Monthly Archives: July 2012

What’s That I Hear?

What’s That I Hear? (A.K.A Freedom Calling)

Yes a mighty winds a blowin’, cross the land and cross the sea,

 It’s blowin’ peace and freedom, it’s blowin’ equality.”

–          ‘A Mighty Wind’

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             (Eugene Levy, Christopher Guest and Michael McKean)

When The New Christy Minstrels left The Andy Williams Show a replacement was needed, and quick! The call went in to Tom Drake, one half of The Other Singers, after a performance at Doug Weston’s Troubadour club in Los Angeles. He set to work and within ten days The Good Time Singers made their network T.V. debut. A few months later they began recording their debut album. Such was the popularity of folk-music in the early-sixties.

In amongst hardy folky perennials like The Banks Of The Ohio their debut album contained three Phil Ochs numbers – Power and The Glory, Sing Along With Me and Freedom Calling, A.K.A –  What’s That I Hear. It’s not surprise perhaps that whenever I hear What’s That I Hear I think of ‘A Mighty Wind’, Christopher Guest’s Folk mockumentary. It seems like such a perky song, all smiley-faced optimism. The movie’s Main Street Singers (and The New Main Street Singers) were a non-too-subtle pastiche of The New Christy Minstrels and their ilk. One could argue that a song such as What’s That I Hear, in all its early-sixties earnestness, is beyond parody. Little wonder then that The Good Time Singers chose to record it.

If I were forced to explain, as simply as I could, why I like Phil Ochs songs so much I would probably say because he wrote songs like no-one else – songs brimming with history and drama. The trouble is, every time he wrote songs that, to me at least, seem terribly un-Phil like, they become his most popular. What’s That I Hear is such a song.

It’s a song about change, a song about freedom and therefore a song about Civil Rights, but only in the vaguest sense. Intended as the final song on the LP, it certainly is an optimistic note to end on. What is missing is the note of caution. Listening with the echoes of Too Many Martyrs still ringing around my ears, there is no recognition of the heavy price paid for whatever freedom has or will be gained. Which perhaps is all well and good. It’s all too easy to over think these things, and just for once Phil was writing with pure positivity – all too rare I may add. Still, there is a strange tentativeness to his, and Danny Kalb’s, performance. Maybe Phil never really intended it for himself, knowing that was better suited to the likes of The Good Time Singers.

But that’s just the cynic in me.

What’s That I Hear is really about something else. Phil told Karl Dallas of the melody maker in 1966; “I’ve been listening, looking”. And that is Phil in a nutshell – aware of what was going on around him. What’s That I Hear is a song about that awareness. It’s not, like Do What I Have To Do, a song about action. It’s not a song seeped in history, like I Ain’t Marching Anymore, rather it was a song written very much in the here and now, because there and then something good was happening. And Phil knew it, wanted to revel in it, and tell the world.

At long last black voices were reaching white ears, and I don’t just mean the ears of protest singers like Phil. In July 1964 The Civil Rights Act came into effect in the United States. Lyndon Johnson had come good on his promise to continue John Kennedy’s civil rights efforts. What’s That I Hear isn’t simply a song about change or freedom but about the need for change being acknowledged, at last, by the people who can really make a difference. Of course, an act of Government cannot change a people’s will. Medgar Evers’ killer still walked free. But there was something else brewing too.

The Summer of 1964 in Mississippi was ‘Freedom Summer’, the continuation of Medgar Evers’ work to register black voters people in the Southern States. It took thousands of Northerners, black and white, down South, among them Phil Ochs. Their efforts led directly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, another step towards true equality. Prominent among the organisers was Fannie Lou Hamer who later said, “Before the 1964 project there were people that wanted change, but they hadn’t dared to come out. After 1964 people began moving. To me it’s one of the greatest things that ever happened in Mississippi.”

That summer also inspired a raft of songs from Phil.

Going Down To Mississippi sung of his motives for going;

“For someone’s got to go to Mississippi,

Just as sure that there’s a right and there’ a wrong,

Even though you say the time will change,

That time is just too long.”

Here’s To The State of Mississippi a thunderous denouncement of what he saw there, and You Should Have Been In Mississippi (rather like his later Where Were You in Chicago) a thunderous denouncement of those who didn’t go or stood in his way.;

“Pardon me all you people who enjoy your peace of mind,

You say everybody’s equal everybody is doing fine,

You should’ve been down in Mississippi in the summer of sixty-four,

If you were down in Mississippi you wouldn’t say that anymore.”

What’s That I Hear sounds rather quaint in comparison. It was written at the tipping point, just before voices turned into action and Government reaction. Quite a moment, and one that Phil was eager to document.

It’s never going to be my favourite Phil Ochs song, but at least I get why he wrote it. And it’s nice way to end his debut LP, except it’s wasn’t, not quite.

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Too Many Martyrs (Ochs/Gibson)

Too Many Martyrs (A.K.A. The Ballad of Medgar Evers)

On the 11th of June 1963 President Kennedy addressed the nation on the need for Civil Rights, stating that;

“One hundred years of delay have passed since President Lincoln freed the slaves, yet their heirs, their grandsons, are not fully free. They are not yet freed from the bonds of injustice. They are not yet freed from social and economic oppression. And this Nation, for all its hopes and all its boasts, will not be fully free until all its citizens are free.”

Myrlie Evers and her three children were watching Kennedy’s speech as her husband Medgar, the first ever Mississippi Field Secretary of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) attended a meeting at a church hall. Very early the following morning, as Medgar stepped out of his car Byron De La Beckwith, hiding behind honeysuckle vines with a hunting rifle, shot Medgar Evers dead.

I know Evers was murdered by Beckwith because he was found guilty in a court of law, as David Stout reported;

“When the jury of eight blacks and four white people returned a guilty verdict on Feb. 5, 1994, he appeared dazed, as though not sure where he was.”

That wasn’t a typo. Beckwith was finally found guilty of murdering Medgar Evers 31 years after the fact. A jury of eight black men and four white found Beckwith guilty of a murder that in 1964 two all white juries couldn’t, or rather, wouldn’t. Beckwith’s confusion was understandable. Mississippi in 1994 was a different creature to the one that Medgar Evers knew.

Beckwith was a prominent member of the Ku Klux Klan and the segregationist White Citizen’s Council, which was founded in Greenwood, Mississippi, Beckwith’s hometown. His racist credentials were impeccable. When awaiting trial for Evers’ murder in 1964 he counted Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett (he of “So listen Mr Barnett…” in Phil’s The Ballad of Oxford) as a visitor. Indeed while Myrlie Evers was giving evidence Barnett was a point of going over to Beckwith and shaking his hand. A public show of support. Had Bob  Dylan known about Beckwith he would probably never have written “but he can’t be blamed/ He’s only a pawn in their game”.

*

When Josh Dunson, who wrote for Broadside, heard the news of Evers murder he said “Oh, God no, we’ve already got too many martyrs”. By the end of the decade there would be a whole lot more.  Indeed in the history of 1960’s politics Evers’ death would be overshadowed by those of the Kennedy’s, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. In a bitter irony King spoke of the “martyred heroism of Medgar Evers”, words that would become all too apt for King himself a few years later. To some extent it is thanks to songs such as this, and Dylan’s ‘Only A Pawn In Their Game’ and Tom Paxton’s ‘Death of Medgar Evers’, that keeps his name alive. As Benjamin Hooks, former NAACP Executive Director, wrote; “if we forget Medgar Evers, we will know too little of the sacrifices made to purchase our freedom”.

Not long after volunteering for the U.S. Army in 1943, Evers found himself protecting the beaches at Normandy, France. He also saw action in Liege, Antwerp, Le Havre and Cherbourg as part of the 325th Port Company, racially segregated, but commanded by white officers. But as Benjamin Hooks wrote; “Medgar Evers’ place in history rests not on a service on foreign fields against a foreign foe, but on his service and leadership in the war at home for the soul of America”. Beckwith also served with the U.S. Army during the Second World War. Upon their return to the U.S. however, they would be fighting on the opposite sides of a battle.

Evers enrolled at Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University), then a black college, where he met Myrlie and got his B.A. In 1954 Evers was refused admission to the University of Mississippi Law School. Also in 1954 the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case ruled educational segregation unconstitutional. It was this case that led to the founding of the White Citizen’s Council (W.C.C.). Some years later Evers and the W.C.C. would be prominent in the furore surrounding James Meredith’s admittance to the University that had unconstitutionally barred Evers’.  It was here too, in the University Hospital, that Beckwith died, aged 80, in 2001. Medgar was buried at Arlington, with full military honours.

Beckwith wasn’t.

50,000 March to Medgar’s funeral

*

Phil’s song is as much a tribute to Evers life as a cry of anguish about his death. As with many of Phil’s early songs it’s not directed at anyone in particular, the song serving a little more than a vent for his anger, as if as a consequence of an insatiable urge rather than a carefully considered reaction. .

It’stwo titles are interesting. The Ballad of Medgar Evers suggests a song about the man while Too Many Martyrs suggests a song about something  wider. And that is the crux of the issue surrounding topical songs  – how can the songwriter write about something specific while also making a general point?

This was Phil’s first Mississippi song to make it onto record, but certainly not the last. Too Many Martyrs was a song borne of newspaper articles. His later Here’s To The State Of Mississippi was borne, in part at least, from personal experience. It is almost certainly his most angry and perhaps, controversial song –  “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of”.  Many people disagreed with Phil’s sentiments, if not perhaps his anger. Indeed, ironically, perhaps Medgar Evers would have been one such critic. Evers saw beyond the prejudice and injustice rife in his home state. He wrote that;

“It may sound funny but I love the South. I don’t choose to live anywhere else. There’s land here where a man can raise cattle, and I’m going to do it someday. There are lakes where a man can sink a hook and fight the bass. There is room for my children to play and grow and become good citizens – if the white man will let them…”

Medgar fought to make this dream a reality – not only on the streets of Jackson but also on the beaches of Normandy. After his death, and the gross injustice of the original trial of his killer, others took up the fight. During his funeral procession, the thousands who followed his coffin, black and white alike, sang – “After Medgar – no more fear. After Medgar – no more fear”. Walter Gardener, a contemporary of Evers said that his death “catalysed my interest in getting with trying to do something, to be a participant and not a bystander in our society”

In 1969 Medgar’s brother, Charles, became the first Black Mayor elected in Mississippi, and said that;

“Medgar and I said many years ago, if we ever end the violent racism in this state, it’ll be the greatest state in the world to live. And now Medgar, I know you’re gone, but I’m telling you son, it’s come to pass”.

*

Myrlie Evers reaction to Beckwith’s conviction in 1994, as reported in the New York Times by Ronald Smothers, was priceless;

“Outside a short time later, Myrlie Evers, the widow of the murdered civil rights worker, stood before reporters and warned that she was about to throw off the veil of composure that she had worn throughout the trial. She then broke into a smile, shouted a cheer and raised a clenched fist to the sky in triumph.”

It wasn’t just justice for her husband that she was celebrating, but it was that the world had seen a different Mississippi, and that the Mississippi that her husband had dreamed of and fought for, was possible.

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Bound For Glory

“Is this land made for you and me?”

 – Woody Guthrie

Bound For Glory

This isn’t so much a song about Woody Guthrie, but about Woody Guthrie’s songs, and their misappropriation. In May 1963 Broadside #26 reported that eight covers of Woody’s ‘ This Land Is Your Land’ had recently been recorded by the likes of The Limelighters, Peter, Paul and Mary, The New Christy Minstrel Singers, Flatt and Scruggs and Harry Belafonte. In 1962 Dylan released his tribute to Woody, ‘Song For Woody’, a slight song about not very much (“I’m seein’ your world of people and things”), except to say that he following in his footsteps. In the early 1960s, Woody Guthrie was trendy.

To Phil Woody represented the meeting of folk music and politics, of songs sung for a purpose, songs intended to inspire change and document the world around him. This wasn’t the Woody that Phil saw being represented by all the singers paying tribute to him, as he told Mainstream magazine in August 1963 “One of the sad aspects of the growing fame of Guthrie and his songs is the lack of understanding by some and prostitution by others”. Bound For Glory then is Phil’s attempt to reclaim Woody for the Left.

In his article titled ‘The Need For Topical Music’ in Broadside #22 in March 1963 Phil sought to explain this misuse of the Woody legacy;

“I have run into some singers who say ‘sure, I agree with most topical songs, but they’re just too strong to do in public. Besides I don’t want to label myself or alienate some of my audience into thinking I’m unpatriotic’. Yet this same person will get on the stage and dedicate a song to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger as if in tribute to an ideal they are afraid to reach for”.

It’s an article that says as much about Phil and his motives as it does about the possible motives of others. Following Woody’s death in 1967, a memorial concert was held in his honour, with proceeds going towards fighting the disease that killed him – Huntingdon’s Chorea. Phil wasn’t invited.

The organisers were promised a record deal and T.V. coverage if certain acts were invited to play.

In an interview with Gordon Friesen for Broadside in 1968, Phil explained his frustrations with the event which he attended but didn’t sing at;

“The Woody Guthrie Memorial Concert was my last straw. At the end of the Woody Guthrie concert they sang This Land Is Your Land and I walked out in the middle of it because it wasn’t my land. I felt, and I feel now, that I should have been in that concert. I felt, and I feel now, that Jack Elliot should have been in that concert. I like Richie Havens, I like Judy Collins and I like Odetta, as performers. I think they’re all very talented, but! I can’t quite see the logic. Whoever decided that they belonged in the Woody Guthrie show and I didn’t, and Jack Elliot didn’t, I’ll go to my grave wondering about that!

I consider that concert a disgrace. I went only because Dylan was there. Psychologically I had to look at Dylan. As I sat there watching the concert I was writhing in my seat…They were up there singing songs and I was saying ‘fuck you’…by the end of that concert I was almost in tears…

After seeing that concert, I don’t think Woody Guthrie would have been invited to the Woody Guthrie Memorial. Because he would have been out of place. There were all these performers, and all these managers lurking backstage…and everyone seemed to be taking advantage. I’m being very bitter now, now I have no choice. I’m a folk singer, I’ve sang at political rallies for years, Woody wrote ‘This Land Is Your Land’, I wrote Power And The Glory, he wrote lots of songs about World War Two…I wrote I Ain’t Marching Anymore for years I do this and here’s the concert and all of a sudden here’s Richie Havens…and I’m sitting in the audience – crying.”

It’s a revealing statement. Phil was learning that it was not simply good intentions that was key to singer’s career, not politics either, but success. Commercial success. In those terms Phil was an outsider, literally sat in the stands rather than on the stage. Along the way his ego was taking a battering.

Phil’s kinship with Woody extends further than singing Woody’s songs and singing about Woody. The themes that Woody’s songs concerned themselves with – war, poverty, unions for example – are also reflected in Phil’s songs. The most obvious comparison may be between Woody’s ‘Plane Wreck At Los Gatos’ and Phil’s Bracero, both concerned with the plight of Mexican migrant workers in the U.S. Both Phil and Woody also wrote songs about Joe Hill and there is the inference that the baton of left-wing song being passed from Joe Hill to Woody to Phil. At least that’s how Phil may have seen it.

The version of Bound For Glory that appears on Sammy Walker’s ‘Song For Patty’ album in 1975 continues this theme, featuring as it does Phil on backing vocals along with Sis Cunningham, who as one of the Almanac Singers performed with Woody. It is also a beautiful version, with Walker’s more urgent delivery adding something that Phil’s version lacks. It also retains the harmonica part, originally played by John Sebastian later of The Lovin’ Spoonful, the first use of an instrument other than a guitar on a Phil Ochs song.

Unfortunately, though Bound For Glory effectively pays tribute to Woody, Phil over eggs it with such indefensibly silly lyrics as “planted all the grass where there needed to be green”, and “fed all the hungry souls that needed to be fed”. As is Phil’s way, he can’t simply pay tribute to Woody, he has to make a wider point, as he does in the last verse, the verse which for which the song was probably written in the first place;

“Now sing out his praises on every sing shore,

But so few remember what he was fighting for,

Oh why sing the song but forget about the aim?,

He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same?”

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Talking Cuban Crisis

Talking Cuban Crisis

“It’s ironic how this little island has become practically

 the key to the fate of the whole world”

–          Carleton Beals, The Realist #23

By the summer of 1962 Cuba began moving further and further into the lap of the U.S.A’s great rival, the U.S.S.R. Under Eisenhower the U.S. had already severed diplomatic ties with Cuba and the pervious April had seen the Bay of Pigs shambles, only adding to the tension between Havana and Washington. Tension that would reach a peak in October 1962 when Kennedy addressed his nation calling for the removal of all Soviet military bases in Cuba;

“Good evening my fellow citizens:

This Government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet Military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week, unmistakable evidence has established the fact that a series of offensive missile sites is now in preparation on that imprisoned island. The purpose of these bases can be none other than to provide a nuclear strike capability against the Western Hemisphere…

…My fellow citizens: let no one doubt that this is a difficult and dangerous effort on which we have set out. No one can see precisely what course it will take or what costs or casualties will be incurred. Many months of sacrifice and self-discipline lie ahead months in which our patience and our will will be tested–months in which many threats and denunciations will keep us aware of our dangers. But the greatest danger of all would be to do nothing.

The path we have chosen for the present is full of hazards, as all paths are–but it is the one most consistent with our character and courage as a nation and our commitments around the world. The cost of freedom is always high–and Americans have always paid it. And one path we shall never choose, and that is the path of surrender or submission.

Our goal is not the victory of might, but the vindication of right–not peace at the expense of freedom, but both peace and freedom, here in this hemisphere, and, we hope, around the world. God willing, that goal will be achieved.

Thank you and good night.”

Soviet ships bound for Cuba turned away from the island, two others were stopped and searched by American warships, before allowing them to carry on their journey after no offensive military equipment was found. After two fraught days Soviet Premier Khrushchev ordered the removal of offensive weapons from Cuba so long as the U.S. promised not to invade. It was the closest that the cold war would become to being a very hot one. It only lasted six days, but it had implications that would be felt for a good while longer.

*

You wouldn’t necessarily learn a lot from Talking Cuban Crisis, but unlike The Ballad of William Worthy or Lou Marsh, this was international news, unavoidable, Phil’s response to it wasn’t to want to tell the story but to mock the whole charade.

The line “Well, he said ‘Here comes the President, but first this word from Pepsodent’” is typical of Phil, picking up on a theme expanded upon in Talkin’ Pay T.V. (“Every few minutes they’d take a break, for a profound message on stomach ache”), but here the use of commercials seems even less appropriate considering the implications of Kennedy’s address (“Have cleaner breath, when you’re facing nuclear death”). I’m not sure how often Kennedy was referred to as “President John”, but at least it scans, and even makes him seem familiar, friendly even.

Land reform (“Carryin’ land reform too far, giving land to the U.S.A”) was a key tenet of the Cuban revolution of 1959.  During the first Agrarian Reform some five million hectares of land was nationalised withone million hectares of land reallocated to some 100,000 farmers. This reallocation of land naturally hit U.S. company owned land including the Cuban-American Sugar Co. and United Fruit (hence the line “United Fruit screams at the Cuban shore” in I Ain’t Marching Anymore), with Time magazine reporting that in post-revolution Cuba “No corporation can own land in Cuba unless all stockholders are Cuban” (Time, June 01, 1959).

One of the ironies of the missile crisis was that since 1959 the U.S. had missiles trained on the U.S.S.R based in Turkey and Italy. U.S. military presence in Europe, and throughout the world (“From Turkey and Greece, Formosa* and Spain, the peaceful West European plain, from Alaska and Greenland we’ll use our means, and twenty-thousand submarines”) was expected to go unquestioned, while any non-U.S. presence in the Americas came into conflict with the Monroe Doctrine, which since 1823 has forbade European involvement in the affairs of independent American countries.  (*Formosa is now known as Taiwan).

During the six days of crisis, as the U.S. armed forces lurched from Defense Condition Five (peacetime alert) right through to Defcon 2 (one step away from actual hostilities), with nuclear submarines summoned from their base in Scotland, and B-52s loaded with nuclear missiles, the world held its breath. Phil doesn’t shirk from, albeit jokingly, admitting his terror (“But me, I stood behind a bar, dreaming of a spaceship getaway car”).  And then…nothing. Khrushchev and Kennedy bashed out a compromise – the U.S.S.R would get the hell out of Cuba, the U.S. would remove it’s missiles that had been trained on the U.S.S.R for the last three years (though this would initially remain secret, leading to much embarrassment for the Russian Premier) and Kennedy would see his popularity rise, and continue rising until his assassination the following year. The Realist #23 reported on an actual Civil Defense T.V. spot that featured a family which had lived in a fallout shelter for two weeks; “Our family” says the mother, “now has a closer relationship than before”. Who says that no good can come from nuclear conflict?

That is not all. Castro remained. He played a part in bringing the two most powerful nations in the world to the brink of nuclear war. And still he remained. And he still remains to this day. He survived the Bay of Pigs, Operation Mongoose (which was in action in the midst of the missile crisis and was every bit as successful of the Bay of Pigs), and reportedly six-hundred assassination attempts. Perhaps it’s no wonder Phil was so enamoured.

Paul Krassner wrote in the Realist #23 of his time in Cuba (to where he had travelled with State Department permission, unlike William Worthy) and stated that “you have to know the background of Batista’s unconstitutional police-state horror in order to appreciate the fervour of the revolution against it…the period from 1953 to 1959 would have made Hitler dance with joy” Adding that “only now do we [the U.S.] call Cuba unsafe”. For Phil Castro’s Cuba offered so much promise, regardless of what would follow. At the heart of the revolution was land reform, home ownership, medical provision and literacy (1961 was the Cuban Year of Education).  Thanks to Krassner and Worthy in the Realist, Phil was getting more than just the government line in the mainstream press. Phil would later say that Castro “is a very artistic revolutionary…the way he looks, the way he acts, his personality”.  Not that his pro-Castro zeal wasn’t tempered slightly; “the thing is not to get up there and say ‘you must support Castro no matter what’, but to say ‘be sympathetic to Castro for the following moral reasons’. Then if Castro goes astray, you say, ‘well, be sympathetic to the revolution for the following moral reasons” (in Touchstone #2, Sept 1965).

To date the U.S. embargo continues, an embargo that the General Assembly of the U.N. has voted against eighteen times to highlight international opposition, votes that Washington has chosen to ignore. Perhaps just as significant; in 1980 when Castro opened the Cuban borders for anyone wishing to leave for five months, 125,000 did so. By then of course, Phil wasn’t available for comment.

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Knock On The Door

Knock On The Door

However charitable one may try to be with Phil’s early songs, Knock On The Door is always going to come up rather short, as any attempt to squeeze two-thousand years of totalitarianism into two minutes forty of a song would do.

Persecution was hardly alien to Phil. His family had after all escaped it when they left Poland for the U.S.A. Many of his fellow folk singers had faced it for their leftist opinions, especially those such as Sis Cunningham and Pete Seeger who had endured the McCarthy years. He also saw it on his visits to Hazard, Kentucky and Mississippi. All of these experiences would make it into a song, with the exception of his great-grandparents story. And it is largely due to the sheer weight of their topicality that make songs such as Here’s To The State Of Mississippi, The Ballad Of John Henry Faulk and Hazard, Kentucky so much more successful than Knock On the Door.  It’s first and major failure is its inability to even begin to capture the feeling of dread felt by those experiencing persecution of any kind, instead rather ponderously leaping from one time and place to another. It may attempt to give a historical perspective to a contemporary issue (something that Phil managed far more successfully in I Ain’t Marching Anymore and We Seek No Wider War for example), but the songs fails to do justice to each example. The verse concerning the Nazi’s seems almost rude (“modern times”?!) with its rather flippant reference to the “six million people”.

The very title – Knock On the Door – repeated for each chorus, seems so wimpy, polite even, especially compared to his later Cops Of the World with its far more powerful (and probably closer to the truth) line “they smash down your doors, they don’t bother to knock”. It is simply far too generalised, without even a clear sense of who Phil is singing about, to have any real impact. And a line as vague as “when they knock over their friend they’re knocking for you” hardly helps.

This is in stark contrast with The Trial which deals with the same topic with far more clarity and drama, using first person narrative to bring the terror of capture and incarceration to life, in a way that Knock On the Door totally fails to do.

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The Ballad of William Worthy

 

The Ballad of William Worthy appeared in Broadside #22, alongside Phil’s article The Need for Topical Music, in which he explained the reasoning behind his song writing;

“Before the days of television and mass media, the folksinger was often a traveling newspaper spreading tales through music.

It is somewhat ironic that in this age of forced conformity and fear of controversy the folksinger may be assuming the same role. The newspapers have unfortunately told the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the cold war truth, so help them, advertisers…

The folksingers of today must face up to a great challenge in their music. Folk music is an idiom that deals with realities and not just realities of the past as some would assert. More than ever there is an urgent need for Americans to look deeply into themselves and their actions and musical poetry is perhaps the most effective mirror available.”

Unlike Dylan, Phil suffered a great need to explain himself, to contextualise his actions and make his point as clear as he could manage. As a ‘topical’ singer, Phil was free from constraints, free of compromise. Sure, he wanted to make it, but back then he was sure he could make it on his own terms. The Ballad of William Worthy is as good an example as any of Phil’s form of musical journalism, all the facts, that he felt were, fit to sing.

In his spoken word introduction to the song recorded by Ray Connors of The Highwaymen in April 1963 (released as On My Way, 1963 Demo Session in 2010) Phil outlines the song’s background and relevance;

“It’s the story of William Worthy. William Worthy is a reporter for The Baltimore Afro-American and The Realist in New York, and he went down to Cuba a while ago and when he got back he was arrested, came back to Florida, where he was arrested for illegal re-entry into the United States because it’s against the law for Americans to go to Cuba or China or several other places. So, he’s running around the country appealing, making speeches, getting all kind of support…”

And herein lies the topical protest song and its inherent strengths and obvious weaknesses. As Phil was singing it in 1963, as it appeared in the pages of Broadside it was topical. It was relevant. Worthy’s case was a cause, and Phil’s song was a part of it. He was spreading the word, getting support for someone as and when he needed it. Speaking to a crowd at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania in 1964, barely a year later, Phil introduced his song as “a song about a man named William Worthy [applause]…a very popular man these days…which is a little bit dated but still very true”.

A little bit dated.

It was barely a year old. In his book The Mayor of MacDougal Street, Dave Van Ronk takes up this point;

“I remember when I heard him sing his song about William Worthy. I thought ‘that’s not one of Phil’s best, but it doesn’t matter, because two years down the line he won’t be able to sing it anymore’. And sure enough, he couldn’t, because nobody remembered who William Worthy was”.

It’s a fair point. Two years later, Phil wasn’t singing about William Worthy. Two years later William Worthy’s cause had been usurped by countless other causes, just as The Ballad of William Worthy would be usurped by countless other songs. Then again Van Ronk misses a vital point. Here I am writing in 2012 about William Worthy. If it wasn’t for Phil I wouldn’t have the foggiest who or what a William Worthy was. To go back to Phil’s Swarthmore introduction; “…a little bit dated but still true”. But still true. While the facts of the story are specific to Worthy, the song points out blatant contradictions in the U.S. Governments position, the kind of contradictions that have relevance beyond the specific case in point. Politically speaking the meaning of the song has wider implications – mistrust of governments, the U.S’s relationship with Cuba, the U.S.’s hypocritical relationship with Franco’s Spain,  freedom of the press, freedom of travel, mistrust of the Left – but its greatest strength is as something that perhaps even Phil didn’t intend – a historical document. A time-capsule for future generations. A reminder of what was offering a greater understanding of is and what will be.

*

Having previously stoked controversy by visiting China in 1956, and having his passport revoked as a consequence, William Worthy unsuccessfully sued Secretary of State John Foster Dulles for the return of his passport. The court of appeals held that;

“Freedom of the press bears restrictions…Merely because a newsman has a right to travel does not mean he can go any-where he wishes…”

Without a passport Worthy tried to gain admittance to Cuba, and did so in 1961. After becoming the first American to broadcast from Cuba since 1949, he returned to the United States and was promptly arrested. Threatened with either a heavy fine or imprisonment, Worthy was charged under the 1917 Trading With The Enemy Act for “returning to the United States without a passport”.  Worthy was then offered the return of his passport on the condition that he sign an oath declaring that he wouldn’t return to China. Worthy refused, calling the oath “degrading, humiliating and repressive”. Worthy’s defence lawyer at this time was William Kunstler, later better known as the Chicago Seven’s lawyer, in whose defence Phil gave evidence.  His passport was finally returned to him in 1968 after the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned his conviction.

In his Harvard Crimson article on Worthy Jonathan Ledecky  quotes the then Harvard Associate Professor of Afro-American studies Badi G. Foster who stated that “it’s consistent with the ideology of this country that William Worthy isn’t a household name”. Other’s may scorn at Phil’s writing of The Ballad of William Worthy, but Worthy’s lack of fame is perhaps all the justification for writing it that Phil needed. If anyone was worthy of a tribute in song, perhaps it was William Worthy. Forget Phil condemning U.S. involvement in Vietnam in 1962, Worthy was denouncing it in 1954;

“I travelled to Vietnam for the first time in 1953, and found the situation to be drastically different from the New York Times account…America was doomed from the start”.

During his time in Havana in 1961 Worthy also reported Cuban foreknowledge of what would later become the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Again nobody listened. Phil’s song became part of a wider movement in support of Worthy’s cause, that included the support of Paul Krassner, who’s satirical magazine The Realist (“freethought criticism and satire”) contained the article where Phil first heard about Worthy’s case.

Phil would become friends with Krassner and go on to write several articles himself for The Realist, as would William Worthy. Krassner published The Realist from New York City starting in 1958, and reading it’s irreverent, though defiantly political, content now gives a wonderful insight into the kind of politics that must have inspired Phil. Holy-cows were sent up in issue after issue, even the folk-boom, as satirised by Sylvia Dees’ ‘I’ve Got The Authentic Identity Blues”;

Here I sit with my old guitar

Singing labor songs (Ain’t never labored)

Singing old Wobbly songs (Never wobbled)

Singing songs of the Spanish Civil war (Never Spanish) (Never Civil)

Singing songs of the mountain folk (Never mounted) (Never folked)

Singing songs of Zionism (Don’t wanna farm) (Ain’t a Jew)

Oh lift up your voices in this great land of ours!

Oh sing, America, Sing!

The Realist printed Worthy’s reports from Havana, offering tempered support for Castro’s fledgling regime, as well as in The Realist #30 in December 1961, a report of Worthy’s treatment upon his return to Miami, an article that gives an insight into Worthy’s determination not to be affected by the forces set to subdue him;

“…I now am glad I returned via Miami. It cleared my vision…I can sense the heightened power of the extreme right-wing. It hit me in the face when the immigration inspectors sat me down for the grilling…During those six hours at the airport I learned a great deal. I saw that my stay in Cuba without State Department permission was not in itself the real issue…at bottom the official questioners were objecting to my [Baltimore] Afro [American] dispatches, which in no way followed the U.S. party line…I will never beg my servants in Washington for permission to travel. If they tangle with me again I will embarrass them endlessly…”

The Realist #32 in March 1962, in the midst of its ‘editorial type stuff’, contains a small piece entitled ‘The Right To Travel’ which gave a brief précis of Worthy’s arrest in April 1962;

“Reporter William Worthy voluntarily surrendered to the U.S. Marshall in New York City on April 26th. A warrant for his arrest had been issued in Miami, where a federal grand jury indicted him…

This is the first time a U.S. citizen has ever been indicted under the 1952 McCarran[sic] Immigration and Nationality Act for having returned ‘illegally’ to his own country without a passport. Attorneys in the field regard the indictment as ‘utterly fantastic’ and contend that it is obviously designed to punish him for his reporting of the Cuban revolution.

The indictment, coming six months after Worthy returned home, is attributed directly to articles he wrote in issues #30 and #31 of the Realist, the latter piece being particularly critical of J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I. Worthy is out on $5000 bail.

It is expected that the U.S. Attorney in Miami will vigorously oppose a motion for change of venue, which is Worthy’s only hope for acquittal. Since Attorney General Robert Kennedy has full authority to overrule the local U.S. Authority, readers are urged to write to him.

A fair trial is unlikely in Miami due to race prejudice (Worthy is a Negro) and anti-Cuba hysteria.”

In an unusually nice coda to the story behind the first Phil Ochs song to appear on LP (on ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 1’ in 1963. Phil would quip – “this song has been taped by the three major recording companies dealing in folk music – Elektra, Folkways and the FBI”), Phil played The Ballad of William Worthy one night at the Thirdside café in New York City, with none other than William Worthy in attendance. Worthy had read about Phil’s tribute to him in a New York Times article by Robert Shelton and telephoned Phil to organise to come and hear him sing it. In a letter reprinted in Marc Eliot’s Phil Ochs biography, Worthy displayed his thanks for Phil’s support;

Dear Phil Ochs,

Last night I certainly enjoyed your ballad on my passport case. Dick Gregory has told me that he plans to start cracking jokes about the case on his circuit. So perhaps between Ochs and Gregory the whole sorry business can be laughed out of court.

This note is written on the run. My regards to your wife.

Cordially.

William Worthy”.

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