“And so, the flame of rebellion lay dormant in the west until Mario Silvio at Berkeley…” – Phil
Any argument that Phil’s third album is something of a departure from his first two is perhaps weakened by the fact that it is peppered, as his previous albums are, with topical songs of protest. That I’m Going To Say It Now opens the album helps illustrate the point though – this isn’t the same old, same old. Phil sounds fresher, more confident. Here we find Phil attacking his prey with all the “anger and amusement” he could muster. Having clubbed his audience with images of burning books, references to Chang Kai-Shek* and Chairman Mao and lines like “we also are entitled to the rights to be endowed” Phil then tickles them with;
“You’d like to be my father, like to be my dad,
Give me kisses when I’m good and spank me when I’m bad”.
It’s a heady mix and one that, for me at least, I am totally powerless to not be seduced by. It somehow manages to capture everything we already knew and loved about Phil but add something a little extra. Phil isn’t singing about the terrors of war, the evils of racism or the horrors of totalitarianism – he’s singing about freedom of speech and treats its enemies with total disdain – his snide, barbed lyrics wrapping up a very real threat – the threat of a songwriter full of both self confidence and confidence in his peers. For here we find the age-war of which I have written previously. The “friend or two who no longer live at home” are the youth of his generation. And “youth” is the key word. The nameless people to whom the song is directed (presumably those than run Berkeley and any enemy of free speech and progress) are set apart not only by their actions, but also by their age;
“And I know that you were younger once because you sure are older now”.
The threat – the conflict between not just the students and the people in charge of the University but also between strident youth and the people in charge of the country – is made obvious in the sixth verse;
“I’ve read of other countries where the students take a stand,
Maybe even help to overthrow the leaders of the land”.
The line that follows (“Now I wouldn’t go so far to say we’re also learning how”) may be somewhat coy but is only a knowing wink away from being something a whole lot more.
This is not a song merely about a problem, nor a bland, naïve proclamation of good intentions – this is a celebration of a solution. That Phil was able to take a specific situation and make give it a wider meaning is testament not just to his growing skills as a songwriter but also of the potency of the events that inspired him.
“In 1964 at the University of California in Berkeley the members of the Free Speech Movement on two occasions took over an administration building, refusing to leave until their demand for the right to voice their opinions on current issues was respected” – (United States History From 1865, Rice and Kraut, 1991)
Born in New York City, Mario Silvio and his family moved west where he eventually enrolled at the University of California, Berkely. In 1963 he got heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, where he helped with voter registration drives and taught at a freedom school for black children.
Upon his return to Berkeley he found that all political activity and fund raising had been outlawed by the University. Thus began the Free Speech Movement.
Stemming from a University of California law against the distribution of political literature on campus, the Free Speech Movement chimed with Phil who had quit his the University of Ohio after having his writing for campus paper, The Lantern, censored after he wrote a piece celebrating Castro’s Cuba. Just as Phil’s songwriting was gaining power and momentum, so it seemed was the youth of America, and Berkeley was a hub of youth action.
The real beauty of the Free Speech Movement was that it acknowledged that its struggle was part of a larger movement. As Steven Marshall wrote in his book ‘The Trouble In Berkeley’ the students at Berkeley were becoming concerned that the University was becoming part of an “expanding web of power” that included “automation, national defense and research and development”. The united front of youth activists included not just the stalwarts of the left (CORE, SNCC and SDS) but also Young Republicans and Cal. Students for Goldwater. Mario Silvio, at the heart of the campaign stated that the Free Speech Movement and the Civil Rights movement (and the later anti-war movement) were as one – “The same rights are
at stake in both places – the right to participate as citizens in a democratic society and the right to due process of law.”
The outcome was suitably inspiring. In December 1964 the University declared that political activism would be allowed on campus and any outstanding charges against Free Speech Movement activists would be dropped. It was a significant victory. Phil was obviously suitably inspired.
University campuses would become regular stops on Phil’s tours throughout the US. In those crowds Phil would find young people to inspire and be inspired by. I’m Going To Say It Now would become a staple of his set. It’s a hell of a way to kick off his third LP.
The incidents at Berkeley also introduced Phil, and the world, to Jerry Rubin. Arthur Gorson, who managed Phil in the mid-sixties and was better versed in old school political activism than the impish campaigns led Jerry Rubin and his cohort Abbie Hoffman, perhaps best summed up Phil’s relationship with Rubin – “If I’d been Phil Ochs’ father I might have suggested that Jerry wasn’t a good influence”. Nevertheless Rubin, and Hoffman, would play a significant part in the development of Phil’s activism, something we shall hear a lot more about in later posts.
For all the uniting of youth against the forces of power that the Free Speech Movement represented it was also highly dependent on an individual – and that was Mario Silvio. A fact that will not have been lost on Phil. Silvio’s most famous speech could have been Jerry Rubin a few years later;