Monthly Archives: June 2014

Flickering Thoughts #2

PhilMeeg

Now here’s a rare thing!

At the time of writing I can walk into my local branch of HMV and purchase a Phil Ochs CD. It’s been a while since this has been possible. The last time was probably when Phil’s first two albums were released as part of the Elektra reissues ten or so years ago. They didn’t stock Phil Ochs in Concert when it was re-issued a couple of years ago and I have never seen any of his A&M records in there and, they way things are looking, I never will. It is odd that, instead of being able to go into a large record shop (it’s the largest chain in the UK by the way) and buy a classic Phil Ochs record, one that was carefully written and produced and lushly packaged and re-mastered – I can wander in and buy a cd called A Hero Of The Game…a ropey recording made late one night when Phil wandered onto Bob Fass’s Radio Unnameable show and chatted and strummed through a few of the sonsg he had percolating in his brain at that pericular time.  As exciting as it remains to listen to such a candid and intimate session, it’s always been one of the more readily available bootlegs and anyway I can’t imagine any uninitiated Phil fans being particularly interested in it. It also contains uber-shoddy sleevenotes (uncreditied, of course). Surely it wouldn’t have been too hard to find out that Phil’s debut LP wasn’t called “All The News That’s Fit To Print” and that he didn’t die on his 36th birthday? I guess that Phil fans can’t be choosers.

Fass is one of those many people who played a small, but nevertheless important, part in Phil’s life and career,  who also has a story of their own to tell.Abbie Hoffman referred to Bob Fass as the movement’s “secret weapon” and it Fass’s show that he called to announce the formation of the Yipees.  Fass’s intention was to “put my culture on the air…politics and exotic people” and along the way “to entertain and spread compassion”. It was on Fass’s show that Phil first heard Sammy Walker.

In 1968 Phil asked “What happened to all the promise of the beautiful, exciting aesthetic of 1965?”, yet what did Phil do in 1965? As far as his recorded output is concerned you’d be left feeling that the answer is…not very much! Though it was released in 1965, I Ain’t Marching Anymore was actually recorded in 1964 – so essentially Phil recorded nothing at all in 1965, nothing that got released anyway.

The Fass recording captures Phil in December 1965, between the release of I Ain’t Marching Anymore and the recording of Phil Ochs In Concert, and contains only two songs that features on either. The transition between the two albums is not quite the seismic shift that occurred between In Concert and Pleasures Of The Harbor, but there is change afoot none the less. There is a whole raft of songs written around this time that never made it onto a record.

For a topical songwriter there is something awful about this, that his songs topicality should be so compromised.  Worse than this lack of topicality is something that emerges out the songs he was writing at the end of ’64 and into ’65, somethat that would charecterise so many of the songs of this period. This could be described as simply a fear of ageing. Not of death, but of growing old. Phil was barely 25, but he was getting this sense that life was passing fast and he had to grab it while he could.

Think of I’m Tired with its reference to a world that “tears on my time“; think of Song of My Returning with its “time must have her victory” and “deeper are the lines upon the face” and the “fast dissolving years“; think of his  Sailors and Soldiersgrowing older, over the sea“; think of Take It Out Of My Youth with it’s refrain that youth is akin to a tab at a bar; think of You Can’t Get Stoned Enough where “every hour tells you that you’re growing older“, think of A Year To Go By positively full of his fear of ageing where Phil tells us “I know the rules, old men are fools“. Think of all this then think of Changes. Taken on its own Changes is a song of heartbreak, of a relationship dying. In the company of all these other songs it becomes a song about growing old – where his youth had become nothing but a shadow. His first two albums were littered with bad stuff and his response to bad stuff. By 1965 his worries were becoming personal – what was he going to do? What had he done? How much time did he have left? How was he going to respond?

And how did he respond? With utmost positivity, that’s how! “I’m gonna do what I have to do, say what I have to say“, “When I’ve got something to say sir, I’m gonna say it now” and finally “I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here“. He was going to make the most of the time he was given. What was that line in Song Of My Returning? “I’ve got to conquer all the courage of my fears“. Well he did – and it ended up with “I’m going to give all that I’ve got to give/ Cross my heart/ And I hope to live”.

Something changed between I Ain’t Marching Anymore and Phil Ochs In Concert. Phil suddenly realised he needed to get busy. It helped make Phil Ochs Concert the album of a Phil Ochs fans dreams!

(P.S. – This idea of this “lost” Phil Ochs studio album between I Ain’t Marching and Pleasures of the Harbor rather tickles me. The stripped down arrangement of The Trial on the A Toast To Those Who Are Gone album offers a clue – a set-up somewhere between the solo-guitar of I Ain’t Marching Anymore and the orchestral excesses of Pleasures of the Harbour. Perhaps the pared down arrangements on Tim Hardin’s early records could been an influence , after all, Phil was certainly a fan. That this album happened perhaps suggests that Phil (and/or Elektra) were more concerned with pushing the topical/political aspect of Phil’s songs over the personal. Certainly the album that would follow – Phil Ochs in Concert – is heavy with the political – and heavier still with the social.

If Phil had recorded an album in 1965 I’m sure it would have been wonderful. That he didn’t is a shame, but a shame that is tempered by the appearance of Phil Ochs in Concert in 1966 – probably my favourite Phil Ochs album and one that does something that, listening 60 years later anyway, his first couple of albums don’t quite do. And that is – bring Phil Ochs to life. Not the Phil Ochs that countless hours in the studio left behind, but the Phil Ochs who stood on stage, chatted, and sang these wonderful songs.

For arguments sake, this lost album could have looked something like this –

1 – Do What I Have To Do

2 – City Boy

3 – I’m Tired

4 – Take It Out Of My Youth

5 – We Seek No Wider War

6 – Song Of My Returning

7 – The Confession

8 – The Trial

9 – Morning (Jazz Version)

10 – Just One Of Those Days

11 – A Year To Go By

Come on! That would have been great, wouldn’t it?)

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Here’s To The State of Mississippi

Mississippi

Phil described this as one of his most criticised songs – and also one of his favourites. That his most criticised song was also his favourite perhaps tells us much about Phil’s no-nonsense approach to song writing at this time.
A great chunk of this criticism came from Dave Van Ronk who wrote this in his autobiography;
“I thought a lot of [Phil’s] stances were too simplistic, which was typical of that whole crowd. His positions would make sense in a limited way, but he had not really thought them through. Like when he wrote Here’s To The State Of Mississippi, I understood that he had been down there and had been horrified by what he was seeing, but I thought that singling out Mississippi as a racist hell hole was unfair to the other 49 states. As Malcolm X used to say, ‘there’s down south and there’s up south’. Without all the activists who were from there, none of that movement would have happened, and having some northerner come down and shit all over Mississippi was unfair to the people who were trying to fix up their state. And it was also too damn easy”.
Phil response came in an article he wrote for Sing Out in 1965:
“…on the surface [Here’s to the State of Mississippi] goes against the basic policies of all the civil rights groups and the established rational voices of the Left…Now, normally you might say that the important thing is to encourage moderate business elements of the power structure of the state, bring about the vote, and get Mississippi back into the Union. I agree with that on a rational political level. But artistically and emotionally, I wrote that song the day 19 suspects [in the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers] were allowed to go free. It’s a song of passion, a song of raw emotional honesty, a song that records a sense of outrage. Even though reason later softens that rage, it is essential that rage is recorded, for how else can future generations understand the revulsion that swept the country? On another level, it is my act of murder against the good name of Mississippi, an act of vengeance that couldn’t begin to avenge the countless atrocities of that forsaken land. In other words, at the depth of its irresponsibility, Mississippi had become the symbol of evil in America, and the song is only exhorting that evil to leave”.
In essence, Van Ronk was spot on, but was still missing the point. Phil wasn’t trying to come up with a level-headed response to what he had seen and heard in Mississippi – he was merely trying to capture his anger, bottling it for future generations to open and smell the stanch of Southern bigotry 1960s style. I am that future generation and none of Phil’s other songs of Mississippi comes close to this one. And they are many; The Ballad of Medgar Evers, The Ballad of Oxford, Colored Town, Days of Decision, Freedom Riders, Going Down To Mississippi, William Moore, Love Me I’m A Liberal and You Should Have Been Down In Mississippi all reference the state and it’s bigotry in some way. This here is Phil at his most belligerent, his most precise. Van Ronk attacked the song for what it wasn’t – a calm reasonable response to belligerent racism. What it is is a Phil Ochs song in all its searing, righteous, unapologetic glory. Sis Cunnigham and Gordon Friesen called it “one of the strongest songs ever to scorch the pages of [Broadside]”. I, for one, am not going to argue with them.

*

Phil travelled down to Mississippi in the summer 1964 as part of The Mississippi Caravan of Music organised by Bob Cohen. Cohen’s piece about the Caravan in Broadside #51 describes it as being part of “the most ambitious civil rights project ever”. Known as Freedom Summer, the idea was to encourage the political participation of blacks through action, education and song. The singers themselves were also there to learn. Cohen tells of them learning about black history, being taught of how Freedom songs were being sung back in the days of slavery and of the contribution made by black musicians to American (and therefore world) culture. They also got and insight into the current lives of Southern blacks.
Over twenty singers including Phil and Len Chandler, Judy Collins, Jim and Jean, Carolyn Hester, Pete Seeger, Peter La Farge and Gil Turner took part, helping with and learning about the thirty or so projects set up all over Mississippi. The intention was to put song, Freedom Song, at the heart of the struggle as Cohen wrote “somehow you can go on in the face of violence and death and inaction of the FBI, the indifference of the Federal Government when you can sing with your band of brothers”.
The experience had a quite profound effect on Phil.
In the midst of this Freedom Summer, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing;
“Perhaps the most notable episode of violence came in Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner left their base in Meridian, Miss., to investigate one of a number of church burnings in the eastern part of the state. The Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion Church because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. After the three young men had gone into Neshoba County to investigate, they were subsequently stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price. After several hours, Price finally released them only to arrest them again shortly after 10pm. He then turned the civil rights workers over to his fellow Klansmen. The group took the activists to a remote area, beat them, and then shot them to death. [It is suggested] that because Schwerner and Goodman were white the federal government responded by establishing an FBI office in Jackson and calling out the state’s National Guard and U.S. Navy to help search for the three men. Of course this was the response the Freedom Summer organizers had hoped for when they asked for white volunteers.
After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen, including Price, were arrested and tried for the brutal killings. A Jury of sympathisers found them all not guilty. Some time later, the federal government charged the murderers with violating the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. This time the Klansmen were convicted and served sentences ranging from two to ten years”.

 (From Curtis J.Austin, The Civil Rights Movement In Miss, State Historical Society.)

goodman

*

According to Bob Cohen “the struggle in Mississippi is what this great country of the United States of America is all about”. If Phil’s reaction is anything to go by, those States were not quite as United as the name suggests.
Over eight five-line verses Phil takes aim at the pillars of Mississippi, aiming his sights ever higher with each new verse. Starting with from the land itself (“the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes”) and it’s people (“who say the folks up north they just don’t understand”) to the education system (“every single classroom is a factory of despair”) , the police (“behind their broken badges there are murderers and more”), the courts (“when the black man is accused the trial is always short”), up to the State Government (“criminals are posing as the mayors of the towns”) and the judiciary (“the constitution’s drowning in an ocean of decay”) before landing the fatal, final, blow of the Man himself – “Heaven only knows in which God they can trust”. Its nigh on six minutes long and every single line is filled with fire and feeling.
Yet for all the obvious anger of its writing it still has a sense of order to it. Phil makes sure that methodically nails each subject before moving on to the next. There is also a rather strange calmness to Phil’s delivery of it on the LP. The words are definitely angry, but there is precious little vitriol in his delivery. This is especially apparent in comparison with his later Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon, with its thunderous strumming and spit-speckled delivery. He sings “Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of” with glee. There is no such glee evident as he sings “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of”. Rather there is just sadness. Sadness that he has been forced to sing such ugly lyrics. Sadness that such events were going on in his own beloved country.
Ironically, despite Van Ronk’s argument that Phil was wrong to pick on one State in particular, the major failing of Here’s To The State of Mississippi was that it wasn’t specific enough. Whilst Richard Nixon was a very real evil to Phil, Phil must have been aware that a state is made up of such a varied set of people that the name Mississippi couldn’t represent them all. What he needed was something to represent all the bad in the state, just as Nixon would later do. Whilse Mississippi essentially becomes a symbol for racism, whilst that works up to a point, the prevelence of racism elsewhere, negates its impact.
As it happens Phil himself was eventually won round by Van Ronk’s argument. He told Lauren Jones and David Fenton of the Ann Arbor Sun in March 1974 that “I stopped singing the song for a while. Especially after Mississippi John Hurt, one drunken night, said ‘Phil, you really shouldn’t sing that song anymore. After all, people like me are from Mississippi too’”.
Nevertheless the song does exactly what Phil intended it to do. This is topical song in the raw. And while Phil’s stance on Mississippi may have softened – as he foretold it would – sixty years later it still retains its power.

*

I was considering how to end this piece, trying to come to terms with what this song is all about – coming as it does at the end of his second album, coming at the end of what one could argue was his early-years. That his songwriting changed after this (both the unreleased songs of this period as well as some of the songs on Phil Ochs In Concert evidence a lurch towards the personal and the pissed-off) also adds significance. But how to fully explain that? Then I read this quote from the maverick film maker Werner Herzog – “the poet must not avert his eyes. You have to take a bold look at…what is around you, even the ugly…decadent…dangerous things”.

What Here’s To The State Of Mississippi suggests, more than anything, is certainty. As much as it is about the evils of the state, it is also a song about protest song itself. And if protest song means anything it means certainty. It wouldn’t be long before a Phil Ochs album would start with the words “I don’t know”. The certainty of Phil Ochs The Early Years would soon seem all the more bitter than sweet. Here’s To The State Of Mississippi doesn’t just capture outrage, it captures protest song in its purest. Rather than knock it for its faults, let’s try and celebrate it for capturing that time when Phil Ochs “saw the devil and called him Satan” – unapologetically, belligerently, but still brilliantly.

It’s one hell of a song to end an album.

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