Monthly Archives: August 2012

Flickering thoughts (One)

I have to admit that getting through All The News That’s Fit To Sing was something of a chore. Were it not for the fact it was a Phil Ochs album, knowing what he came up with later, I probably wouldn’t bother with it at all. It seems to me an album made too early, lacking something of the stridency that is such an attractive part of his next couple of albums and makes the uncertainties of his later songs all the more heartbreaking.

Phil wrote a lot of songs prior to the recording of All The News…, almost certainly more than he would write after it. But that seems half the problem. It doesn’t quite feel like he ever really nails any one of them. Each one has something of interest, but not quite enough to make it worthy of serious consideration in the way that his later songs, from I Ain’t Marching Anymore onwards, most definately do.

I was thinking all this sitting on a train hurtling through Germany. It occured to me that I hoped that, much like Phil’s songs themselves, my writing about them would improve with each new album. I was, and I don’t perhaps need to admit this, a little down about much of what I have written so far – too much scratching around the surface and too little genuine connection. But then somehow that seems fitting. Much like the album, my writing about All The News…is just a start.

And then something lovely happened. Me and my girlfriend wandered into a record shop in Berlin – called The Record Shop appropriately enough – and while I ummed and aaah’d over some German 80’s pop singles I got called over. “Loook at this!”

And there was a… Phil Ochs section. A Phil Ochs section! There between Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Ok, so there was only three LPs in it, but that’s beside the point. I left the shop thinking “That’s lovely, but I can’t afford it” only to return minutes later, grabbed the record and rushed to the counter, money first. Of course the lovely bloke who ran the shop hadn’t heard of Phil. I told him he was great and then did the thing I hate – “He was friends with Bob Dylan in the Sixties…”. Phil’s worst legacy, being remembered only in reference to Bob Dylan. Eurgh.

Anyway, I now own a copy of I Ain’t Marching Anymore on lovely old vinyl. I stared at it for ages in our hotel room. There was something terribly inspiring about it. The great cover photo (Phil sat amongst the messy sprawl of mid-Sixties U.S. politics), Phil’s epic-silly sleevenotes alongside Bruce Jackson’s more straightforward sleevenotes. It was exciting and interesting without even having listened to the darn thing! Phil’s prose writing always shocks me with just how much fun it was! No wonder he wrote for The Realist.

And then I got home and listened to it…I guess I need not say what effect it had because that’s what I’m going to write about over the next few months. But suffice to say, I fell in love with Phil Ochs songs all over again.

It was also a bit too expensive. But so what? It’s all in the past now anyway.

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Bullets Of Mexico

Bullets Of Mexico (A.K.A The Ballad of Ruben Jaramillo and Jaramillo)

By some distance my favourite song on ‘All The News That’s Fit To Sing’ and it wasn’t even on it! It sneaked its way onto a 1989 re-release in place of Knock On The Door (good call) and has been added as a bonus track on subsequent compact disc releases.

It originally appeared in Broadside #14 in October 1962 as Jaramillo, a far more descriptive title than the more dramatic Bullets Of Mexico. It is a song in tribute to Ruben Jaramillo (the song is also known as The Ballad of Ruben Jaramillo, as it appears on the On My Way collection of recordings), who was shot dead, along with his wife and three children in May 1962 by Mexican government forces. According to Donald Hodges (et al.); “the peasant movement under Ruben Jaramillo stands out as the single most important keeper-of-the-flame of the Zapatista tradition”.

Born in 1900 (or maybe 1898) in the Southern Mexican town of Tlaquilnango, at the ripe old age of 14 he began serving in the Zapatista Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, under the direct command of Emiliano Zapata himself.  By 1917 he had been promoted to Captain. Following Zapata’s assassination in 1919 his rebellion died out, but his ideas lived on through people like Jaramillo. Zapata’s ideals of land reform and worker’s rights were central to Jaramillo’s actions in the years preceding his own assassination. Jaramillo founded the Union of Sugar Producers of Mexico and the Agrarian Workers Party of Morelos, in the area of Southern Mexico were Jaramillo was born and also died.

Jarmillo and his supporters – the Jaramillistas – inspired by Zapata and the populist Presidency of Lazaro Cardenas (who promised land reform only to be overthrown) and the recent success of the Cuban revolution, sought to purchase land and establish an agrarian settlement in Morelos that was to include subsistence farming and co-operative projects such as better roads, schools and recreation centres. This settlement was to totally autonomous and self-sufficient. Thanks to the power of local landowners and farmers, initial local government support was soon rescinded.

Having exhausted all legal avenues for their venture, and been met only with repression, the 6,000 or so Jaramillistas took up armed resistance, that ended all too predictably.

Valentin Gonzalez takes up the story;

“His battles with authority for the redistribution of land. For better pay and for sugar cane growers saw him try the ballot (he twice stood as a candidate for the Governorship of Morelos) and eventually the bullet. His armed resistance, supported by the Mexican Communist Party, was ended by an amnesty by President Adolfo Lopez Mateos in 1959.

On May 23rd, 1962, this amnesty came to a violent end”.

One of the reasons I like this song so much is that Phil sets the events of Jaramillo’s life in an historical context, something that he uses again in I Ain’t Marching Anymore and to thrilling effect in We Seek No Wider War.

It’s not often that Phil’s songs concern non-U.S themes, as he admits in his intro to this song on the ‘On My Way’ recordings. When he did however they tended to be a real mixed bag. Spanish Civil War Song is a real failure, and Christine Keeler is plain silly (intentionally mind you). However this is really great – music and lyrics working together to create real drama and offers some understanding of the genuine tragedy in Jaramillio’s death. For once, having nearly ruined Power And The Glory, Danny Kalb’s guitar really works, adding Mexican spice to Phil’s urgent strumming. Phil would return to Mexico (sort of) for his epic When In Rome on his Tape From California LP, inspired, in part at least, by Elia Kazan’s movie Viva Zapata!

Also adding to the mix are a few words in Spanish, which adds a certain something too, but also slightly frustrating if you don’t speak a word of Spanish. Anyway, they are, “peon”, meaning agricultural labourer, “campesinos”, meaning country person or peasant  and “capique”, from the Spanish word Cacique, meaning chief, tyrant, despot or, more accurate here, local political boss.

The third verse contains a rare acknowledgement of a revolutionary female in a Phil Ochs song – “Epifania, his wife, always there by his side”. It’s fleeting, but welcome in the absence of any other!

Had it have made it onto Phil’s debut L.P. it would have been a fitting finale. As it is, as with We Seek No Wider War, City Boy, Songs Of My Returning and All Quiet On The Western Front and others, it stands as a great song that for some reason Phil, or his record company, didn’t recognise as such.

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