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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