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.)
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.