Category Archives: Songs Of Innocence

Flickering Thoughts #3

Bach, Beethoven, Brickbat and Me

Between his 5th LP (Don’t Try This At Home) released in late 1991 and his 6th (William Bloke) released in 1996, Billy Bragg changed. Certainly over a five-year period it would be stranger were he not to have changed, but these changes were not minor.

After years of touring a bout of appendicitis forced him to take a break and convalesce. He then got married and had a kid. How would the lovelorn  troubadour react to being a husband and father? How could he balance domesticity with activism?

William Bloke gave all the answers.

Opener From Red To Blue dealt with the politics straight away. At once reaffirming his own commitment whilst castigating those who allowed changes in their personal life to affect their politics, it was strident classic Bragg, with a family twist. To Bragg of 1996 the question wasn’t whether he would allow family life to make his politics become more selfish (and more Blue) but whether he should “vote Red for my class, or Green for our children”.

It’s a wonderful song, but perhaps not a genuine departure from his other works.

Brickbat, however, is.

*

I can’t help but make comparisons between Billy Bragg and Phil Ochs. Each is (or was) the foremost political songwriter of their time. Both wore their politics proudly, wrapping it up in melody, anger and humour. Both brought their audience onside with sometimes madcap, often self-deprecating, always engaging stage banter.

There is however one massive difference between them – love. For all his obvious political commitment, it is songs of love that absolutely defines Billy’s career. “I don’t want to change the world, I’m not looking for a new England, I’m just looking for another girl” may or not be a wholly truthful line, but it speaks of a truth none the less. Songs such as The Home Front, Valentine’s Day Is Over and even Between The Wars, served to humanise political issues. In Upfield he sings of “Socialism of the heart” and this “heart” is everywhere, in the personal as well as the political. Most obviously in songs such as The Only One (“the chain that fell off my bike is wrapped around my heart”) but is key to…well, pretty much every song he ever wrote. He may not mention L.O.V.E much, but it lurks behind so many of his lyrics.

Which brings us to Brickbat.

It probably sounds proper wanky to say so but to me this is the key Billy Bragg song. This isn’t an apology for domesticity. This is a celebration. This was, in Billy’s own words, a song about getting a life. The life that so many of his other songs documented the search for. For life, read love. Read, family.

He sings – “I used to want to plant bombs, at the Last Night of The Proms” (don’t we all! Metaphorically at least), taking us to now, to his new reality – “but now you’ll find me, with the baby, in the bathroom, with the big shell, listening for the sounds of the sea – the baby and me”. It’s a beautifully, simple scene.

A brickbat is a something can be used as a weapon. In using it as the title of the song it’s a as if he’s taking something he could be attacked with a turning it against any accuser – “And through it all, the stick I take is worth it for the love we make”.

The song ends with three words – “I love you”.

*

Love is present in Phil Ochs’s songs, but it appears more vague, more abstract somehow. “It’s only love that frees the fires for burning” he sings in Song of My Returning. Love here is not the be-all and end-all, but is spur for other deeds.  (An unreleased song called Love Is a Rainbow seems to have been written by someone who has no more than a theoretical understanding of love – “And love is a rainbow curving down from the sky, falling crystals of colour, shades of warm that never die”. Little wonder he never recorded it.)

Political commitment, however, is present, stark and obvious.

Phil’s 3rd album, the sparse, overtly political Phil Ochs’ In Concert, ends with When I’m Gone, an affirmation of political action like no other. His next album is far less obviously political, and the sparseness (by 1967 not so much a byword for folkish authenticity as a tired cliché) replaced with a lushness of strings and an overload of poetical ideas. And yet as with Billy’s William Bloke, it opens with a reaffirmation of all that had gone before it – “I’m gonna give all that I’ve got to give”. Unlike Billy’s song it wasn’t reaffirming activism in the face of comfort and love, rather it was in the face of disappointment. Each verse is a litany of despondency and regret. He sings of dreams turning into nightmares, of warm feelings becoming deformed, of screaming and mistakes. All of which makes the refrain – “cross my heart and hope to live” – all the more life affirming. I want to live, not because of the joys of life, but despite all of its horrors. It paints Phil as a contrarian, happiest in opposition. Happiest when there is something to fight.

And there is his Brickbat. Or at least his closest song to Brickbat. The bravest song he would ever write.

Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Me.

Just like Billy’s song it sings of quiet, of domesticity, of the life that happens when you’re making other plans. But where Billy’s song is warm and cosy, with arguments feeling real and small and normal – here we find dullness, life-sapping dullness.

The morning breaks with dust in the air. Phil lays on his back. Life goes on around him, humdrum, uninspiring. He is “surrounded by cemetery”. He sings of the “Warner Brother’s ghost”. Phil’s description of Los Angeles as a “sensual morgue” rings true here. The word that springs to mind is moribund. And yet I called this song brave, and it is. Partly because he portrays his life as dreadfully uncool. He singing of truth for its own sake, there is no pretence here. “Nobody gets along”. Eurgh.

The various characters that we meet – Karen, Frances, Eric, Andy, Eric, Walter – appear just as names followed by characterless actions. Whilst we may be able to figure out who they are (if “speechless” Walter is Walter Cronkite for example, than that tells of a deeper sadness) it’s as if Phil doesn’t want us to know, maybe doesn’t want to know himself even.

In Brickbat Billy sings, “the past is always knocking incessant, trying to breakthrough into the present”, followed by a warning that “we have to work to keep it out”. Here though, Phil “dreams of the past”, or rather escapes into it. And where can he go from here?

Billy described the Brickbat as a song about finding a life, a life with activism, a music career and a family balanced, precarious maybe, but balanced all the same. Phil’s life away from music and politics seems…virtually non-existent. In his previous album he sang “my life is now a death to me” and here it is, presented as evidence. And it’s rather shocking. Horrible even.

And where does he go from here?

The final two tracks on his final studio album.

Basket In The Pool – a rather vacuous song of a rather sad, pointless act of defiance.

And finally, No More Songs – the end of the world.

Shocking. Horrible even.

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(Building) Links On The Chain

Together with Lindsay Mercer (who contributed the piece on Days Of Decision to this site) I have started up a little website that, we hope, will gather together just a little bit of the various creative works that have been inspired by Phil Ochs.

So if you are, of know of, a Phil Ochs inspired painter, singer, poet, potter, dancer…anything! Please get in touch!

The website is here – www.linksonthechain.weebly.com

It’s early days yet but I hope that it turns into something rather nice.

Huw x

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?)

Flickering thoughts (One)

I have to admit that getting through All The News That’s Fit To Sing was something of a chore. Were it not for the fact it was a Phil Ochs album, knowing what he came up with later, I probably wouldn’t bother with it at all. It seems to me an album made too early, lacking something of the stridency that is such an attractive part of his next couple of albums and makes the uncertainties of his later songs all the more heartbreaking.

Phil wrote a lot of songs prior to the recording of All The News…, almost certainly more than he would write after it. But that seems half the problem. It doesn’t quite feel like he ever really nails any one of them. Each one has something of interest, but not quite enough to make it worthy of serious consideration in the way that his later songs, from I Ain’t Marching Anymore onwards, most definately do.

I was thinking all this sitting on a train hurtling through Germany. It occured to me that I hoped that, much like Phil’s songs themselves, my writing about them would improve with each new album. I was, and I don’t perhaps need to admit this, a little down about much of what I have written so far – too much scratching around the surface and too little genuine connection. But then somehow that seems fitting. Much like the album, my writing about All The News…is just a start.

And then something lovely happened. Me and my girlfriend wandered into a record shop in Berlin – called The Record Shop appropriately enough – and while I ummed and aaah’d over some German 80’s pop singles I got called over. “Loook at this!”

And there was a… Phil Ochs section. A Phil Ochs section! There between Laura Nyro and Buffy Sainte-Marie. Ok, so there was only three LPs in it, but that’s beside the point. I left the shop thinking “That’s lovely, but I can’t afford it” only to return minutes later, grabbed the record and rushed to the counter, money first. Of course the lovely bloke who ran the shop hadn’t heard of Phil. I told him he was great and then did the thing I hate – “He was friends with Bob Dylan in the Sixties…”. Phil’s worst legacy, being remembered only in reference to Bob Dylan. Eurgh.

Anyway, I now own a copy of I Ain’t Marching Anymore on lovely old vinyl. I stared at it for ages in our hotel room. There was something terribly inspiring about it. The great cover photo (Phil sat amongst the messy sprawl of mid-Sixties U.S. politics), Phil’s epic-silly sleevenotes alongside Bruce Jackson’s more straightforward sleevenotes. It was exciting and interesting without even having listened to the darn thing! Phil’s prose writing always shocks me with just how much fun it was! No wonder he wrote for The Realist.

And then I got home and listened to it…I guess I need not say what effect it had because that’s what I’m going to write about over the next few months. But suffice to say, I fell in love with Phil Ochs songs all over again.

It was also a bit too expensive. But so what? It’s all in the past now anyway.

Tagged

Songs Of Innocence – Part Three – Broadside Ballads Volume One

Continued…

broad’side –  the side of a ship: all the guns on one side

of a ship of war: their simultaneous discharge: a critical attack.

Chambers 20th Century Dictionary

Perhaps Broadside’s success as a mouthpiece for the folk scene is best illustrated by the fact that though Phil’s first appearance didn’t arrive until issue 13, the first issue had only appeared seven months earlier, in February 1962.  The songs, from Phil and others, were arriving quicker than Sis and Gordon could type them up. Writing in his fine introduction to The Broadside Tapes Vol. 1 (which was issued as ‘The Broadside Ballads Vol. 14’ by Folkways in 1980, a fitting finale to the series of recordings instigated by Phil in 1963), Paul Kaplan wrote of Phil as; “the most prolific” Broadside contributor, arriving at the Broadside offices “hungry and with his pockets stuffed with scribblings. After eating he would sit down before the ancient Revere tape recorder and sing his new songs”. These were recorded (onto a tape recorder donated by the ever-helpful Pete Seeger) for Sis to transcribe for inclusion in the next issue.

Writing in Broadside #20 (an issue that includes Dylan’s ‘Masters of War’ and ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ as well as Malvina Reynolds ‘Little Boxes’, and Phil’s Hazard Kentucky. Heady days!) Josh Dunson gives an evocative description of life at West 104th Street, New York City, the home of Sis and Gordon as well as the home of Broadside;

Broadside’s home is a small little home that’s got chairs and a sofa with a tape recorder finishing off the bottom wall piece…Boy, this room was so jammed packed with people that there was real foot and banjo and guitar shifting necessary to get Phil Ochs close enough to the mike to record his three new songs. Phil Ochs. What a guy! Quiet, soft spoken, but there with his guitar he spun some of the most real verses that’s going to be written about the death of New York Youth Board worker Louis C. Marsh and the miners striking in Hazard, Kentucky. There was an immediateness about those two songs Phil did…”.

That last song, Hazard, Kentucky, also appeared in issue #20 and was sung that night by Pete Seeger at a Hazard Miners’ Benefit. The song about Louis C. Marsh, Lou Marsh (also known as The Ballad of Lou Marsh) made it onto All The News That’s Fit to Sing, as well as into Broadside #21, alongside A.M.A Song (another Cleveland era song) and Talking Cuban Crisis (which also made it onto All The News…).  It is this “immediateness” that demonstrates the importance of Broadside to Phil’s topical songs. While Lou Marsh would later appear on Phil’s debut album, All The News That’s Fit To Sing wasn’t released until April 1964, well over a year after Lou Marsh’s death. The same song appeared in Broadside #21, released barely a month after Lou Marsh died. Of course there is more to these songs than mere topicality…

The following issue (Broadside #22 released in March 1963) contained Phil’s first Broadside article, “The Need For Topical Music”, de-facto propaganda for the topical song movement, where he proclaimed that “one good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies”. By this issue Phil, and Bob Dylan’s influence at Broadside was such that they were beginning to be credited as contributing editors. Fittingly, Broadside #22 also features the first announcement of the impending release of Broadside Ballads Vol. 1.

*

According to Marc Eliot it was Phil who organised the recording of Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 sometime in 1963, as a kind-of thank you to Sis and Gordon for all their support. He got eager yes’s from all the performers, all except Bob Dylan, who eventually appeared, under the alias ‘Blind Boy Grunt’. Obviously irked by a loss of editorial control (never an issue with the print version of Broadside), Gordon Friesen wasn’t exactly bowled over with the finished LP, but recognised its significance in the continuation of this new ‘folk’ movement;

“It is not enough” he wrote “to merely put a song into print. It’s very hard to make it come alive. So, as you may know, we’ve issued an LP…We’re not too satisfied with it, but actually we’ve had very little to say regarding its final content (it’s published by Folkways)”.

In a manner of speaking, and in a decidedly low key way, Phil had made it. If there was an in-crowd, he was in it. It remained though a crowd dominated by Dylan, with Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 a case in point. Of the fifteen songs, a third are by Dylan, three recorded by Blind Boy Grunt (‘Jon Brown’, ‘Only A Hobo’ and a couple of verses of ‘Talkin’ Devil’) while The New World Singers’ (namely Gil Turner, Bob Cohen and Happy Traum) version of ‘Blowin’ In The Wind’ opens the albums and Happy Traum’s version of ‘I Will Not Go Under The Ground’ closes side one. This was the first appearance on record of both The New World Singers as well as ‘Blowin’ In the Wind’ (though Dylan had recorded ‘Freewheelin’’ before Broadside Ballads, it would be released after).

Phil’s William Worthy (which as The Ballad of William Worthy, with a few very minor changes, also features on Phil’s debut LP All The News That’s Fit To Sing) is side one, track five, between Peter La Farge’s As Long As The Grass Shall Grow and Gil Turner’s Benny Kid Paret. Compared with the mannered approach of Dylan and the deep voiced La Farge, Phil sounds so young and earnest. He sounds almost sweet, keen to win our hearts as much as the argument. Songs of innocence indeed.

*

Newport 1963

Nineteen sixty-three had barely got started by the time Broadside Ballads Vol. 1 was recorded. Apart from seeing his first song cut into vinyl, nineteen sixty-three would be the year Phil got married (in May, to Alice). In September Phil’s daughter Meegan was born. In July he made his first appearance at The Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Isalnd, as part of “Topical Songs and New Singers” workshop that included fellow Broadsiders, Tom Paxton, Peter La Farge and Bob Dylan. Quite separate from the festival proper (which included Johnny Cash as a star attraction), which had grown in stature and popularity since its inception in 1959, and was now attracting audiences upwards of 13,000, the audiences for the workshops were more like 500-600, perhaps more for Dylan’s set. All the same, this was a big crowd for performers more used to the cosiness of the clubs and coffee houses of Greenwich Village. The festival, held in Fort Adams State Park, began as a little brother of festival founder George Wein’s other festival, the renowned Newport Jazz Festival. With the help of Wein’s fellow board members, and folk music heavyweights Theodore Bikel, Oscar Brand, Pete Seeger and Albert Grossman, Newport quickly established itself as a big deal for folk performers. Joan Baez’s performance in 1959 (as a guest of Bob Gibson as it happens) for example, played a large part in her rise to stardom. The 1963 festival offered a chance for the Broadside crowd to break out of their New York ghetto.

Phil at Newport 1963

In typical fashion, Phil’s appearance at Newport didn’t exactly go smoothly. He had been ill prior to the festival, so ill in fact that a doctor (and an equally worried Pete Seeger) had warned him not to travel, let alone perform. In just as typical fashion, Phil ignored them both. Seeger, acting as MC, stepped up to the mic;

“The next person I’m going to introduce, [when] somebody asks him “are you a folk singer?” “No, I’m a topical singer”. His name is Phil Ochs and he’s a most prolific young gentleman, come over here Phil…”

When he should have been resting, Phil was instead performing the most important concert of his life so far.

Phil’s risk to his health paid off, as Josh Dunson wrote in his piece “Workshops Key To Newport” published in Broadside #31;

“The city bred music of Phil Ochs drew the only standing ovation of the workshop, a real tribute to this talented young writer. He had been ill for several weeks with severe headaches and dizziness, and his first song “Medgar Evers”, though well received, lacked his usual power of delivery. However, every line of his second song, “Talking Birmingham Jam” came out strong. Phil’s humour struck deep. One by one and then in waves the crowd rose from the grass, first clapping, then yelling for more”.

“Medgar Evers” would later appear on All The News That’s Fit To Sing as Too Many Martyrs (co-credited to Bob Gibson), while Talking Birmingham Jam would make it onto I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Phil’s second LP, released in February 1965, a full eighteen months after its performance at Newport. Both songs would also make it onto Vanguard’s LP ‘Newport Broadside – Topical Songs at The Newport Folk Festival 1963’ released sometime in 1964, sandwiched between the old-school Ed McCurdy and hip young(ish) Peter La Farge on an album topped and tailed by Dylan, performing duets with Pete Seeger and Joan Baez.

The significance of Phil’s set at Newport was highlighted by the first issue of Broadside after the festival (Broadside #30) having Talking Birmingham Jam on its cover. The second Broadside Ballads LP, ‘Broadside Ballads Vol. 2 – Broadsides Sung by Pete Seeger’ also included a song of Phil’s, The Ballad Of Lou Marsh (included on All The News That’s Fit To Sing as simply Lou Marsh). It was plain to see that Phil was part of a scene that encouraged his creative talents. He was a player in a scene that was in danger of going global. Dylan may have been its shining light, but Phil wasn’t far behind. What Phil may have lacked in star quality, he more than made up for with energy and enthusiasm. Nineteen sixty-three had been a terrific, prolific year.

In late January 1964, Broadside #38 announced the imminent release of three LPs featuring Phil;  ‘New Folks Vol. 2’ on Vanguard, ‘Newport Broadside’, also on Vanguard and another LP named ‘All The New Songs Fit To Sing’. The next issue gave the correct title – All The News That’s Fit To Sing, Phil’s debut album.

**

Tagged

Songs Of Innocence – “…but it’s here I wanna stay…”

Continued…

“Voices leaking from a sad café,

Smiling faces try to understand,

I saw a shadow touch a shadow’s hand,

On Bleecker Street”

– Simon and Garfunkel, ‘Bleecker Street’

When Phil hit New York, hoping to reconnect with Jim Glover, he found that Jim was singing, and living, with Jean Ray.  As ‘Jim and Jean’ they found some success and are notable as, perhaps, the finest interpreters of Phil’s songs. In his sleeve notes for their album ‘Changes’ Phil wrote;

“Jim & Jean, a true blend of Americana, the kind of couple who might well persuade people from Iowa to buy U.S. Savings Bonds.”

I’m not entirely convinced I know what that means.

Jim and Jean. Lovely.

Their clean-cut act, for the most part devoid of the overt politicising of Phil’s music, (their choice of Phil songs is a case in point; Crucifixion, Changes, Flower Lady, Cross My Heart, The Bells and There But Fortune. Though they did also do Ringing of Revolution, renamed Rhythms of Revolution)  provided the inspiration for the characters of Mitch and Mickey in Christopher Guest’s lovely, movie A Mighty Wind.  Jean died in August 2007, a year after her timely reunion with Jim, as they performed one last time as Jim and Jean at the People’s Voice Café in New York City in March 2006.

Phil was on his own. He’d been playing guitar for barely two years and he was in a new town. But for a tyro singer-songwriter filled with piss and vinegar, New York City in 1962 was a hell of a place to be. Writing songs was not a problem, he found inspiration every time he picked up a newspaper. There were places to play them, audiences to listen to them, fellow musicians to play with, conspire with, inspire and be inspired by and magazines to share songs. Finally, and most crucially to Phil, record companies to record them. There wasn’t a finer time nor place to be Phil Ochs.

For all the hype surrounding the latter generation of folk-inspired musicians that would congregate around Greenwich village in the early 1960’s, the folk music scene was very much in place before Phil got anywhere near it. The streets around Bleecker and MacDougal teemed with clubs such as The Commons, The Bitter End, Café Wha? and The Gaslight, some born as folk clubs, some changed into folk clubs.

Alice Skinner, later Alice Ochs

When Phil arrived on the scene Jim and Jean were appearing at the lesser known Café Raffio (described by Robert Shelton as “probably the dingiest in the village”) where Alice Skinner (later Alice Ochs) worked as a waitress. Jim and Jean’s Thompson Street apartment provided a base for Phil to get settled into New York life for at least for as long as the two of them could stand Phil’s Pigpen tendencies. Somewhat further up the folk scene strata than Café Raffio, Gerde’s Folk City’s hoots offered Phil a readymade platform for this out of town nobody to get noticed and become a somebody.

Phil Ochs. The scruff

Phil’s first Gerde’s hoot saw him secure his first gig. The MC for that Folk City gig was Gil Turner, who acted as a conduit of sorts between the folk scene and Broadside (in Paul Kaplan’s words, “a magazine devoted to circulating new topical songs”) run by Agnes ‘Sis’ Cunningham and Gordon Friesen out of their apartment at West 104th Street, just south of Harlem. Endearingly DIY and closer in spirit to a punk fanzine than a glossy publication, Broadside explained its mission on the front page of its very first issue;

“Topical songs have been an important part of America’s music since the early colonial days. Many people throughout the country today are writing topical songs, and the only way to find out if a song is good is to give it wide circulation and let the singers and listeners decide for themselves. BROADSIDE’S aim is not so much to select and decide as to circulate as many songs as possible and get them out as quickly as possible”.

That first issue also contained a song by a young man who would come to dominate the Greenwich Village folk, Bob Dylan, a twenty year old from Hibbing, Minnesota (even though his short biog in Broadside #2 states “Bob Dylan is a young new songwriter and singer from New Mexico”). That song, ‘Talking John Birch’, was the first of twenty-two of his songs that would appear in Broadside, a number that would certainly have been greater had Dylan not outgrown Broadside, the village, the folk scene and indeed folk song itself.

Phil, on the other hand, would go on to become Broadside’s most prolific contributor, with a total of sixty-nine of his songs making into its pages (by way of comparison Tom Paxton contributed forty-three, starting with ‘Rambling Boy’ in issue #26 in May 1963). Broadside #2 contained a short mission statement, describing itself  as; “a publication to distribute topical songs and stimulate the writing of such songs”. In Phil’s case at least, it was incredibly successful. Of the (very approximately) 173 songs Phil is known to have written, around half of them date from 1962 or 1963.

Key to an understanding of Phil’s songwriting during those early days, and the success he had in getting them appreciated by the Broadside crowd, lies in an article that appeared in Broadside #11 and #12 in August 1962, the issue preceding Phil’s first appearance. Entitled Whither American Folk Music? It seeks to create a distinction between the commercialised ‘folk’ music of the likes of The Kingston Trio and the politicised ‘topical’ music that Broadside sought to publish. The article, which drew an unflattering comparison between the booming UK folk scene and its U.S. counterpart, was preceded by a quote from U.K. based Peggy Seeger, who said that; “songs have always been used to comment on the times and it’s always been a function of folk music to protest the status quo”.

The article (no author is given, but one can assume it’s Sis writing) speaks of the “shadow of the upraised club, threatening ostracism, blacklisting, economic deprivation and even jail itself” hanging over “not only songwriters and singers but everyone in the cultural field” in the U.S. The consequence of this, according to the article (which ends by stressing that it is intended to encourage debate), was of the growing popularity of apolitical folk songs (an example used is ‘Tom Dooley’) and of bluegrass, noting that; “it is interesting to discover how deeply they [the bluegrass folkies] are involved in learning musical techniques while showing only the barest minimum of interest in the lyrics of the songs they play”.  Reading this one can easily imagine the kind of discussions that would take place in Sis and Gordon’s apartment and the warm appreciation they must have left for Phil’s political charged, simply crafted and terribly topical tunes. Whether or not Si and Gordon’s rather blinkered view of how folk music should be is correct is beside the point. What is certain is that Phil Ochs was a perfect fit.

Phil’s first song to appear in Broadside was Billie Sol (also known as The Ballad of Billie Sol), the tale of corrupt Texas business man Billie Sol Estes, that dates from Phil’s very earliest shows back in Cleveland and Columbus, which appeared in Broadside #13 in September 1962. “Billy Sol”, as it appeared in Broadside, (to the tune “Jesse James”) differs greatly from the version that would later appear on A Toast To Those Who Are Gone in 1986, with the first two verses changed completely. The Broadside version may therefore be closer to the song that Phil sung at Faragher’s, and offers an indication of just how hard Phil worked on his songs, and how much he was willing to change them.

Broadside #13 serves as Phil’s formal introduction to the New York folk in-crowd. The editorial read;

“21 year old Phil Ochs is of the excellent new crop of topical song writers. Starting a year ago, he has written a dozen good ones; THE A.M.A., VIETNAM, JARAMILLIO, etc. We plan to print as many as possible. He also writes fine “white” blues. Born in El. Paso, Texas, kept moving –New Mexico, Florida, Virginia, Ohio, Scotland and New York. Studied journalism at Ohio State for 3 years, then quit when, as he says, ‘I realised it was impossible to be true to my convictions and still be a success in journalism – in or out of school’.”

True to their word, Phil’s contributions to Broadside were relentless, indeed two of the songs mentioned, Vietnam and Jaramillo (later recorded as Bullets of Mexico) made into the very next issue. Indeed, between issue 18 in late December 1962 and issue 30 in August 1963, at least one Phil Ochs song appeared in every issue, with regular contributions right up to issue 89 and the inclusion of The War Is Over.

The influence of Broadside on Phil’s writing wasn’t always subtle. The front page of the October 1962 issue (Broadside #14) read;

“Broadside is waiting for a song about one of the most important events of this year – the enrolment of James Meredith in the University of Mississippi. His courage is as deserving of the Distinguished Service Cross as any soldier’s bravery on the battle field. Perhaps more so, since he stands alone. The least tribute we could pay him would be a good lasting song in his honor”.

The front page of the next issue in November was filled with Phil’s next contribution: The Ballad of Oxford, Mississippi. The following issue printed songs on the same subject by Gene Greenblath, Richard E. Pook, Carl Stein and Bruce Jackson (who’s ‘Ballad of James Meredith’ ends; “perhaps they’ll sink the whole damned state into the gulf of Mexico”) and the Broadside #17 (in December 1962) featured Dylan’s take, ‘Oxford Town’.

If Phil was going to make it, he certainly had a lot of competition.

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Songs Of Innocence – “Sliding on simple strings…”

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Gather ’round us you Americans,
If you believe in right and wrong.
The newspapers have ignored this;
I’ll tell it in a song.”

 – The Ballad of Old Monroe,

Pete Seeger and Malvina Reynolds

Considering this is supposed to be the story of someone who made his name as a guitar-toting political folk song-writer, there are several glaring omissions from the tale so far, namely a guitar, politics, folk music and song-writing. So far we have a military academy trained nebbish, from a middle-class Jewish family affected by persecution and prejudice with a nose job and dreams of being a star.

Then Phil Ochs met Jim Glover.

Phil enrolled at Ohio State University in Columbus in 1958 with a new nose and a new outlook. He never settled during his first year at Ohio State, troubled by campus politics and his own dreams of stardom. He quit and headed south, to Miami. Instead of stardom Phil found himself arrested, charged with vagrancy and jailed (where he wrote his first song, Three Dreams). He returned home, and re-enrolled at Ohio State, eventually to major in journalism. The next time he quit, tantalisingly close to graduation, he left for New York City, where his friend Jim Glover had moved with his own dreams of stardom. This time he was somewhat more successful.

Phil and THAT guitar

Jim Glover introduced Phil to folk music, to Woody and The Weavers, Pete Seeger and Josh White.  Jim, and his father, also turned him on to left-wing politics,putting some meat on the bones of information the U.S. media was reporting about Castro in Cuba and Mao in China. Castro, and Kennedy, became true heroes to Phil, every bit as handsome and gallant as John Wayne and Gary Cooper, but with added ideology. The inherent contradiction of idolising such seemingly polarised people as Fidel and J.F.K would become something of a feature in Phil’s work and politics – call him what you like, but Phil was never one for dogma.  It was from Jim that Phil won his first guitar, in a bet on who would be elected president, Kennedy or Nixon. Phil went with Kennedy, and stayed with him till his assassination in 1963. Folk music, guitar playing, left-wing politics all arrived in Phil’s life together, and would remain inseparable.

The simple riposte to Dylan’s sly remark that Phil was a journalist not a singer would have been “actually, he’s both”. Regardless of Phil’s motives (his friends speak of his genuine belief that singing topical songs could make him a star) he wrote an awful lot of songs that fall squarely in the camp of singing journalism. Which isn’t to say they were a simple re-hashing of facts, set to music. They were opinion pieces, editorials, broadsides aimed squarely at the bastions of corrupt power, prejudice, unjust violence, war, poverty, rampant capitalism, all the meaty shit that would soon seem just so passé. It’s not like Phil stumbled upon the idea of singing topical songs, it was all he’d ever done.

After the near-mythical Three Dreams (of which all that remains is the title) Phil’s first composition was probably The Ballad of the Cuban Invasion (also known as Bay of Pigs), using the template of turning newsprint into caustic song that would stay with him for several years to follow;

“A thousand went to take the island
Chances strong(?) as broken twigs
And a thousand stayed there at the island
Met their fate at the Bay of Pigs

They were told when they arrived
They’d be helped by Castro’s men
But they found out, those who survived
That the CIA was wrong again

Why were they wearing my country clothes?
Why were they spending my country’s gold?
Who were the friends and who were the foes?
The headlines were lying, why wasn’t I told?”

*

The Singin’ Socialist Sundowners

 

 Jim and Phil began performing together, first as the unsubtly titled The Singing Socialists, and then as The Sundowners, named after the 1960 Fred Zimmerman movie starring Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr (“Across six thousand miles of excitement…”).  They became regulars at the coffee houses around the Columbus campus (such as the groovily named The Sacred Mushroom) and the folk clubs of Cleveland (Jim’s hometown and to where Phil’s parents had moved) such as LaCave and Faragher’s.

La Cave, a former pool hall, was open for only seven years but became a hub of the Cleveland folk and rock scene from 1962, playing host to the likes of Simon and Garfunkel, The Velvet Underground (who played there five times, including on October 2nd 1968,  Doug Yule’s first ever appearance with the band after John Cale got the boot), Jimi Hendrix, Neil Young and Jefferson Airplane. The clubs owner, Stan Kain, turned a struggling coffee shop (called LaCave de Café) on the verge of closing into a folk venue by paying Josh White $400 dollars to perform a weekend residency; “the opening night was a sellout, and we had a line around the block”. The concert to mark the 48th Anniversary of the opening of the club, held at Wilbert’s Food and Music, Huron Road, Cleveland, featured Josh White Jr., Carolyn Hester, a onetime Greenwich village contemporary of Phil’s, and low down on the bill, without much fanfare, Jim Glover. The building that was La Cave is now a parking lot.

Faragher’s Back Room (also known  as the Rising Moon Room) was opened by Bill “Red” Faragher in the spring on 1961 in a storefront next to his main bar, in University district of Cleveland Heights. Faragher sold it in 1964 to open a driving school. Under new ownership, it closed in 1973. Deanna Adams cites Phil’s performances at Faraghers in 1961 as the birth of the folk revival in Cleveland. This may or may not be the case, but Faragher’s certainly played a key role in the birth of Phil’s musical career. Faragher’s gave Phil the missing link in his musical career – an audience. The key word in the phrase “folk music”, and much overlooked, is “folk”, a people to sing for, to represent. The regular audience at Faragher’s (where Phil would continue to perform after splitting with Jim) were a ready-made sounding board for his songs. Phil could write a song during the day and perform it that evening and get an instant response. In this setting “topical” meant just that, “news” retained its new-ness. Even by the time he came to record his first album, the songs topicality were being stretched. As an unknown, raw and keen to learn, his songs had a directness and an audience for an instant response, far removed from the careful, considered and weathered responses from record critics and music journalists. The audiences at Faragher’s gave Phil confidence.

For several years, Phil hardly wrote a single song that didn’t concern a political or social issue. Song writing gave him the freedom to air his politics and opinions that had been denied to him in print journalism. Phil had written passionately in defence of Castro’s Cuban revolution for The Lantern, the campus newspaper of Ohio State. Asked to tone down his radical views by The Lantern’s editors, he refused, a contributing factor to his being over-looked as editor in-chief, a decision that became a contributing factor to his getting the hell out of school and heading to New York City.

 **

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Songs Of Innocence – Part Two – “Scenes of my young years…”

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OCH/Dk,Dx/Interjection

Scot. And Anglo-Irish

Expr. Regret, irritation etc

 – Shorter English Dictionary

Despite leaving Europe for the USA out of a need to escape oppression and seek prosperity, the Ochs family neverthless kept running into those same problems that they sought to escape.

Which is why they Jack Ochs ended up in Scotland. And for Phil Scotland retained a certain something that would stay with him throughout his life.

Scotland, the place of his mother’s youth, spent in comfort and luxury. The country that welcomed his father when the educators of his home state shunned him. The country of his sister Sonny’s birth. The setting for (according to Marc Eliot at least) Phil’s favourite movie, Tunes Of Glory. The origin of what Phil once claimed was his favourite song, My Bonnie Laddies Lang A-Growing. The place where Phil’s ashes were scattered, from a turret of Edinburgh Castle, while a pipe band played The Flowers of the Forest;

“I’ve seen the smiling of fortune beguiling,

I’ve tasted her favours and felt her decay,

Sweet was her blessing, kind her caressing,

But now they are fled, fled far away”

In an interview with Izzy Young in 1968 at the Folklore Centre in New York City after his return from the chaos and trauma of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, (in the interview during which Phil stated “I’ve always tried to hang onto the idea of saving the country, but at this point I could be persuaded to destroy it”) Phil was asked;

“…But how can you be an enemy of America in America? What can you do? Sabotage?

Phil: No, not that. I might leave the country…I might go back to Scotland”

*

Upon his return to New York City, with his young wife and child in tow,  Phil’s father Jack struggled to find work. They lived in New York City, then Columbus, New Mexico (where they were living when Phil, named after his mother’s grandfather, was born) then onto San Antonio and Austin, Texas.

Jacob ‘Jack’ Ochs

When Jack was called up he moved the family back to New York City, and was then shipped out to Europe. His family’s struggle in his absence (now including another son, Michael) pale in comparison with what Jack had to endure. He was posted to Belgium and served a medical officer during the Ardennes Offensive, the so-called Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle fought by American troops during the Second World War. Fought during the winter months on 1944 and 1945 it was also the Nazi’s final, desperate, major offensive of the war, an attempt to destabilise the Allied forces unity and capture the city port of Antwerp, a major Allied supply route. During fierce battles in the bitterly cold winter months, some 10,000 Allied troops, mostly American, and some 12,000 Nazi troops, lost their lives. However, by 1945 the Nazis could no longer withstand such losses. Victory at the The Battle of the Bulge ensured that the Allies could finally believe that the Nazi war effort was coming to an end.

Behind the scenes of the battle was extreme tension between British and American troops, characterised by a falling out between General George Patton and Field Marshall Montgomery, who Patton called “that cocky little limey fart”. It is somewhat ironic that Patton, a great hero of the Second World War and of The Battle of the Bulge in particular, should be such an anti-Semite. The kind of anti-Semite who wrote in his diaries that Holocaust surviving displaced Jews were “lower than animals”.

As a medical officer Jack was at the heart of The Battle of the Bulge. He left the army with an honourable discharge, but a shadow of his former self. Soon after returning to his family he left them again, spending the best part of two years at a mental hospital in Long Island and would forever suffer bouts of serious mental ill-health. In February 1947 his family retreated to Edinburgh, and for the second time the city offered refuge to members of the Ochs family.

They travelled by ship, through the icy waters of the Atlantic, offering an uncomfortable reality to the kind of sea-bound adventures that would later spur Phil’s imagination via the silver screen. The four of them, Gertrude and her three children, spent the best part of the six months in Edinburgh. For four months Phil attended Liberton Primary School (motto, at least it is the motto now, Nil Penna Sed Usus – Not the pen but its use), in the village of Liberton, in the south Edinburgh foothills, since demolished and rebuilt in 1954.

After six months in Scotland the family again headed west, back to Rockaway and a reunion with Jacob. Evidence of Phil’s six months in Britain, and of having a British parent is scant in his songs, save for a very un-American usage of the word pavement in In The Heat Of The Summer, I’m Tired and City Boy. Whatever profound effect one might attribute to Phil’s stay in Scotland however, it is worth bearing in mind that he was only seven!

A return to the States brought with a return to Jacob’s nomadic search for meaningful employment, moving from Rockaway to Perrysburg in upstate New York (population less than 500) and finally to Columbus, Ohio, the second Columbus that the Ochs’ called home and the one where they finally settled. It is Columbus that Phil sings of in Boy In Ohio, where the buckeye sun shone in the Buckeye state.

It was whilst in Perrysburg, or rather at school in nearby Gowanda, that Phil took up the clarinet. Never the sexiest of instruments (it is after all the instrument of choice of Woody Allen) it is often a stepping stone towards the far sexier saxophone. Not for Phil though, who apparently excelled at it. It was because of his trusted clarinet that in 1956 Phil chose to enrol at Staunton Military Academy in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia (motto Truth, Duty, Honor), as his mother’s choice, Columbus Academy, didn’t have a marching band.

It does seem odd – Phil Ochs, the protest king enrolled at a military academy, advertising itself as “An ideal home school for manly boys”. Former Staunton superintendent Colonel W. Crawford Moon wrote that;

“For decades Staunton Military Academy (SMA) was the most prestigious military preparatory school in the world. The entire program exceeded infinitely all others at its level. SMA’s magnificent array of alumni attests to the substance of its program.”

Sitting proudly alongside Phil in that “magnificent array of alumni” are Johnny Ramone (of The Ramones) and Lou DiGaimo (the casting director for films such as The Godfather and Rain Man as well the producer of Donnie Brasco, the story of another Staunton alumnus FBI Special Agent Joseph Pistone) and somewhat less proudly, the drummer from 70’s metal band Bang!.

William Haines

Another Staunton graduate, William Haines, a native of Staunton, starred in numerous silent-era movies alongside the like of the better known Mary Pickford and Joan Crawford, though at the time he was often regarded (according to IMDB at any rate) as the “#1 male box office draw”. Like so many others however, his career suffered after the end of the silent era. Before his career nosedived completely it came to a crashing stop thanks to Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer (The second M in M.G.M). Mayer gave Haines an ultimatum, leave his lover, James Shields, and enter into a sham-marriage, or wave goodbye to Hollywood. Haines chose love, and Haines and Shields, described by Joan Crawford as the “happiest married couple in Hollywood”, were still together when Haines died of lung cancer in 1973. They lie together in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetary. Haines is now hailed as the first openly gay Hollywood star and like so many who stick to their principles, paid a price. His name lives on however through William Haines Designs, the interior design business he established when Hollywood cast him aside.

Phil left Staunton with more confidence than he arrived at it. It was at Staunton that Philip Ochs became Phil Ochs. At Staunton he’d been turned onto country music, hearing for the first time the songs that would later fill his set-lists. Phil’s sets at Gerde’s Folk City in New York in 1975 were filled with country tunes, with his own songs lost amongst those that took him back to Staunton and the hills of the Shenandoah Valley (the home of Patsy Cline, no less). Phil spoke of himself in his youth being “just an American nebbish*, being formed by societal forces…I was into country and western music. I memorized all these songs, my music teacher being the radio. There was Webb Pierce, Ray Price, Johnny Cash, Faron Young…” (* Nebbish means someone who is shy and timid.)

Phil’s last ever performance, in front of an audience, was at Gerde’s Folk City in October 1975, some five months before his death, comprised of The Carter Family’s much-covered Jimmy Brown The Newsboy, Hank Williams’ Too Many Parties, Too Many Pals (“…will break your heart someday”) and Irving Gordon’s Two Brothers (The Blue and the Gray), tail ended by Bob Dylan’s Lay Down Your Weary Tune;

Lay down your weary tune, lay down, Lay down the song you strum

And rest yourself beneath the strength of strings no voice can hope to hum”.

“…and then I really fell for the Elvis image”. However successful the likes of Hank Williams and Faron Young were, however inspiring they may have been, not just for Phil but for countless American youths, they retained a certain earthiness. Elvis, on the other hand, was a star. Philip Ochs, The “nebbish”, played the clarinet and watched movies. Phil Ochs listened to Elvis Presley, wanted to be a star and got his nose fixed.

You read that right, Phil Ochs got a nose job.

**

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Songs Of Innocence – Part One- “They’ve done this before…”

“Youth of delight come hither

And see the opening morn,

Image of truth new-born.”

 – William Blake

Mr and Mrs Ochs’ parents left Germany separately, though for all too similar reasons. Like many liberal Jews they sought safety, away from the autocratic rulers of Germany and headed west. Perhaps their shared experiences drew them together when they met in Natchez, Mississippi. Two years later, in Nashville, Tennessee, they married and soon after headed north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where they started a family, before heading south again, to Knoxville, Tennessee.

It was in Knoxville that their eldest son, at the age of only eleven, with dreams of becoming a journalist, began working as an office boy for the Knoxville Chronicle. At the age of 19 he borrowed $250 to buy a controlling stake in the Chattanooga Times. At the age of 36, again with borrowed money, he bought into the New York Times, giving it the motto, ‘All the News That’s Fit To Print’, transforming it from a struggling paper to a paper with a circulation of over 300,000. Adolph Ochs’ great grandson, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., the current publisher of the Times, ensures that the name Ochs remains synonymous with that great old newspaper.

Try as he might, Phil Ochs could never find any link between his family of Ochs’s and The New York Times Ochs’s.

Jewish demonstration against Russian oppression, Mlawa 1904

Phil’s father Jacob’s parents’ families left the same northern Polish town of Mława and settled in New York City’s Lower East Side.  The long Jewish history of Mława is riddled with persecution, documented beautifully in 1949 by Dr. Ze’ev Jonis in his work Jewish Mława; It’s History, Development, Destruction. He tells of a segregated existence between Jews and Gentiles, interspersed with periods of hostility. He tells of early Jewish communities having no say at all in the running of the town, before slowly gaining influence. The Russian rule from 1795 became ever more anti-Semitic, the anti-Semitism which must have been a major factor in Jacob Ochs’ parents migration to the USA.

Jewish life in Mława continued, problematically in the Ochs’s absence. Ironically, given the events that would follow, the entry of German troops into Mława in 1914, in pursuit of fleeing Russian troops, brought greater freedoms to the people of the town, with the Germans welcomed as liberators, especially by the one-third of the town who were Jewish. One consequence of these freedoms however was an upsurge in Polish (Gentile) run shops, resulting in a boycott of the once-thriving Jewish-run shops. This anti-Jewish prejudice would pale against the events later in the century.

The website jewishgen.org, within its pages documenting the Jewish people of Mława, contains a photograph of the staff and editorial board of the Agudat Yisrael (the political party representing orthodox Jews) newspaper Undzer Tribune, undated but presumably from the early part of the Twentieth century. Each man on the photo is numbered 1-13, each identified by Moshe Peles, Chairman of the Mława Organisation in Israel in April 1999. Of the thirteen one man remains unidentified, one was living in Los Angeles, one died in the USA, three died in Israel and the other six perished in the Holocaust.  According to the Mława Remembrance Initiative over 7000 Jews from Mława were murdered during the Holocaust.

*

The relative safety of New York City however brought with it its own travails. Jacob’s father ran a grocery store, not dissimilar, one would imagine, to the one run by Morris Bober in Bernard Malamud’s terrific novel The Assistant. In Malamud’s book there is a conflict between the necessities of business and the Bober families struggle to maintain their Jewish identity. By the time Phil was growing up, as Marc Eliot notes in his book Death Of A Rebel, “being Jewish meant nothing to [the Ochs children], other than getting off school for the Jewish holidays”.  What the Ochs’s and the Bober’s lacked in prosperity, they made up for in a kind of stoic dignity borne of strong will and self-preservation.

In 1914, as German troops entered their home town, Fanny and Joe Ochs moved their young family away from New York City to Rockaway Beach in the borough of Queens, New York, having branched out from grocery store owner to building bungalows. Rockaway Beach retains an aura within pop-culture far separate from the very real place that two generations of Ochs’s called home. Thanks to The Ramones it is a place that symbolises escape, escape from the oppressive heat of a New York City summer, a place of sanctuary for the beach-loving Dee-Dee Ramone;

“It’s not hard not far to reach/

We can hitch a ride to Rockaway Beach”.

Gertrude Ochs, nee Phin

In the early part of the 1900’s Rockaway Beach changed from a rather up-market neighbourhood, to a more open area, a place for average New Yorkers to day-trip and summer, amongst the arcades and trestle boardwalks. By the time The Ramones wrote about it so evocatively it had fallen into disrepair, a shadow of its former self, a place where, according to Nancy Trejos of The Washington Post, “crime and drugs were almost as ubiquitous…as hot dogs and French fries”. Rockaway couldn’t compete with moneyed and modernised amusements at Coney Island and Jones Beach. Perhaps it is fitting that it was there, in his sister Sonny’s place, the year before The Ramones released their ode to Rockaway, that Phil Ochs took his life.

Whatever relative prosperity enabled the Ochs family to head out of the city to Far Rockaway was still something of a shock to Gertrude, Phil’s mother. The daughter of middle class comfort, she had grown accustomed to the comforts afforded by her father’s tobacco business in Edinburgh, Scotland. According to Michael Schumacher’s book There But For Fortune, she took some persuading that Jack Ochs, this excitable young American was husband material. Not so her parents. Handsome, Jewish, medical student…he fit the bill. And the stories he told of his family’s bungalow by the sea, the glamour of New York, the possibilities afforded by life in the U.S.A…

The site of Phil’s grandfather’s tobacco shop in 2011, now a charity shop

Jewish American medical students were hardly a rarity in Edinburgh in the 1930’s. In 1933 some 2052 American medical students were studying abroad, mostly in Scotland and Switzerland. Of these, 90% were Jewish; a direct consequence of the Jewish quota at work in American medical colleges, known as ‘Numerous Clausus’, for the sake of wrapping prejudice in fancy sounding language. According to Leon Sokoloff’s study the quota system, unofficial of course, derived from a “wide perception that the country had too many Jewish medical students and that the ‘racial imbalance’ should be controlled”. In 1934, for example, The Association of American Colleges reported that more than 60% of applicants to American medical colleges were Jewish. Between 1920 and 1940 at least half of medical students at New York University and the Long Island College of Medicine, the most likely places for Jack Ochs to have applied, were Jewish. Sokoloff states that “the administration of the city colleges literally discouraged prospective candidates from applying to medical school”.

Between 1902 and 1931, as the standards for the teaching of medicine in American universities were tightened, the numbers of medical school in the U.S. dropped from 162 to 76. Colleges were forced into limiting the number of successful applicants, regardless of ability. College application forms began asking for information regarding religion or ‘racial origin’ and when these proved controversial, ‘mother’s maiden name’. W.S Ladd, the dean of Cornell University Medical College admitted in April 1940 that “we limit the numbers of Jews admitted to each class to roughly the proportion of Jews in the population of the state”.

According to Sokoloff, “Scottish [medical] schools had advantages beyond their historical religious tolerance: they did not require learning a new language. They were relatively inexpensive. The academic quality was high”. So it was, that to escape prejudice, Jacob Ochs went in the opposite direction to his grandparents, and headed east, to Edinburgh, Scotland.

**

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