Category Archives: I Ain’t Marching Anymore

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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Days of Decision

Days of Decision

(Art and words by Lindsay Mercer)

This rather rousing tune came out on Phil’s second album, I Ain’t Marching Anymore. The lyrics are direct and specific. Phil is calling you and you have absolutely no excuse not to join him. The movement is already happening, and you will either join them or be trampled along with the other side. There is no uninvolved third party. This idea that the apathetic are the problem and almost more dangerous to the movement is seen throughout Phil and his contemporaries’ work. Love Me I’m a Liberal deals with this idea that those claiming to be liberal are in fact doing nothing to help the movement move forward and in fact are hindering it from doing so. It is the “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” mentality.

Phil’s voice is strong, clear, and confident. This voice resonates as a natural leader, calling the audience to join him and join the movement. This joining does not involve paper work and there are neither stickers nor buttons; when you join this movement you are pledging action. These words are a call for action, “for these are the days of decision.”

The eight verses all end with the tagline “for these are the days of decision.” This structure is straightforward, giving examples of what they are going to do and why it needs to be done; then bringing it back to the familiar title line. This structure brings the audience and the speaker back together at the end of each verse, unifying the group as a whole. As the members of the audience begin to recognize that singular line, they are allowing the phrase to sink down into their minds and become familiar with the idea that these are indeed the days of decision. If the audience remembers anything from this song, it will be this line, this bold statement of their own obligation.

The youthful hopefulness, the confidence that change will happen because of him and because of the movement, is looking to the future. There are few references to the past and the heinous crimes that need to be revenged. Instead, the focus is on the glorious act of free rebellion that will ensue, and in fact are already beginning. This song is not about the past, unlike many of Phil’s other songs. The idea of calling the audience to action is certainly not unique to this song, within Phil’s work alone there are many other examples. But what sets Days of Decision apart is its purity. This song trusts that you, the audience, already understand the direness that is the state of the country and the song is simply calling you to act upon these readily known thoughts and feelings. This song is a song to rally the troops of rebellion. This song is not about anger, but excitement. Unlike I Ain’t Marching Anymore, In The Heat of Summer, Links on the Chain, or Here’s to the State of Mississippi (all of which are on the same album as Days of Decision) the focus of the song is not on the “other” side. The only line directly referencing such an event comes in the second to last verse, when the audience is already well enthused and has already mentally joined the cause. This line “the three bodies buried in the Mississippi mud” comes as a last reminder of exactly why you must join them, to combat the “warning of the bullet and the blood.”

To finish the song, to close this battle cry of the rebellion, Phil sings one of the most articulate calls to arms to come out of the 1960’s. What it took Bob Dylan to say in five verses in The Times They Are a Changin’, Phil says in four simple and direct lines;

“There’s a change in the wind, and a split in the road

You can do what’s right or you can do what you are told

And the prize of the victory will belong to the bold

Yes, these are the days of decision.”

The confidence Phil exhibits in his belief in the movement is seen in his singing and playing. He embodies the youthful hopefulness, and also the naivety of the movement at this time. Unknowing of what is ahead, the only thing that Phil knows for certain is that there is injustice, and he and everyone else must stop it.

 

 

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The Ballad of the Carpenter (Ewan MacColl)

jesus

“What memories hallowed by a thousand sunny recollections, does not the name of Christ recall. The greatest reformer of his time—the grandest character the world’s history possesses. The holiest and hence purest of men: by some a hero, by others a divinity. The God-man. Nazareth. Jerusalem. The alpha omega of His divine life. . . . What adds luster to all His greatness and beauty is the fact that He was a poor humble carpenter—a son of toil, thus adding honor and dignity to the man who labors by the sweat of his brow. That all should do so is a command of God. He who shirks this responsibility is a drone, a clog upon the wheels of life. . . . To point with pride that the greatest, the holiest and grandest of men was a lowly workingman of the bench, the man of hammer and nails, and whose greatest heritage and glory was that same fact . . . proves that divinity is near the laborer, the man who works for his daily living, than the debauched cruel selfishness of wealth. . . . It proves that the cause of Labor is holy; that God honored and dignified it, and as such is the grandest heirloom given unto man. . . . Then, to defend labor is a virtue. To deprive it of lawful rights, to strangle it by insideous laws, reptilish and barbarous, an evil, a sin, and a crime against the mandates of the Creator himself. In such a cause prison bars are jewels grand; prison cells consecrated halls to God and man.! . . .

 Murphy O’Hea, “Christ,” The Railway Times, 1 November 1895.

The Ballad of the Carpenter may have been the most blatant song Phil recorded about Jesus, but it is far from the only reference Phil would make to the alleged son of God.

Jesus appears to have been a favourite topic for early-sixties folk singers. In his sleeve notes to his album ‘Where Have All The Flowers Gone?’ Pete Seeger wrote “Once again, the metaphors in that great old book, The Bible, keep getting reworked”. Simon And Garfunkel’s debut, ‘Wednesday Morning 3 A.M.’ for example contains several Christian-lite songs, such as You Can Tell The World and Go Tell It To The Mountain (and also contains Last Night I Had The Strangest Dream, which also made its way into Phil’s earliest sets, and I used to sing in Welsh in school). It’s a little odd to be honest. Not only does the apparent conservatism of Christianity sit uneasily with the bohemian style that was all the rage, but both Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel are Jewish, as was Phil Ochs. Then again, so was Jesus. There is not a single mention of Phil’s Jewishness in any of his songs.

And yet Jesus is everywhere.

In Here’s To The State Of Mississippi (as well as Here’s To The State Of Richard Nixon of course) he appears as a symbol of fallen idols and as a contrast with the brutish forces of hate; “the fallen face of Jesus is chocking in the dust”. In Ringing Of Revolution he appears as a symbol of hopelessness, “everything is lost as they kneel by the cross, where the blood of the Christ is still flowing”. In Christmas In Kentucky he is a symbol of empathy; “But if you knew what Christmas was, I think you would find, that Christ is spending Christmas in the cold Kentucky mine”. And in Where There’s A Will There’s A Way, he’s a civil rights symbol; “he went around the countryside preaching brotherhood”. Other symbols of Christianity also turn up in songs such as The Iron Lady, If I Knew, Rivers Of The Blood, The Passing Of My Life, As I Walk Alone, William Moore and Lou Marsh.

A line is drawn between Jesus (and his message) and modern Christianity in The Cannons Of Christianity, suggesting that the Jesus that was such a positive symbol to Phil’s generation may not have been the same bloke that Billy Graham was banging on about.

Phil’s key Jesus song however was Crucifixion, where Jesus becomes a symbol of all who become a victim of society’s bloodlust. Perhaps what is crucial here, is Phil’s weakness for martyrdom, of dying for a cause and having a cause worth dying for, a theme that is apparent in songs such as Joe Hill, The Bullets of Mexico, Lou Marsh and A Toast To Those Who Are Gone. Jesus then, emerges as the greatest martyr of all, a symbol far removed from the Jesus of conservative Christianity. I can’t help feeling that there is an element of mischief is the appropriation of Jesus as a Socialist hero. With Christianity as the bedrock of Conservative American society, calling into question the role that Jesus’s teaching has played in forming the reactionary values of the American Right may serve to call into question the values themselves.

 *

Ewan MacColl’s Jesus that emerges in The Ballad of the Carpenter is also a different one to the one that Phil refers to. MacColl notices how “wealth and poverty, live always side by side”. Jesus, gathers together working people and tells them “this world belongs to you”. His crime, the crime that leads him to the cross, was to anger the “rich men”. This theme is also present in Woody Guthrie’s “Christ For President”,; “the only way you can beat, these crooked politician men, is to run the money changers out of the temple, and put the carpenter in” and his “Jesus Christ” where it’s “the bankers and the preachers” who “nailed Him to the cross”. This is Jesus as Socialist hero.

Phil’s Jesus is less political and more simply symbolic; of purity, of martyrdom, of solidarity. It is perhaps worth noting that much of the politics of the civil rights movement was borne of the black churches. It was after all the politicised black church that gave the world Dr Martin Luther King. Mark A. Noll’s book “God and Race in American Politics” faetures an exchange between Howard Thurman, former dean of the chapel at Howard Divinity School, and a member of Gandhi’s “circle” that helps illustrate the the way in which the black church viewed Jesus;

“You have lived in a Christian nation in which you are segregated, lynched, and burned. Even in the church, I understand, there is segregation…I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you. But, sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.

Thurman’s reply described a Jesus who was poor, outcast and despised by the elites of the world, but in whom all the poor, outcast and despised of the world could hope. Those who read Thurman in the 1940s found him promoting belief in the “literal truth of God” but also exploringthe religious implications of social, economic and political conditions”.

While the likes of Thurman (as well as Guthrie and MacColl) sought to politicise Jesus, with Phil it was more a case of secularising Him. The debate regarding whether Jesus would have been pro or anti-Capitalism has became rather wearing. Jesus has long became whatever you may want him to be. The fact that the Bible inspired both Dr King and the KKK is testament to this.

 *

Idealistic it may have been, but the notion of Jesus as an idol of the protest kids was obviously a powerful one. In contrast, there appeared little currency in utilising Jewish symbols, despite the prevalence of Jewish singers in the New York scene. It is perhaps no coincidence that David Cohen and Robert Zimmerman would de-Jew their professional names, becoming David Blue and Bob Dylan respectively. Similarly Ramblin’ Jack Elliot was born Elliott Charles Adnopoz. Phil’s only reference to Jews in his songs is in The Harder They Fall, which playfully, though somewhat inexplicably, refers to Mother Goose “stealing lines from Lenny Bruce, drinking booze and killing Jews” (perhaps a reference to the Goose stepping of the Nazi’s?). It may have been simply that Phil’s Jewishness was caught up too much in his antipathy towards his parents, that the Jewishness was theirs, and something that he had no apparent interest in. Indeed Marc Eliot notes that “being Jewish meant nothing to [the Ochs children], other than getting off school for the Jewish holidays”. And yet his Jewishness was a fact, and one that he seemingly chose to overlook throughout all the many songs he wrote. Christianity, or rather Jesus the man, was a far more popular, even cool, symbol. Jewishness, for whatever reason, was not. Phil would describe his young self as an “American nebbish” and referred to himself in a Broadside interview as a “comfortable, middle-class, Jewish guy” and yet never mentioned this in any song (though he did write a song called The Ballad of The Jewish Mafia, that was about Sonny Liston).

In seeking to identify himself as a progressive American patriot, Phil’s Jewishness became sidelined. Perhaps it’s a simple case that Jewishness wasn’t an aspect of Phil’s identity that meant anything to him, much in the same way that being from Texas didn’t. In singing this song – the only cover version to appear on any of Phil’s studio albums – Phil was reaffirming a part of his identity that he was most certainly keen to promote – that of the left-leaning folk-singer. This isn’t just a case of Phil singing a song about Jesus; this is also Phil aligning himself with Ewan MaCcoll. Having written so many songs by this point and with so many unrecorded, it seems odd that Phil should choose to record a song written by somebody else. There is more going on here though than simply singing a song that he liked.

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As reported in Broadside #51

As reported in Broadside #51

In the sleeve notes to I Ain’t Marching Anymore Phil writes that “The state department has a nasty habit of blocking the entrance of Ewan MacColl into this country”. In the early 1960s Ewan MacColl was refused entry to the United States. According to Peggy Seeger, he was shown a six-inch dossier by the American Consul in London of all the surveillance reports they had on him, supposedly dating back to 1929. This was Phil’s way of paying tribute to someone who was fast on the way to becoming something of a martyr himself.

Some ten years later Phil would cover MacColl’s Shoals of Herring, a beautiful song about fishermen in Norfolk, England. The contrast between the Phil Ochs who sang MacColl’s song about Jesus and the one who sang his song about fishermen is heartbreaking.

 

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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.

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

ZBull

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.

*

“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.

XWallace

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…”

XHunt

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.

*

“”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.

*

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

wyeth

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

zphil

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.

*

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.

 

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Links On The Chain

meany“Unions may be strength, but it is mere blind, brute strength unless wisely directed”

–          Samuel Butler

There’s an ominous feel to the opening chords here, like someone is about to cop it. That first line –

“ Come you ranks of labour, come you union core”

is Phil, direct and strident and confident. Oh, someone is gonna get it alright!

This is a union song. A union songs built in the tradition of great union songs. Typical of Phil it’s a wonky union song, and as Michael L Richmond put it, it’s a song that embodies “all the strengths of labor music in a song which attacked and mocked labor itself”.

In his essay “The Music of Labor: from Movement to Culture” Richmond writes of change in Union songs in the early part of the twentieth century with unions confident and desperate for members to songs in the middle of the twentieth century that showed a “dramatic disillusionment with the form organized labor had assumed”. Similarly, union songs showed evidence of changes in the union movement away from being Pinko, Soviet sympathisers to being fearful of the anti-communist sympathies as Aunt Molly Jackson’s ‘I Am A Union Woman’ is an example of;

“I was raised in old Kentucky,

In Kentucky borned and bred,

But when I joined the union,

They called me Rooshian Red”.

In his introduction to a rather fiery version of this song at Newport in 1964, in full sarcastic mode, Phil said that “back in 1949 they purged out all of the communists and socialists and homosexuals out of the labor unions, leaving behind virile American types who took major stands on all the major issues of the day. And now I’d like to dedicate a song to George Meany and other freedom fighters around the world…”

Meany was President of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) from 1952 until its merger with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in 1955. He led the AFL-CIO in taking up a strong anti-communist stance, expelling leftist unions (hence the line in Love Me I’m A Liberal “I’m glad all the commies were thrown out of the AFL-CIO board”) and supporting dictator backed, anti-communist and pro-U.S. unions in South and Central America. By 1964 Meany revealed that 23% of the annual AFL-CIO budget was being spent of foreign programmes.

Meany and the AFL-CIO supported both the Johnson and Nixon administrations in their role in the Vietnam War. Frank Koscielski wrote of Meany being a “quintessential cold-warrior and anti-communist” quoting Meany saying that “the Communist conspiracy overshadows everything else that we may think of”. Meany threw the full weight of the federation behind the war effort, right up until 1975.

Phil’s song doesn’t mention this. Meany’s support for the war saw him and his federation become deeply entrecnhed in the establishment. However angry Phil may have been with union support for the war, it was in another field that the actions, or rather inactions of the unions that really got his goat.

*

In 1968, during the New York City teacher’s strike, rookie Board of Education President John Doar stated that “a basic conflict exists between labor union concepts and civil rights concepts”. Reading the official line on George Meany’s time as head of the AFL-CIO union would lead one to think that he had found a way around this conflict. His biography on the AFL-CIO website states that he was “a staunch supporter of civil and equal rights his entire career, [who] put the federation’s muscle behind the civil rights movement”. Look a little deeper however and things are a lot less straightforward.

In 1955, following the merger of the AFL and the CIO unions, the new federation required members to end racial discriminatory practices. This was in the wake of the Brown v. Board of Education case that found racial segregation in United States’ schools to be unconstitutional. Phil’s line ““Then in 1954 decisions finally made” refers to this, what the Congress for Racial Equality called a “groundbreaking case” that “provided the legal foundation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s”;

“What this legal challenge represents is at the core of United States history and the freedoms we enjoy. The U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown began a critical chapter in the maturation of our democracy”

With Hispanics and blacks barred from joining several unions, A.Philip Randolph, the only black vice-president in the federation, called for discriminatory unions to be expelled, just as the left-leaning ones had been. Meany argued strongly otherwise, arguing that there was no hope of those unions changing their ways if they were away from AFL-CIO’s influence. However racial discrimination continued.

In 1963 the March on Washington hoped to bring together the struggles for workers’ rights with the struggles for civil rights, and was largely successful. Numerous unions came out in support of the march, but not Meany’s AFL-CIO. While paying lip service to the civil rights movement the AFL-CIO appeared unwilling to get actively involved. Doar’s words ring true when considering Meany’s half-hearted support for the inclusion of an anti-discriminatory ‘fair employment’ section (Title VII) into the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Whilst welcoming Title VII (and later even trying to claim responsibility for it) Meany stressed that he would be unwilling to enforce it stating that the AFL-CIO “operate in a democratic way and we cannot dictate even in a good cause”.

In 1944, when Meany was AFL Secretary and Treasurer, W.C. Hushing, the AFL National Legislative Committee chairman argued that the AFL takes “strong exception to the compulsory imposition upon unions of…any policy interfering with the self-government of labor organizations”. Twenty years later Meany argued that “when the rank-and-file membership of a local union obstinately exercises its right to be wrong, there is very little we in the leadership can do about it, unaided”. The unions it seems were happy to sit in the middle ground – arguing against government inference whilst also stating that its own role denies them the opportunity to organize against breaches of civil rights.

This having-your-cake-and-eating-it approach is exemplified by a 1963 dispute between members of Meany’s own Local 2 Plumbers Union in New York refused to admit four black and Puerto Rican workers. Stating that “Union men don’t work with non-union people” Meany neglected to mention that those workers were non-union because the local union refused to allow non-white members.

Meany and the AFL-CIO may well have been attempting to straddle the awkward line between the progressive forces trying to bring in some semblance of civil rights (exemplified by those very same left-leaning members of CIO which he had attempted to force out) and the more bigoted constituents of the unions under his power.

This unwillingness to rock the boat is the embodiement of the kind of establishment serving that the AFL-CIO had become. As Phil wrote in the sleve notes to I Ain’t Marching Anymore; “the old lions of the left were the new pillars of the segrgated structure”, or as he sing in Links On The Chain;

“Your union took no stand and your union was betrayed”

*

Links On The Chain was the song that Phil chose to sing to Woody Guthrie as he lay on his hospital bed. Woody may or may not have given the song a positive repsonse, or any response at all (Phil claimed that Woody “half got up and sort of grunted ‘good’”). The song sure got a response from another bullwalk of the New York folk scene – Dave Van Ronk. In his book The Mayor of MacDougall Street, Van Ronk was rather taken with Phil’s song. Not one to dish out praise lightly, Van Ronk was particularly taken with Phil’s quoteing of the of union song in the line “It’s only fair to ask you boys, which side are you on?” writing that “there is a dialectic to that line, it has a history, and all of it is right there”. Suggesting that the use of that song to “attack those it was written for” had caaused some consternation Van Ronk argues that Phil’s use of it is wholly justified; “he not only called ‘em the way he saw ‘em but made the call a work of art”

Amen to that!

 

 

 

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The Highwayman – a little postscript

There’s a line in Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman that goes “Two of them knelt at her casement/ With muskets at their side”. It’s not a great line. In fact it was one of the lines that Phil deemed surplus to requirements. Nevertheless, by pure coincidence, it contains a word that would loom large in Noyes’ later life.

Roger Casement walks to the gallows

Roger Casement walks to the gallows

Roger Casement was Knighted in 1911 for his role in revealing to the world horrendous human right abuses by British companies in South America and Africa. Casement would die on the gallows, stripped of his Knighthood, with his reputation in tatters. It is quite a story, and Alfred Noyes played his part.

By 1916 Casement had become involved in Irish revolutionary politics, specifically in organising what became known as The Easter Rising. On Easter Sunday, April 23rd 1916 simultaneous attacks on British forces were planned, culminating in the taking of Dublin. Casement, who argued that such a move would be folly, found his own folly by travelling to Germany, then at war with Britain, to enlist support. No such support arrived and Casement was arrested, attempting to return to Ireland to stall The Rising.

The Rising itself was a disaster. David Reed in his book “Ireland; the key to the British revolution” lists 500 killed (250 civilians), 3000 injured, 179 buildings in Dublin destroyed and 100,000 citizens of Dublin requiring relief. In the weeks that followed some 3,000 men and 70 women were arrested for their part in the Rising. 1,800 men and 5 women were deported and held in prisons in England, most without trial. All the leaders were arrested and sentenced to death. By the middle of May some 18 of the leaders were shot, in secret. Once news of these executions leaked out the (somewhat valid) consternation that the news caused saw all the other executions were stopped and given instead life imprisonments. All except one. Roger Casement.

During Casement’s trial at the Old Bailey in London, portions of what was purported to be Casement’s diary were leaked. What became known as The Black Diaries revealed Casement to be a promiscuous homosexual. No great shakes now, but then such revelations saw support for Casement dwindle to such an extent that unlike his comrades, Casement hanged in Pentonville Prison in August 1916. His executioner, Albert Ellis, was reported to have said of Casement that “he appeared to me the bravest man it fell to my unhappy lot to execute”.

By 1916 Alfred Noyes was working for the News Department of The British Foreign Office. He was one of the few who saw The Black Diaries writing that “I have seen them and they touch the lowest depths that human degradation has ever touched. Page after page of his diary would be an insult to a pig’s trough to let the foul record touch it”. For his part in Wartime propaganda, the treatment of Roger Casement included, Noyes was awarded the OBE in 1918. Allegations that the Black Diaries were forgeries abounded.

Some twenty years later Noyes faced the ire of W.B. Yeats (much more about him later of course) whose poem in support of Casement, named simply Roger Casement, contained this missive –

 “Come Alfred Noyes, come all the troop

That cried it far and wide,

Come from the forger and his desk,

Desert the perjurer’s side”

Forgery or not (Yeats for one was convinced that is was) his guilt over his role in the execution of Casement sat heavily on Noyes’ shoulders. In 1957 Noyes sought to assuage his guilt by writing “The Accusing Ghost” admitting that he may have been misled. Later versions of Yeats’ protest poem saw Noyes’ name replaced by “Tom and Dick”.

More recent investigations into The Black Diaries suggest that in all probability they were not forged. To which the modern observer may add “So what?” As Lou Reed once sang “those were different times“.  Yeats said of Casement that he was “a most gallant gentleman”. That perhaps, is testimony enough.

 

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The Highwayman (Noyes/Ochs)

Alfred Noyes

Alfred Noyes

For all those who accused Phil of being little more than a singing journalist this song must have been a little problematic. The only journalism at play here is Phil’s editing of Alfred Noyes’ poem. The beautifully fitting and evocative melody is all Phil’s. As  apolitical as any of Phil’s recorded songs to date it certainly doesn’t fit into the Ochs archetype. That it is a total triumph shouldn’t be a surprise, but that a ‘topical’ songwriter should succeed so wonderfully in giving life to a nearly 60 year old poem and make it work amidst so much politicking and haranguing…well, it certainly blows away any suggestion of Phil as a one trick pony. It is also my favourite of the songs on Phil’s first two albums. After struggling to write positively about a fair few of these early Phil songs, writing this comes as something of a relief. It really is a beautiful song.

Phil trims Noyes’ seventeen verses down to a more manageable nine (it wouldn’t be long however until Phil would be writing songs that would make Noyes’ poem seem thrifty by comparison). Noyes poem is split into two halves; the first tells of our dapper hero (replete with a “French-cocked hat on his forehead”, a “coat of claret velvet” riding with a “jewelled twinkle”) and his love for Bess, the landlord’s “black-eyed” and “red-lipped” daughter. Their coupling is watched by a third character, the poor, lovesick Tim the Ostler, who’s eyes are “hollows of madness” so besotted is he with Bess. The dapper Highwayman however rides off (presumably on the rob) promising to return “though hell should bar the way”.

The second part finds Bess awaiting the return of her love, only to be captured (to be honest, I’m not sure shy. I assume the jealous Ostler dobbed her in, but Noyes neglects to tell us about that) by King George’s men who “bound her to the foot of her narrow bed”. Somehow freeing herself of their shackles, and believing that her lover would not return she shoots herself “and the blood of her veins throbbed to her loves refrain”. The Highwayman does return however and upon finding Bess dead he rides off “like a madman” only to himself be gunned down by the King’s men, shot “down like a dog on the highway”.

It’s all rather overwrought really, not exactly helped by a two verse coda that tells of our Highwayman’s ghost haunting the purple moor. It is rather fun though, and exciting even. Phil’s handling of it, with his careful phrasing and gentle tenor adds something extra, a sadness perhaps where a dry reading could evoke a more sentimental horror, a horror that could be considered tacky is these more cynical times.

Phil does away with some of Noyes’ more descriptive passages (and some of the grim details too) and ignores the poor Ostler completely. This though only amps up the drama, building up to the final few verses, which Phil quotes almost verbatim (the one major change comes in Verse Seven of Part Two of Noyes’ poem, or Verse Six of Phil’s songs where “Her eyes grew wide for a moment” becomes “For he rode on the gypsy highway” showing that Phil wasn’t at all scared to tamper with Noyes’ narrative). It all works rather beautifully.

aber

The Highwayman first appeared in 1907, in a volume entitled “Forty Singing Seaman and other poems”. Indeed, The Highwayman aside, Noyes was better known as a poet inspired by the sea. An image of the sea appears early on in The Highwayman – “The moon was a ghostly galleon/ Tossed upon cloudy seas” – much in the same way that Phil would later incorporate sea images into his songs; think of  The Hills Of West Virginia where “The fog hugged the road like a cloudy, cloudy sea”.

Noyes spent much of his childhood in the Welsh town of Aberystwyth – which is where I grew up too. Cut into the Vale of Rheidol, the town is dominated by steep hills to the north and south with Cardigan Bay to the West giving the town a sometimes eerie, claustrophobic feel. In the dead of night the sounds of the waves echo through the streets, rebounding off the still Victorian buildings of the promenade and side streets, virtually unchanged since Noyes’ day. Of course on a sunny day it is quite different, the sea lapping peacefully on the sea creating a rather quaint, chilled out atmosphere. Whatever the weather, the sea dominates. My father once gave a talk on literature to a local Sion and Sian group (a social club for senior citizens) and upon mentioning that Alfred Noyes had lived in our town a few of the older ladies began reciting The Highwayman word for word. A far more fitting tribute to Noyes and his poem than the easily ignored plaque in the town.

Seems odd then that such a poem should resonate so strongly with Phil. Then again, there remains something rather American about the notion of a Highwayman, especially one so hell bent on opposing the troops of a British king. In Woody Guthrie’s “The Unwelcome Guest” (as recorded by Billy Bragg and Wilco) the Highwayman protagonist is portrayed as something of a Socialist Robin Hood figure, coming to “take the bright silver and gold you have taken from somebody else”. There are echoes of this spirit (if not the left-wing politics) throughout American culture from Jesse James and Butch Cassidy to Omar from The Wire.

Noyes’ The Highwayman, as Phil presents it, it totally apolitical. All Phil does is take Noyes’ already affecting words and add a melody that fits perfectly, allied to a picking pattern that ebbs and flows with the dram, all sung in that certain Ochs tenor.

It’s a hell of a way to end side A.

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Iron lady

warholIt is possible to write a topical protest song that nails its subject so emphatically that it remains topical for decades to follow. This isn’t one such song; the fact it remains so apt fifty years later says more about the idiocy of it’s subject then it does about the power of the song.

The first few times I listened to this album I somehow managed to miss this song completely. I can remember staring quizzically at the tracklisting thinking “Iron Lady? Iron Lady? How does that one go?” Is there a greater fault for a protest song, to be so…ignorable?

Phil’s rather busy strumming fails to lift the song’s rather mournful tone that perhaps needs a little more anger, a little more bite. What we have instead is cold-eyed rationality, there is little wrong with the lyrics that make sense but, ironically, the song is rather lifeless. The Chaplain verse, a chance to really show the hypocrisy of capital punishment ends instead with a rather muted “the State’s allowed to murder in the chair”.

Phil is often more surefooted when he is dealing with specifics – and Paul Crump is a case in point, a far livelier song with the killer (pardon the pun) repeated line – “If a man can change, then a man should live”. If you want to listen to a Phil Ochs song about the insanity of capital punishment, listen to Paul Crump instead.

Phil’s sleevenotes refer to Caryl Chessman – perhaps the song should have dealt more specifically with him than to refer rather blandly to the general nature of death row, but Ronnie Hawkins got there first – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PSV9uQcauIs

chessmanIn June 1948 Caryl Chessman was sentenced to death.

On May 2nd 1960 Caryl Chessman was executed.

Yet, the Chessman was died wasn’t the same one that was arrested.
Elizabeth Hardwick wrote that “With extraordinary energy, Chessman made, on the very edge of extinction, one of those startling efforts of personal rehabilitation, salvation of the self”.

Between 1948 and 1960, Chessman was granted 8 stays of execution, wrote three memoirs, one novel, became an expert in American law and gave countless interviews to journalists from all over the world. He was imprisoned under death sentence for longer than anyone in American history

Chessman had been convicted of kidnapping two women and forcing them, at gunpoint to commit acts of “sexual perversion” upon him. In California at the time the punishment for ‘kidnapping’ was death. Having previously spent time in San Quentin for robbery, assault and attempted murder, Chessman received two death sentences.

Like Joe Hill before him, Chessman decided to represent himself, and like Joe, it did him no favours. “My soul” Chessman wrote, “is not for sale”. Chessman may have been guilty. He may also have been innocent. Regardless, there were enough uncertainties inthe trial to at least demand a retrial. California, it seems, was unwilling to offer him one.
Chessman’s final stay of execution was granted at 9.59 on May 2nd 1960. As Chessman sat, strapped to the chair, desperate attempts were made to contact the prison warden and get the execution postponed. By the time the call got through Chessman was all but dead.

A prison mate of Chessman was one Merle Haggard, who would go on to write Okie From Muskogee, a personal favourite of Phil’s.

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