– 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.
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.
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.