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.


William Worthy”.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: