I suppose I’d better admit it straight away. I don’t like this song. I have absolutely no interest in it. Oh, it’s nice enough I suppose, but that is part of the problem.
It is worth bearing in mind that quite apart from being a performer and recording artist in his own right Phil also worked very hard to get his songs recorded by other singers. If There But For Fortune sounds like someone else’s song, which it does to me, then the reason might that to a large extent it is someone else’s song. Phil’s quip that it was written for him by Joan Baez actually has a ring of truth to it.
Part of Phil’s problem, albeit a problem that to large extent he created for himself, was that at the heart of his aim to become the “first left-wing star” was a dichotomy that he struggled to fully come to terms with. In being “left-wing” he was compelled to challenge issues head-on that would be considered controversial by a mainstream audience. In wanting to be a “star” he would have to find a way of dealing with these issues in such a way as to be palatable to a wider public. The compromise solution was There But For Fortune.
In Phil’s introduction to Love Me I’m A Liberal he calls out liberalism as being chiefly concerned with issues only they affect them personally. There But For Fortune is an extension of that, a gentle reminder that these issues that may seem remote (war, homelessness, alcoholism, criminality) could very easily bite you on the arse someday.
It is a protest song much in the way that Blowin’ In The Wind Is. That is to say that it isn’t a protest song at all, but rather a song that suggests a concern for issues that it utterly fails to deal with in any meaningful way at all. Where it fails as a protest song (or arguably as a Phil Ochs song) it succeeds as a pop song – though it may suggest social concern, it is vague enough to pass as innocuous.
The song’s greatest crime however may be in utilising a cliché at its very heart. The refrain “there but for fortune may go you and I” is just an atheistic take on “there but for the grace of God go I”, its meaning unaltered, its uselessness as a concept unchanged. Clichés turn up in a few other Phil songs too – think of “when in Rome do as the Romans do”, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall” – but he’s at his best when subverting them – “Cross my heart and I hope to live” is a personal favourite.
Even worse is that coupled with this cliché is a contradiction – the chorus goes from “and I’ll show you a young land/ man with so many reasons why” (suggesting that behind the troubles of a person or nation are genuine reasons) to the suggestion at the heart of these problems are misfortune. If there is one thing that Phil Ochs songs teach us it is not fortune that creates bad situations, it is the actions, or inactions, of men (always men!).
What this is I suppose it is a song about empathy. Social concern. Caring. The understanding that bad stuff can happen to you and me and anyone in the right set of circumstances. In other words – stating the blooming obvious.
There is very little joy in tearing to pieces a song that I know means a lot to people. There is even less joy however in pretending to appreciate a song that I feel nothing for personally.
I feel like I’ve said enough anyway…
(I’ve been dreading writing this to be honest with you)