end. It is an attempt to reclaim national pride from the reactionary Right, to set at the heart of the American ideal an inclusive progessiveness where others find only reactionary conservatism. Typical of Phil, it’s a pretty bold move.

The song carries on from ‘This Land Is Your Land’, taking us on a tour of his “green and growing land”, through “the sun and the rain”, finding “beauty that words cannot recall”, with a glory that “shall rest on us all”. Subtle it aint!

He then leads us through Colorado, Kansas and Carolina (North and South), Virginia and Alaska too before reaching places that, at one time or another, Phil would call home; “Texas and Ohio and the California shore”. He then asks “who could ask for more?”. The final verse gives us the answer.

It is this third verse that takes us beyond mere bland jingoism, beyond the billion other empty patriotic ditties and stamps Phil’s dirty great footprint all over it. The final verse reminds us that natural beauty is nothing without the freedom to enjoy it and that this beauty is tempered by poverty and segregation and that, finally, patriotism without protest, without an urge to improve one’s country, is empty;

“Yet she’s only as free as the poorest of the poor,

Only as free as the padlocked prison door,

Only as strong as our love for this land,

Only as tall as we stand”.

Phil often spoke of wanting to write songs that had mass appeal, songs that had lasting significance. The only difference between a topical song and a folk song after all, is time. He wanted to emulate Ewan MaColl, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan and later Victor Jara. This is probably as close as he ever got. The fact that rampant homophobe Anita Bryant recorded a version is perhaps evidence of this. One can only assume that she may have blanched at the final verse, but she went along with it all the same, adding her own brand of brassiness to her brass band heavy arrangement.

Phil’s later re-recording of Power And The Glory  is perhaps something of a cover version of Bryant’s version, going the whole hog on the J.P. Sousa, fife and drum and brass treatment (Phil claimed to have listened to Bryant’s version fifty times and “still wasn’t sick of it!”). Released as the B-side to Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon in 1974, it was certainly an improvement on the version on All the News That’s Fit To Sing, which is nearly ruined by over fussy guitar from Danny Kalb, who elsewhere on the album adds a lightness of touch which Phil’s playing certainly lacked.

Curtis Mayfield introduces Phil on ‘Midnight Special’

The live version Phil performed with Jim Glover on ‘Midnight Special’ (recorded in April 1974, complete with a groovy introduction from guest host Curtis Mayfield; “he’s still keeping on…my man, Phil Ochs!”) adds another element, with Phil’s battered, (post-mugging) voice coming out as a Johnny Cash growl. Fittingly as it happens, as if Cash should have covered any of Phil’s songs, it should have been this one.

Phil finally gets his name in lights. On national T.V. no less.

The version of The Power And The Glory published in Broadside #27 in June 1963 contains a fourth verse, one with a message that even one as reactionary as Anita Bryant couldn’t have ignored;

“But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate,

They twist away our freedoms and they twist away our fate,

Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry,

We can stop them if we try!”

 

Of the songs included on All The News That’s Fit To Sing only this and The Bells would be sung regularly by Phil later in his career, which is symbolic of something or other. Possibly that Phil didn’t dig much of the rest of the album very much. Of Power and The Glory Phil said that it was his “sort of theme song”. Which seems about right actually.

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