Bracero

Bracero

The Bracero programme ran from 1942 until 1964 and saw over four million contracts being issued allowing for Mexican migrant workers to work on North American farmlands, more often than not at wages and working conditions that local workers would deem unacceptable. In early 1942, in fear of a World War Two inspired labour shortfall, the State of California requested Government support by the way of temporary seasonal contracts for Mexican farm workers. Numbers were relatively small during the Wartime period, soon after the war ended however official Bracero workers were soon being outnumbered by illegal, so called “wetback”, workers.
According to Philip Martin in his book Promise Unfulfilled : Unions, Immigration, and Farm Workers, 2003, into the 1950’s illegal workers continued to outnumber the Braceros. The weak response of Government suggests that such workers were a illegality they were willing to suffer.
During the period of the Bracero program, North American farmlands became amongst the most productive on earth. In the mid-Fifties, as the Government began the removal of illegal workers, regulations on working and living conditions were relaxed, a trend that would continue until the early Sixties when President Kennedy brought a beginning to an end to the Bracero program.
In 1964 when the program did come to an end to an end, Lee G. Williams, from the U.S. Department of Labor, described it as “organised slavery”.

The impression one is left with of the Bracero is of undignified desperation, workers treated more like cattle than humans. Prospective workers were forced to prove their agricultural work experience by showing calloused hands. Upon acceptance they were sprayed with DDT. It’s all rather bleak.

Pauline R. Kibbe, in her book Latin Americans in Texas, 1948, offers a flavour of how these workers were treated –

Generally speaking, the Latin American migratory worker going into Texas is regarded as a necessary evil, nothing more or less than an unavoidable adjunct to the harvest season. Judging by the treatment that has been accorded him in that section of the state, one might assume that he is not a human being at all, but a species of farm implement that comes mysteriously and spontaneously into being coincident with the maturing of the cotton, that requires no upkeep or special consideration during the period of its usefulness, needs no protection from the elements, and when the crop has been harvested, vanishes into the limbo of forgotten things – until the next harvest season rolls around.”

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The real beauty of this song is…you could write in a short sentence what it’s about (migrant workers in the United States) but it would take far longer to write of what it evokes.
This is a genuine departure – and a real step-forward – in Phil’s songwriting. This isn’t just a song about something, this is a song that becomes that something, a song that is totally immersed in that something; its every line bringing the listener deeper into the experience. This is where Phil the singing-journalist becomes Phil the singing-auteur. It’s a glorious moment and one that is worth taking the time to drink in.

It opens with minor chord dread that continues until a sarcastic shift to the major chord optimism of the refrain –

Welcome to California, where the friendly farmer will take care of you”.

Phil takes us from the “rippling shadow waters” to “the hungry fields of plenty” – lines full of mixed metaphor and confusion. The third verse sings of brutal reality – of the biting sun and dry of the dust, “while your muscles beg for mercy”. Along the way we get my favourite Phil Ochs lyric – “when the weary night embraces, sleep in shacks that could be cages” – a line of beautiful simplicity, yet ripe with meaning.
If there is any real comment here, and of the old Phil Ochs fire, then it lies in the killer last verse. Here we are told of the economic reality at play here – that the “local men are lazy” and “we’d have to pay them double”, before the final lines, with its unarguable brutal starkness –

If you feel you’re falling, if you find the pace is killing,
There are others who are willing”.

The repeated “Bracero” after every line of the verses feels like a taunt, a constant reminder to the worker of their place – you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, you are just a migrant worker, on and on and on. It brings to mind Woody Guthrie’s ‘Plane Wreck at Los Gatos’ where the dead are stripped of their identities and their humanity;

Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, ‘They are just deportees’

The comparison with Woody in unavoidable but also somewhat misleading. The Bracero program existed long enough to be relevant to both Woody and Phil (if only just in Phil’s case) and as a subject matter it is absolutely what a young rabble-rousing protest singer should be singing about (the evils of capitalism and racism as well as the glorious sweat of labour) and yet there is something about Phil’s approach that transcends such obviousness. Phil sings without anger, not quite fully detached, but he is documenting more than responding. Thematically it maybe be a typical protest song, stylistically however it has more in common with his later Ringing of Revolution or even his even later still When in Rome, with it allusions wrapped up in images of terror and confusion. What Bracero captures is the point at which the rather prosaic simplicity of his early songs morph into something far more interesting, still showcasing his social concern and passion, but before his disappointments would swamp his vision with allegorical excess. Phil’s approach (not dissimilar to In The Heat Of The Summer) allows a song inspired by a specific topic to have wider meaning. Bracero conjures up not only the treatment of Mexican workers in the United States but the plight of ill-treated migrants everywhere. And whilst it is utter nonsense to suggest that a song that has universal meaning is somehow greater than one with a specific meaning, a song that is able to both do justice to the thing that inspired it whilst also being applicable elsewhere is one that has surely succeeded. More than that though, Bracero allows its subjects a moment or two of dignity, something that the Governments of the United States and Mexico failed to do for the twenty years of the programme.

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I’m Going To Say It Now

Phil back at Ohio State, Free Speech Rally, May 1965

Phil back at Ohio State, Free Speech Rally, May 1965

“And so, the flame of rebellion lay dormant in the west until Mario Silvio at Berkeley…” – Phil

Any argument that Phil’s third album is something of a departure from his first two is perhaps weakened by the fact that it is peppered, as his previous albums are, with topical songs of protest. That I’m Going To Say It Now opens the album helps illustrate the point though – this isn’t the same old, same old. Phil sounds fresher, more confident. Here we find Phil attacking his prey with all the “anger and amusement” he could muster. Having clubbed his audience with images of burning books, references to Chang Kai-Shek* and Chairman Mao and lines like “we also are entitled to the rights to be endowed” Phil then tickles them with;

“You’d like to be my father, like to be my dad,
Give me kisses when I’m good and spank me when I’m bad”.

It’s a heady mix and one that, for me at least, I am totally powerless to not be seduced by. It somehow manages to capture everything we already knew and loved about Phil but add something a little extra. Phil isn’t singing about the terrors of war, the evils of racism or the horrors of totalitarianism – he’s singing about freedom of speech and treats its enemies with total disdain – his snide, barbed lyrics wrapping up a very real threat – the threat of a songwriter full of both self confidence and confidence in his peers. For here we find the age-war of which I have written previously. The “friend or two who no longer live at home” are the youth of his generation. And “youth” is the key word. The nameless people to whom the song is directed (presumably those than run Berkeley and any enemy of free speech and progress) are set apart not only by their actions, but also by their age;

“And I know that you were younger once because you sure are older now”.

The threat – the conflict between not just the students and the people in charge of the University but also between strident youth and the people in charge of the country – is made obvious in the sixth verse;

I’ve read of other countries where the students take a stand,
Maybe even help to overthrow the leaders of the land”.

The line that follows (“Now I wouldn’t go so far to say we’re also learning how”) may be somewhat coy but is only a knowing wink away from being something a whole lot more.

This is not a song merely about a problem, nor a bland, naïve proclamation of good intentions – this is a celebration of a solution. That Phil was able to take a specific situation and make give it a wider meaning is testament not just to his growing skills as a songwriter but also of the potency of the events that inspired him.

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“In 1964 at the University of California in Berkeley the members of the Free Speech Movement on two occasions took over an administration building, refusing to leave until their demand for the right to voice their opinions on current issues was respected” – (United States History From 1865, Rice and Kraut, 1991)

Born in New York City, Mario Silvio and his family moved west where he eventually enrolled at the University of California, Berkely. In 1963 he got heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement in Mississippi, where he helped with voter registration drives and taught at a freedom school for black children.
Upon his return to Berkeley he found that all political activity and fund raising had been outlawed by the University. Thus began the Free Speech Movement.
Stemming from a University of California law against the distribution of political literature on campus, the Free Speech Movement chimed with Phil who had quit his the University of Ohio after having his writing for campus paper, The Lantern, censored after he wrote a piece celebrating Castro’s Cuba. Just as Phil’s songwriting was gaining power and momentum, so it seemed was the youth of America, and Berkeley was a hub of youth action.
The real beauty of the Free Speech Movement was that it acknowledged that its struggle was part of a larger movement. As Steven Marshall wrote in his book ‘The Trouble In Berkeley’ the students at Berkeley were becoming concerned that the University was becoming part of an “expanding web of power” that included “automation, national defense and research and development”. The united front of youth activists included not just the stalwarts of the left (CORE, SNCC and SDS) but also Young Republicans and Cal. Students for Goldwater. Mario Silvio, at the heart of the campaign stated that the Free Speech Movement and the Civil Rights movement (and the later anti-war movement) were as one – “The same rights are
at stake in both places – the right to participate as citizens in a democratic society and the right to due process of law.”
The outcome was suitably inspiring. In December 1964 the University declared that political activism would be allowed on campus and any outstanding charges against Free Speech Movement activists would be dropped. It was a significant victory. Phil was obviously suitably inspired.
University campuses would become regular stops on Phil’s tours throughout the US. In those crowds Phil would find young people to inspire and be inspired by. I’m Going To Say It Now would become a staple of his set. It’s a hell of a way to kick off his third LP.

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The incidents at Berkeley also introduced Phil, and the world, to Jerry Rubin. Arthur Gorson, who managed Phil in the mid-sixties and was better versed in old school political activism than the impish campaigns led Jerry Rubin and his cohort Abbie Hoffman, perhaps best summed up Phil’s relationship with Rubin – “If I’d been Phil Ochs’ father I might have suggested that Jerry wasn’t a good influence”. Nevertheless Rubin, and Hoffman, would play a significant part in the development of Phil’s activism, something we shall hear a lot more about in later posts.

For all the uniting of youth against the forces of power that the Free Speech Movement represented it was also highly dependent on an individual – and that was Mario Silvio. A fact that will not have been lost on Phil. Silvio’s most famous speech could have been Jerry Rubin a few years later;

 

 

 

 

 

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Phil Ochs In Concert

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Phil Ochs In Concert – Elektra, March 1966 in Mono and Stereo. Recorded in the studio and at concerts at New York and Boston in the winter of 65/66. Originally issued with eight poems by Mao Tse-Tung printed on the sleeve – “Is this the enemy?” Re-issued on CD in 1995 with sleeve notes by Danny Goldberg. Re-issued again in 2010 with sleeve notes by Richie Unterberger.

“This album was recorded at concerts given by Phil Ochs in Boston and New York in winter of 1965-66. The concerts were presented by Arthur Gorson”.
The venues were Carnegie Hall, New York and Jordan Hall, Boston.
(It seems Phil’s nerves got the better of him on the nights that the live recordings were made. To make up for his poor singing the songs were re-recorded in a studio.)

• Produced by Mark Abramson and Jac Holzman
• Engineering – David B. Jones
• Cover photo – Dan Kramer
• Liner photo – Joel Brodsky
• Cover design – William S. Harvey
• Poems by Mao Tse-Tung

“You ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow”

In 1965 The Beatles released Rubber Soul, inspiring Brian Wilson to up the ante and come up with a suitable response. In 1966 his Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds was joined in the charts by The Byrds’ 5th Dimension, Dylan’s 4-sided Blonde on Blonde and, the record that Wilson would never recover from, The Beatles Revolver. Phil spoke of the “promise” of 1965 – but it was the music of 1966 that defined that generation. It was in the midst of all this that Phil Ochs In Concert was released.
For all the musical revolution going on around him it was only Phil’s record that was truly revolutionary. For all the sonic invention, introspective lyricism, far-out arrangements and critical and popular acclaim of his peers it was Phil who was really tapping in to something deeper, beyond aural invention and into something that really meant something. That Phil was doing it alone (both figuratively and literally) may help explain why Phil would forever be known as an also-ran of a decade’s music. Up against his psychedelic peers Phil Ochs In Concert appears positively luddite, but that only serves to highlight something new and exciting that would forever set Phil apart – a clarity of vision (a clarity of politics even) that his peers couldn’t even begin to match. For their obvious musical successes, that same success (the success that Phil so yearned for but never reached) distanced The Beatles, Dylan and Wilson from the very real things that Phil was very much at the heart of – progressive politics, a newly politicised counterculture and the anti-Vietnam movement. While Dylan and the Beatles revelled in isolationism and mysticism and Wilson stuck in a teenage rut, Phil was deep in the heart of the battle, with songs that reflected all that he saw around him. While The Beatles awkwardly toyed with the idea of being anti-war and Dylan and Wilson countercultural heroes only in absentia, Phil was there, right there – and Phil Ochs In Concert is the album that best reflects his vision, his politics and, praise the lord, his sense of humour.

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Despite the good intentions of his previous albums, they were more concerned with social issues than with politics per se. While In Concert also contains Phil’s more personal songs (Changes and When I’m Gone) his political opinions are front and centre and, in the case of the sleeve, on the back too. What kind of singer, a singer dreaming of mainstream acceptance and stardom even, sticks a load of poems by Mao Tse-Tung on the back of their album?! Seriously? Phil argued that it would be in the nation’s interest “if we understood him better” and that “many people are not aware that this man is more sensitive than Lyndon Johnson”. Phil’s then manager Arthur Gorson perhaps explained it better, stating that “the purpose wasn’t to be a Maoist or to show that he was some kind of flag-waving Communist, but to show there was beauty everywhere, even in the words of someone who would be described as the enemy of our country. The essential point was to blur the image of a villain and soften it with art”.

One of the things I admire most about Phil was his willingness to explain himself, to make his intentions clear, to hell with the cool and aloof. And yet on his LP sleeve those Mao poems just sit there, blandly pretty, but not really doing anything. Phil’s non-committal “Is this the enemy?” barely helps. In the sleeve notes of his first album Phil admitted that he could never be as moral as his songs. This distancing of the creative self and the personal self is a troubling one – but what it allows is something that is massively important in considering how Phil’s music had changed since his first two records and the direction he would take in the future. Phil was an artist. Sure he wanted change (as desperately as ever) and his songs retained a topicality that has been too readily ignored, but all the same he was into creating beauty. The idea resonates, one that Phil almost certainly didn’t intend, that if a monster like Mao could do it, then someone as sensitive as Phil sure as hell could.
So where does all this leave the “clarity” that I wrote of earlier? The fact was that Phil was adamant that beautiful art (in Phil case songwriting) and revolutionary politics could sit snugly side by side. In fact that beauty was something worth fighting for. One of Phil’s great battles was in retaining his sense of being an American whilst also being a revolutionary. He was quick to point out that if he were to sing the songs he were singing in Mao’s China “I would be killed”. Is it irony that he feared he would be killed in his own country too? What this all adds up to – Phil’s songwriting, his inclusion of Mao poems, his belief in the beauty of art, his patriotism – is a sense of confidence and unwillingness to compromise. It is these things that are at the heart of Phil Ochs In Concert and help make it, to my ears at least, Phil’s first great record.

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Phil Ochs Greatest Hits wasn’t the first of Phil’s albums with a lie for a title. Phil Ochs In Concert was, as this is in reality “Phil Ochs in the studio again with audience reaction stuck over the top”. It has been done rather well though, so well that you almost certainly wouldn’t know if you weren’t told. Admittedly this is very similar to the kind of compromise that one would imagine Phil not being terribly keen on, it is actually more like the best of both words – careful renditions of Phil’s songs with a far looser, les uptight and more comfortable feel than his previous albums – with added stage banter!
Perhaps even more than the songs themselves it is this banter that really makes this album special. It’s one thing to be presented with a song so powerful as Santo Domingo, it’s quite another to have it introduced in such a wonderfully funny and biting fashion;
There’s been a drastic change in American foreign policy in recent months. Take the Dominican Republic. Which we did. [applause]. A little while ago, killing a few people here and there. Mostly there. Saving the day for freedom and Democracy in the Western hemisphere once again folks. I was over there in the Dominican Republic, entertaining the troops. I won’t say which troops. Over there with a USO group including Walter Lippmann and Soupie Sales. I played there in a small coffee house called The Sniper. And this was my most unpopular song. With the poetic-symbolic title of The Marines Have Landed On The Shores Of Santo Domingo…
What’s not to love? From the Henny Youngman referencing opening gag (“Take my wife…please!”) to the self-deprecating overly prosaic title via the silly teaming of Lippmann (a political commentator and journalist of some repute) and Sales (a kids TV presenter) it’s a total joy. If anyone ever accesses Phil of being po-faced, play them this.
The rest of the album really is Phil is take-no-prisoners mode. From a joyous introduction-free (though perhaps one requiring some explanation of context 40 years later) homage to freedom of speech via the treatment of migrant workers, a dead-eyed cinematic account of a fictional revolution, a finger-pointing attack on hawks and hawkish-advocates, a tirade against Christianity (so soon after singing of Christ-as-hero in his previous album), a couple of songs attacking American foreign policy, an attack on that safest of political opinion – liberalism, each songs takes aim and hits its target in a way that so many of Phil’s earlier songs somehow failed to do.
In the midst of all this are three other songs, not quite apolitical, but defiantly different. And one of them in arguably Phil’s greatest song.
Can you tell yet how much I love this album?!

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?)

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.

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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.)

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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)

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“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.

 *

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’”

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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…”

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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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