“It ain’t no disgrace to be poor, but it might as well be” – Kin Hubbard
Joe Hill never actually said “Don’t Mourn – Organise”, though he did say something very similar. What this song is saying is something more akin to “Don’t Moan – Organise”. This is Phil in full preachy mode, brimming with positivity and absolute in its desire to evangelise about the worker’s need for Union (capital ‘U’ or otherwise).
The titular similarity to his earlier What’s That I Hear is perhaps not coincidental (on the “Sings For Broadside” version he refers to it as “son of What’s That I Hear”).While What’s That I Hear is all wimpy hopefulness and almost happy-clappy everything-is-gonna-be-alrightness, That’s What I To Hear is a lot more ballsy, almost to a fault; it’s probably Phil’s bossiest song which doesn’t help it’s likeability. It’s rather striking that within a couple of years Phil would write a song in which every verse starts with “I don’t know”, because, to use a word that keeps cropping when I listen to these first couple of his albums, Phil seems so damn certain. He seems so damn confident.
There’s a line towards the end that goes “I’ve seen your kind many times before”. This isn’t a 23 year old college dropout singing, this is the voice of the folksinger.This is Phil channelling Woody and Joe Hill, emboldened by the support and encouragement of Pete Seeger and the staff at Broadside, taking up the mantle and writing and singing and preaching not as himself, but as the carrier of the flame. It’s a beautiful thing if you think about it like that. It’s also a rather sad thing because confidence like that is doomed to not last.
I’m not sure which he wrote first, this or his other Union song Links On The Chain, but I’d guess it’s this. Links… is mired in reality, the reality of a Union that isn’t standing up for what it’s members believe in, let down by the personal politics of its leaders and most certainly not providing the answers to the problems addressed here.
For all its rabblerousing and calls to fight, there is a big problem with this song, something endemic of so much protest singing – just what is Phil’s answer? If the answer is to join a Union (which the unemployed are unable to do, unless I’m mistaken) then this may be the same Union that Phil decries only a few songs later in the aforementioned Links On The Chain. He sings of getting together to fight, but doesn’t say who or what is to be fought. It’s all rather similar to Hugh Laurie’s rather wonderful All We Gotta Do (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8chs2ncYIw) “All we gotta do is…mumble mumble mumble“, which is perhaps a little mean of me. What makes it easier to be so mean is to consider just how unnecessarily mean Phil’s penultimate verse is;
“Every bad thing that’s happened to you has happened to better men”.
I have no idea why he deemed that line necessary. “Better men” – better how exactly?
These are perhaps only minor quibbles. The first version I heard of this song was by Kind Of Like Spitting on their marvellous ‘Learn The Songs Of Phil Ochs’ record. It’s a wonderfully rowdy version, full of popping P’s on spittle flecked microphones. It properly brings to life the intention of the song – to be a big old rabble-rousing sing-song. A song meant to be sung with gusto and not the kind of song to pick apart just like I just have. But why would I want to pick it apart? Not without at least trying to appreciate it for what it is.
Listening to songs and thinking about songs are two quite separate things. Some songs get appreciably better the more you think about them. The fact that this isn’t such a song shouldn’t be held against it. It’s a protest song after all – to protest is to “express or record dissent” not to offer up sensible and considered solutions. Phil could have been singing lah-di-dah love songs, instead he sung of the hardships of unemployment and the need for unity. What kind of a harsh critic would fault him for that?
The line “it’s a sin and a bloody shame” is strikingly similar to a line in Bob Gibson’s “Some Old Woman” where Bob bemoans that “it’s a sin and a shame about the way she’s kicking my name about town“. It’s rollicking, cheeky, 7th chord filled tune may also owe something to Gibson’s influence.