Monthly Archives: April 2014

Talking Birmingham Jam

Talking Birmingham

 

Anyone unprepared for this song will already have been warned as to its content by Talking Vietnam, Phil’s previous talking blues effort that appears on All The News That’s Fit To Sing. In that instance Vietnam was introduced to us as “Southeast Asian Birmingham”. Birmingham then must be “Southeast American Vietnam”. The inference is clear – there is war raging in Birmingham just as there is in Vietnam. And what’s more, unless we take a stand, we the people are complicit.
It wouldn’t be long until Phil would stop writing explicitly about civil rights and racism (and songs about racism and civil rights don’t get any more explicit than Here’s To The State of Mississippi!) but the themes inherent in his civil rights songs are also present in his anti-war songs, indignation at the role of politicians, sympathy for those involved whether they be blacks or soldiers (or both) and an almost crazed incredulity at what his country was up to. As White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land gives a first person account of a foreign war zone, Talking Birmingham Jam gives us a first person account of a war raging closer to home.

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“They said ‘Sure we have old Bull Conner,
There he goes a-walking yonder’”

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This is Theophilus Eugene Conner, or Bull to his friends and enemies alike. A native of Birmingham since 1922, Connor ran in the Democratic Primary for a seat in the Alabama House of Representatives in 1934. Claiming that his candidacy was something of a joke his popularity as a sports commentator on local radio nevertheless saw him victorious.
He put himself forward as a plain speaking man of the people. So what if he didn’t graduate high school? He stood for low-taxes and segregation. He served as Commissioner of Public Safety in Birmingham from 1937 until 1952 and again (after a brief respite following a police corruption scandal and rumours of an extra marital affair) between 1957-1963, a role that saw him oversee the running of the police department. He also served as a Delegate to five Democratic National Conventions and in ’48 led the “Dixiecrat” walkout of Southern Delegates in protest over President Truman’s civil rights policies.
Sam Ostrow of the University of Alabama argues that Connor’s extreme, unadulterated bigotry (the Encyclopaedia of Alabama describes him as both an “icon of racial intolerance” and a “staunch and sometimes flamboyant white supremacist”) inadvertently helped bring about the giant strides towards Civil Rights that culminated in the 1964 Civil Rights Act. According to Ostrow Connor “became the face of bigotry in the segregated South, and was an easy figure to hate – and rally against”. Even President Kennedy is quoted as saying that “the civil rights movement should thank God for Bull Connor. He helped it as much as Abraham Lincoln.”
By 1963 Birmingham’s reputation as a hotbed of racialism was such that Dr. King called it a “symbol of hard-core resistance to integration”. The violent actions of segregationists were such that it had acquired the nickname Bombingham. The Reverend James Bevel, one of King’s key advisors and a fellow leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came up with an idea. Sick of violence towards activists (in 1961 Freedom Riders had been set upon by the Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, while the police did nothing allowing the beatings to continue unabated) he began organising what became known as the “Children’s Crusade”. Starting on the 2nd of May 1963 black public schools in Birmingham and across Jefferson County emptied as young black protesters, carrying placards and looks of proud defiance, took to the streets of Birmingham, protesting racial violence and segregation. By the 7th of March they numbered 3000. Bull Connor responded with mass arrests, high-pressured hoses and police dogs. Images of the protesters cowering from police with vicious dogs flooded the American media. By the 10th of May Connor’s position had become untenable. The protestors had scored a major victory. Dr King announced that “the walls of segrgation will crumble in Birmingham and they will crumble soon”.

According to Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University “the Children’s Crusade turned the tide of the movement”.  Dr King wrote in his autobiography of the events that week in Birmingham as “the time of our greatest stress, and the courage and conviction of those students and adults made it our finest hour”.

Fifty years later Birmingham, Alabama has an African-American Mayor and a majority African-American City Council. After May 1963, in Dr King’s words, “The city of Birmingham discovered a conscience”.
Bull Connor died in 1973. Still wrong and still unrepentant.

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“Well I said ‘there’s still something missing here
You must have a Governor somewhere?’”

The Governor of Alabama was George Corley Wallace Jr. and he was very much involved. Even a brief glimpse into the life of George Wallace reveals him to be a rather nasty boil on the backside of the United States. Wallace was a three-time Governor of Alabama and stood four times for President of the United States. He ran as an independent in 1968 and won a staggering 13.5% of the vote, meaning that some 10,000,000 Americans voted for him.

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Elected Governor of Alabama in 1962 by a record margin he proudly proclaimed “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”. On June 11th 1963 he stood in the doorway of the Foster Auditorium building in the University of Alabama to physically stop African-American students from enrolling. The next day Medgar Evers died. These really were the days of decision.

 *

“Cracking jokes…talking to Huntley Brinkley…”

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The Huntley-Brinkley Report was the flagship NBC evening news programme, presented by Chet Huntley in New York and David Brinkley in Washington from 1956 until 1970. Wallace took umbrage with their reporting of events in Birmingham and sent them a telegram telling them so;
“I refer to your program of this date (May 13, 1963). Your coverage of this situation in Birmingham, Alabama amounted to a series of deliberate, unmitigated lies. Your management of the news is resented and is an affront to those dedicated law enforcement agencies of the State of Alabama, City of Birmingham and Jefferson County, Alabama, whose men risked their lives in an attempt to quell a vicious negro mob and, in fact, brought the violence of last Saturday night completely under control. I challenge you and the sponsors of your program to question the truth of my statement.”

George Wallace
Governor of Alabama.

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“”Signed by Governor Wallace and Rin Tin Tin”

Rin Tin Tin was a famous dog. Not as famous as Lassie perhaps, but famous enough to be given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, in 1963 coincidentally.

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The August 1963 edition of Broadside magazine leads with a song that went down a storm as during Phil’s his set at the Newport Folk Festival the previous month. There are moments in Phil’s career were things happened just right. His set at Newport, and his performance of Talking Birmingham Jam in particular, is one such occasion. It’s inclusion on the cover of the very next edition of Broadside is perhaps testament to its success.
This was Phil playing to his people. Usually disparate, at Newport they were gathered en masse. This audience would get his politics, would automatically boo and hiss as Bull Conner’s name is mentioned, dig his Wood Guthrie reference and perhaps have a slight musical crush on this young, guitar in hand as the breeze blows the hair away from his face as he sings his songs of freedom.

Released on record nearly two years after performing it at Newport, Talking Birmingham Jam lost a little of its power and charm. Phil’s performance is slower, his voice deeper and less expressive. This was, near as dammit, old news. The second and last talking blues that Phil would release in his lifetime (though he wrote numerous others , it lacks a little of the cutting humour of Talking Vietnam. The main joke is a (that the city is being run by dogs) wears a little thin. As an instant reaction to a horrific news story it’s fine. As a considered treatise of it it is somewhat lacking. Back in Newport in July 1963 however, it was a little great and lucky for us that performance has been captured on record and on film.

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The Men Behind The Guns

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When soldiers have been baptised in the fire of a battlefield, they have all one rank in my eyes

 – Napoleon Bonaparte

The protest song as work of art.

The third poem that Phil would turn into a song and also the last.

Whilst Phil would make minor, respectful, changes to Poe’s The Bells and Noyes’ The Highwayman, he is far bolder here. What we have here is less an adaptation of John Jerome Rooney’s poem and more a spoof of it.

One is a rather gormless poem saluting the brave men of war.

The other is an attack upon those who stand back while others die for their folly.

With Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends Phil would camoflage a song of outrage at a morally corrupt society as a happy go lucky pop song. In this instance it is not the form of the song that allows for such subterfuge, but rather the subtle changes to the content. In the album’s sleevenotes Phil offers an apology to Rooney for “changing a few lines” as the “discipline of the music had to win out in the end”. I’d politely suggest that there was as much politics as music that brough the changes about.

While Rooney writes of the officers who never “fear when the foe is near to practise what they preach“, Phil has them not fearing     “to lay their orders down“. Shore leave finds Rooney’s men “light and merry of heart” and “with more than enough of the green-backed stuff“. Phil, in an early nod to a theme he would expand upon in Pleasures Of The Harbor, finds his men with “their hearts a-pounding heavy” and “with never enough of the green-backed stuff“.

While Phil hangs on to exciting, though somewhat overwrought, lines like “And the very air is a mad despair in the throes of a living hell” he thinks nothing of adding in a whole new verse contrasting the officers with their “straps of gold that dazzle like the sun” with the “blue-blouse chaps” who you’d think would “have better clothes to wear“. This momentary dispensing with subtlety means that when Phil returns to the opening verse to close the song, his heralding of the Admiral, Captain and Commodore is unrepentantly and obviously sarcastic. Phil’s changes to Rooney’s poem also allows changes in the meaning of some of the words Rooney himself uses. In Rooney’s poem the “behind” in Men Behind The Guns suggest the men responsible for the guns. When Phil sings it suggests men cowering behind the guns, cowering behind the soldiers who are doing the real fighting. It’s good, subtle stuff. So many protest song are either blunt to the point of childishness or bland to the point of pointlessness. How many are as subtle as this?

It’s a lot of fun too. Phil’s melody allows him to rip through the lyrics, treating Rooney’s poem and its sentiments with disdain. I owe a debt of gratitude to singer-songwriter Al Baker (who’s debut album contains a rather lovely tribute to Phil) for my love of this song. It was one of the songs on Phil’s early LPs that had passed me by until I heard Al sing it at a Phil Ochs song night in Liverpool. A recurring theme of my frustrations as a Phil Ochs fan is the knowledge that hearing Phil’s songs on record is barely half the story. Lucky for me that Al was able to bring to life songs that Phil was unable. And yet, like The Hills of West Virginia, The Men Behind The Guns isn’t one that Phil would continue to play live – his sets would contain his so-called classics (Changes, There But For FortuneI Ain’t Marching Anymore) a few songs from his current LP and whatever current songs he was tinkering with. Many songs got lost along the way. Whilst this is perhaps understandable of his “topical” songs, songs such as this one sound as current and vibrant now as they would at any time since it was written.

Phil’s sleevenotes state that he found Rooney’s poem in a book of “bland patriotic poems”. This may have been “Poems of American Patriotism” selected by Brander Mathews. Originally published in 1882 it was reprinted in 1922 with a dedication to the recently departed President Theodore Roosevelt. Mathews’ introduction explains why the book was conceived;

“an attempt has been made…to gather together the patriotic poems of America, those which depict feelings as well as those which describe actions, since these latter are as indicative of the temper of the time…Americans have been quick to take to heart a stirring telling of a daring and noble deed”.

One can only imiagine Phil being stirred to write a body of work that would act as an andidote to all that.

Rooney was a part-time poet and a full time lawyer, being a partner in the law firm Rooney and Spence based in Beaver Street, New York City. A New York native his terrifying sounding poem “Right Makes Might” was chosen as the song to sung by New York schools as part of the city’s 250th Anniversary Celebrations. It seems he specialised in poems of a military persuasion (or perhaps his non militaristic poems have been lost by the wayside) of which The Men Behind The Guns seems all too typical.

The 1922 edition contain a sidenote dated 1898 next to Rooney’s poem that states “The high quality of American marksmanship was never more conclusively shown than in the battle of Santiago”. The Battle of Santiago refers not to the crazy 1962 soccer match between Italy and Chile but rather to the final act of the Spanish-American war fought in June and July of 1898. The Santiago in question was a harbour on the southern coast of Cuba. Supported by land troops (including a cavalry of Rough Riders led by the aforementioned Rooselvelt) the U.S. fleet shot the Spanish ships to smithereens. It is somehwat bittersweet that American actions on foreign soil were celebrated by poets at the turn of the century. Some sixty years later poets, and songwriters, were reacting with horror at their country’s actions. Phil’s version of The Men Behind The Guns captures this change beautifully, and poignantly.

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The Hills of West Virginia

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Almost heaven…
– John Denver

If I was into making lists and I was to make a list of my favourite Phil Ochs songs, no matter how small the list, this would be on it.
Which seems rude somehow because, at first listen at least, it seems so atypical of Phil. Partly because what this song is, and what so few of Phil’s early songs are, is subtle. It isn’t quite his paean to the beauty of his nation (with a few caveats). That song is The Power and The Glory. It isn’t either a simple songs about the beauty of the countryside and nature torn asunder by mans careless hands. That song may be Eric Andersen’s ‘The Plains of Nebrasky-O’. What this is is something else entirely.
In the sleeve notes to I Ain’t Marching Anymore Phil writes of this song being little more than “pictures taken with my mind” from when he and fellow singer-songwriter Eric Andersen drove down to Hazard, Kentucky, “which don’t have any special message”. A Phil Ochs song with no special message?! I’ll believe it when I hear it.
If one were to take Phil’s City Boy as gospel (which I’m pretty sure it isn’t) then Phil felt more at home “where the grass was made of steel” rather than in the countryside. His later song Boy In Ohio may suggest otherwise however, with its youthful tales of “swimming and picking berries”. All the same, for all the gentleness of delivery and the beauty of the lyrics there is something queasiness lurking in the background of this song – and I’m not just talking about travel sickness.
Where The Power and the Glory takes an epic sweep across the country, The Hills of West Virginia are seen with a wary eye, painting a picture that is somehow far more real and nuanced, where ugly reality interferes with the promise of scenic beauty. It addresses something that neither The Power And The Glory nor ‘This Land Is Your Land’ does; this may be your land and it may be pretty, but it doesn’t mean you’re always welcome.

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It opens all calm and friendly as we drift from the “flat plains of Ohio” (Phil’s “home” state) passing the singing Ohio river as we go (“Down beside where the waters flow/Down by the banks of the old Ohio” as Joan Baez sang). Such friendliness continues, with the “red sun of the morning smiling through the trees” and the fog hugging the road like a “cloudy, cloudy sea” bringing to mind Tape From California and Phil like a “sailor across the land”. There is a sense of adventure here, but so far at least, it’s a benign one.
We can forgive hokey phrasing like “drank of the wine”, as it seems fitting somehow. We are firmly in folk territory here – a place where the song’s simple structure and slightly hokey moments feel totally at home. The journey continues as the road winds and winds and all the while the gentle melody and the gentle strumming (all three chords of it) takes us with it.
But then there is a change and a contrast between the “wealth of the beauty that we passed” and the “many old shacks a-growing older”. This is a little glimpse of rural poverty. Wealth and poverty side by side. For what use is beauty view when one is poor? And as the city boys drive on, drinking and smoking, they see “broken bottles laying on the grass”. A minor detail perhaps, but one that suggests a little more. Is it mere carelessness or thoughtlessness? Or maybe even signs of alcoholism? Or drinking away the boredom of rural life?
Next we meet the locals, if meet isn’t too strong a word. The Virginians stand by road side “proud as a boulder” and we assume just as tough and impenetrable, to these outsiders at least. And then the key line, the line that makes the song, wrapped up in ambivalence, leaving the listener to suppose and try and work it out;

And we wondered at each other with a meeting of the eye”.

It’s not obviously a moment of hostility nor of friendliness. It may even be both or neither, but it’s probably something else. What would these rural West Virginians make of Phil? What would they have seen? What Phil make of them? It’s up to the listener to decide.
The next verse, where they stop and gaze and dream at the “womb of the valley” is a moment of calm and wonder. Maybe Phil is thinking of the people they have just seen, who knows. The final two verses though are filled with threat as they get ever further from the “smiling sun” and the banks of the Ohio. Instead we get rocks “staring cold and jagged” and dynamited mountain sides, the “shadows of night” and knowing that the “mountains followed us and watched us from behind”. In short, they are out of their comfort zone. John Denver sang of West Virginia as being “almost heaven”. Phil’s song suggests that he understands the heaven part, but it sure as heck isn’t gonna ignore the almost neither.
Maybe it’s in these lines in the closing verses that we get to see a little something of what Phil saw in the eyes of the locals. We are not quite in Easy Rider or Deliverance territory here, but the feeling of unease is palpable, however subtly expressed.

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This isn’t a ‘classic’ Phil Ochs song. At least it isn’t considered so. It doesn’t appear on any of the various best-ofs or compilations. They couldn’t even find room for it on the Farewells and Fanatsies box-set. And yet it remains a little gem. A gem that seems to shine all the brighter for having been so overlooked. Phil was a wonderful songwriter and The Hills of West Virginia is the proof.

 

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