It is possible to write a topical protest song that nails its subject so emphatically that it remains topical for decades to follow. This isn’t one such song; the fact it remains so apt fifty years later says more about the idiocy of it’s subject then it does about the power of the song.
The first few times I listened to this album I somehow managed to miss this song completely. I can remember staring quizzically at the tracklisting thinking “Iron Lady? Iron Lady? How does that one go?” Is there a greater fault for a protest song, to be so…ignorable?
Phil’s rather busy strumming fails to lift the song’s rather mournful tone that perhaps needs a little more anger, a little more bite. What we have instead is cold-eyed rationality, there is little wrong with the lyrics that make sense but, ironically, the song is rather lifeless. The Chaplain verse, a chance to really show the hypocrisy of capital punishment ends instead with a rather muted “the State’s allowed to murder in the chair”.
Phil is often more surefooted when he is dealing with specifics – and Paul Crump is a case in point, a far livelier song with the killer (pardon the pun) repeated line – “If a man can change, then a man should live”. If you want to listen to a Phil Ochs song about the insanity of capital punishment, listen to Paul Crump instead.
Phil’s sleevenotes refer to Caryl Chessman – perhaps the song should have dealt more specifically with him than to refer rather blandly to the general nature of death row, but Ronnie Hawkins got there first – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSV9uQcauIs
On May 2nd 1960 Caryl Chessman was executed.
Yet, the Chessman was died wasn’t the same one that was arrested.
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that “With extraordinary energy, Chessman made, on the very edge of extinction, one of those startling efforts of personal rehabilitation, salvation of the self”.
Between 1948 and 1960, Chessman was granted 8 stays of execution, wrote three memoirs, one novel, became an expert in American law and gave countless interviews to journalists from all over the world. He was imprisoned under death sentence for longer than anyone in American history
Chessman had been convicted of kidnapping two women and forcing them, at gunpoint to commit acts of “sexual perversion” upon him. In California at the time the punishment for ‘kidnapping’ was death. Having previously spent time in San Quentin for robbery, assault and attempted murder, Chessman received two death sentences.
Like Joe Hill before him, Chessman decided to represent himself, and like Joe, it did him no favours. “My soul” Chessman wrote, “is not for sale”. Chessman may have been guilty. He may also have been innocent. Regardless, there were enough uncertainties inthe trial to at least demand a retrial. California, it seems, was unwilling to offer him one.
Chessman’s final stay of execution was granted at 9.59 on May 2nd 1960. As Chessman sat, strapped to the chair, desperate attempts were made to contact the prison warden and get the execution postponed. By the time the call got through Chessman was all but dead.
A prison mate of Chessman was one Merle Haggard, who would go on to write Okie From Muskogee, a personal favourite of Phil’s.