Tag Archives: Phil Ochs

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.

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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”.

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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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Changes

“I gave my love a chicken that had no bones”

I’ve been rather dreading writing this. I’m not sure I’ll be able to fully explain why, but then again, maybe I don’t have to.

When I think about Phil Ochs, my Phil Ochs, the one that I have invented by listening to him singing, Changes just doesn’t compute. And yet when I read about Phil, when I see what songs he sang live, when the votes are cast for Phil’s most popular songs, there it is, at the very heart of Phil’s sets throughout his career, at the heart of other people’s love for Phil. Obviously it’s me with the problem.

Trying to explain why you like something, or dislike something, seems a little pointless. Especially when that something is as obviously pretty as this. It’s a nice song. But then I don’t listen to Phil because he wrote nice songs. With Phil I always expect a little more. And more often than not I get it.

I’m not gonna bang on about it, but I will say this – I do find the relative popularity of Changes suspicious.

A funny little aside – which may or may not be slightly stupid…

Phil’s two most covered songs (at least during his lifetime) were almost certainly There But For Fortune and Changes. I don’t think it would be such all that controversial to suggest that these are also Phil’s most atypical songs.

One interesting thing to note (to me at least) is the gender divide in those who covered them. There But For Fortune was covered by Joan Baez, Francoise Hardy, Marianne Faithful and, even Cher.

Changes on the other hand is far more male, being covered by Gordon Lightfoot, Crispin St Peters, Gene Clark, George Hamilton IV and, most recently, Neil Young. Of course women covered Changes too, and men have sung There But For Fortune, but the gender imbalance remains.

When Phil sang them the arrangements are almost identical – finger picked, restrained, gentle. In all instances mentioned above the covers of There But For Fortune remains the same, just about. That pleading caring unaltered. Changes on the other hand is nearly always played upbeat, jaunty even, inspired less by Phil’s version then by Gordon Lightfoot’s (at least I think his was the first to do this).

The point that I am labouring towards is that Changes isn’t really a love song. It concerns love only by virtue of love being the normal topic of such songs. Instead it is something more primal, something more masculine if you will. Those aware of Phil’s personal life would be quick to link this song to his breakup from his wife (they never divorced however). Certainly it would be hard to disagree that that would have been at the very least a jumping off point. The song however has far more going on than that. It takes in nature, life and death, the universe, ageing – only the final verse seems directly to concern personal relationships. Even then it is not soppy, it is not romantic. If this concerns love then it concerns the point at which it dies. It isn’t so much a break-up song, and a dumping song. And it is undoubtedly the singer who is doing the dumping. (In the Jim and Jean version, it’s Jim who sings this last verse) –

Your tears will be trembling, now we’re somewhere else,

One last cup of wine we will pour

And I’ll kiss you one more time, and leave you on

the rolling river shores of changes.

Note – it is “your tears”, “I’ll kiss you” – it is plain who is doing the leaving here, who is in control.

To consider this as a “masculine” trait seems rather odd now, dated perhaps. In 1965 however it would have been rather less so. Dylan’s mid-sixties oeuvre is packed with untender put-downs (“you just kinda wasted my precious time”) for example. Which isn’t to say that Changes is cold or heartless, it’s just a little bit…put it this way, I can’t imagine anybody who has been dumped feeling particularly reassured by being told “Like petals in the wind, we’re puppets to the silver strings of souls”. Rather than empathise with his heartbroken ex, the singer instead chooses to point out how small and pointless we all are, set against the vastness of space and time such things as heartbreak are little more than whimsy.

The trouble is that for Phil at that time he had bigger battles to fight, bigger issues to sing about. Which leads neatly to the next song, a song that only Phil Ochs could have written…

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The Marines Have Landed On the Shores of Santo Domingo

santodomingo65

On April 24 1965, in the words of historian Ricardo Santiago, “the workers and farmers of the Dominican Republic poured into the streets, arms in hand, with the goal of creating a truly democratic, independent country”.

The United States didn’t stand idly by. Invoking his “beloved” predecessor’s assertion that the United States must “use every resource at our command to prevent the establishment of another Cuba in this hemisphere”, President Lyndon Johnson moved swiftly to counter the revolution. According to Johnson (aided by McGeorge Bundy and Robert McNamara) the aim of the revolution was not true democracy but the “establishment of a communistic dictatorship” and despite initially having “no desire to interfere in the affairs of a sister republic”, he soon changed his mind.

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US Marines first landed in Santo Domingo in May 1916. Already in control of the Dominican customs authority, after 1916 it sought full control of its lucrative sugar cane industry and, eventually, its government. The US stayed in de facto control until 1924, but its influence remained.

In May 1930 Rafael Leonidis Trujillo rose to power following a sham election. His brutal reign was only ended 31 year later by a CIA backed assassination following public pressure. The US tried to bring Trujillo’s protégé Joaquin Balaguer into power, but the popular uprising that brought a brutal end to Trujillo, stood firm.

In February 1963 Juan Bosch, a liberal poet and longtime opponent of Trujillo, was elected President. He remained President for only seven months however, ousted by a US backed coup d’etat in September 1963. In those seven months Bosch sought to redistribute Trujillo’s vast wealth and began a nationalisation and land redistribution programme. Though an anti-Communist he angered businessmen by seeking to strengthen the labour movement. He angered the Catholic church by legalising divorce. With his country under the shadow of the United States and its interests in the region, his presidency was doomed from the start. In the words of Matias Bosch of The Juan Bosch Foundation in Santo Domingo “U.S. foreign policy supported the promotion of democracy in Latin America provided that the Latin Americans protected U.S. national security and economic concerns in the region”. Bosch’s Presidency was seen as a threat to these “economic concerns”.

His replacement was nothing short of a military dictatorship, led by General Elias Wessin y Wessin. A series of strikes, leading to the events of April 24th, saw Colonel Francisco Caamano take control of the government. Caamano stated that –

“We pledge to fight for the withdrawal of foreign troops on the territory of our country. We pledge to fight for the observance of democratic freedoms and human rights, and not to permit any attempt to reestablish dictatorship. We pledge to fight for the unity of all patriotic sectors to make our nation truly free, truly sovereign, truly democratic.”

This became known as The April Revolution. What began as an internal (though obviously US influenced) struggle soon became, in Matias Bosch’s words “a patriotic war because of the U.S. military intervention”.

Johnson’s statement, released a week or so after Caamano’s coup, sought to rather coyly paint the US as peacemaker. He spoke of rescuing those American and foreign nationals under threat, of sending planes and ships to evacuate those seeking to flee. However, soon these warships and planes would be bringing American soliders in their tens of thousands. Rather than end the struggle, US military intervention only served to prolong it.

Six months of fighting and several thousand lives later the revolution was crushed. In those six months there were more American soldiers stationed in the Dominican Republic than in Vietnam. In yet another sham election (historians Bailey and Nasatir claim that some 300 Bosch supporters were killed by Balageur’s men in the run up to the election), Balageur returned to power in 1966 where he would remain for 22 years, ushering in a new reign of oppression that continued unabated under the watchful eye of the United States. In 1975 Juan Bosch stated that his country “is not pro-American, it is United States property”.

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Santo Domingo is, in effect, a kind of point-proving addendum to his Cops of The World. Yet it is not presented as a list of dry-facts in song. It is a song rife with drama and tension. There is sadness and violence, but it is measured, precise. There is a clarity to the language that still allows for moments of poetry. At its heart however this is perhaps Phil’s finest moment of song as motion picture. The lyrics act as a camera sweep, picking out detail amidst the carnage.

Beginning with images of scuttling crabs, burning sand, scattering fish and the churning sea, which act as a kind of pathetic fallacy.  So much of what is really going on here is implied. Far from the bluntness of his earlier songs, there is subtlety here. Coming as it does so soon after Cops of The World adds meaning to it certainly, but the implied threat is nevertheless powerful, if subtly delivered.

Simple images of quiet locals – sweating fishermen, boys throwing pebbles on the shore – contrast with the warships and their accompanying “thunder”. These contrasts are everywhere – farmers yawning in the “grey silver dawn” (such a typically Ochs image) alongside the boldness of the soldiers, in their “cloud dust whirl” – singing merrily, whistling at the girls. The seagull’s “cold cannon nest” hints at an uneasy peace as well as the threat of violence to come.

A killer line follows –

The old women sigh, think of memories gone by, they shrug their shoulders”.

For all the drama unfolding, with a little bit of a wider perspective, this is just history repeating. This is a key lyric, and something that Phil was particularly fond of (“we’ve done this before, so why all the shock”). For all the jibes of his topical songs becoming quickly dated, one of the key messages that Phil’s songs impart is that so little ever changes. Think of I Ain’t Marching Anymore with its historical sweep, or his history-lesson-as-protest-song We Seek No Wider War. It’s little wonder then that Phil’s “topical” songs remain so pertinent now.

Other images stand out. The single sniper in a gunfight, hopelessly outnumbered seems heavily loaded with symbolism; the puny revolutionary forces being crushed by the imperialistic might of the United States.

And what about –

the soldiers make a bid, giving candy to the kids, their teeth are gleaming”?

Again it’s such a rich lyric, alive with meaning. One the one hand it implies the meagreness of what the soldiers (and by extention) the US occupancy is offering. They’ve just shot someone dead, and all they can offer is sweets. That final line part though, “their teeth are gleaming” is all about contrast. Contrast between the healthy young soldiers and the scatty kids. Contrast between the mess that the soldiers are making on foreign soil, leaving their homeland clean and safe. It’s a wonderful lyric.

And a final moment for the history books.

“The traitors will pretend that it’s getting near the end when it’s beginning”.

This wasn’t a wild leap of faith on Phil’s part. This is what history had taught him. You do not stem revolution through violent action and walk away scot free. The reverberations of violence ring through the generations. It brings to mind the final verse of We Seek No Wider War, one of Phil’s finest –

“And the evil is done in hopes that evil surrenders,

but the deeds of the devil are burned too deep in the embers,

and a world of hunger in vengeance will always remember”

The impact of the events of April 1965 are still being felt today. The same mind-set that sent US marines to Santo Domingo has sent US troops to Iraq and Afghanistan. The same issues that led to a “failed” revolution in 1965 are still prevalent today. Some have argued that the time has come for new revolution across poverty stricken Latin America. Phil’s song acts, as so many of his do, as a warning from history – try to step out of the United States’ shadow and you’ll find yourself in a whole heap of trouble.

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Is There Anybody Here?

enlist

As is often the case, this song isn’t quite as straight-forward as it seems. Sure, it is certainly one of Phil’s more unapologetically finger-pointing songs, but the way in which he approaches it makes it transcend the simplicity that such a such a song would suggest.

It is effectively a follow-up to I Ain’t Marching Anymore. In that instance Phil drew up a whole load of historical reasons for not enlisting. Here he challenges those who would enlist (and by extension those who support the very idea of sending young men off to fight) to question their own motives for doing so.

He does this via a series of questions that, though they veer towards the rhetorical, remain unanswered. That these are followed by a full-on sarcastic refrain create a slight unease. Indeed one could be forgiven for thinking that by the end of the first verse that this was a pro-war song, where it not of course for the fact that it was being sung by Phil Ochs! The gentleness of that first verse, with its references to glory, loyalty and duty serves to lull the unsuspecting listener into a false sense of security. The refrain – “Pin a medal on the man” – seems rather benign. Then again, this is Phil Ochs. Surely we all know what is coming.

The second verse begins to ramp up the pressure. An early reference to wrapping a flag around an early grave suggests that this isn’t the song the first verse might have suggested. This image – one that also appears in Phil’s Song of A Soldier (“the flag draped coffins are sailing home”) – is obviously a strong one. So often an image of courage and patriotism here it is presented as something approaching the pathetic. Indeed images of flag draped coffins arriving home from the most recent American interference in Iraq were actually banned by some US broadcasters. The unease which Phil conjures here from such an image has obviously carried forward into the present day. Such an image is a reminder of course of the consequences of military action, something that someone hoping to further the cause of military enlisting would seek to avoid. The appearance of such an image so early in to the second verse makes clear what whatever this song is about it is not about furthering the cause of the US military.

The following lines – “a soldier to the world, a hero to his heart” – therefore, appear little short of sarcastic goading. Once we get into the third verse, as the melody gets playful, Phil really goes to town. “Is there anybody here proud of the parade” harks back to Track One Side One of his debut LP, another sarcastic take on American militarism. One of the things I like most about Phil’s songs is that though his songwriting very obviously changed certain ideas echo through them. The line “So do your duty boys and join with pride” from The War Is Over may not have worked in the context of this song, but isn’t such a big step away either. Similarly One More Parade is again evoked in the line “is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame”. In One More Parade it is “all march together everybody looks the same, so there is no one you can blame”, but the inference is the same; blame can only be apportioned if something bad has occurred. Again this inference of badness is only suggested, but as Phil keeps the questioning coming, from a drip into a torrent, the suggestibility of these lyrics becomes stronger and stronger until Phil asks “is there anybody here who wouldn’t mind murder by another name” and there it is, the killer line (pardon the pun). And finally we are left in no doubt. When “Pin a medal on the man” appears again Phil’s work here is done. Even sarcasm doesn’t do justice to how that line appears now. Its meaning has changed almost totally from its appearance in the first verse. Phil’s “quicksand of questions” have done their job and without saying anything, without committing to anything so mundane as a statement, Phil’s point is made. It’s heady stuff.

P.S.

It’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that song was being sung at a time when there were many, many people wanting to do their part, or rather being forced to. When Phil wrote One More Parade there were something like 12,000 American troops in Vietnam. By the time he was asking Is There Anybody Here? there were somewhere in the region of 380,000. When he sang The War Is Over – with no little pathos – the numbers had increased beyond 500,000.

So, to answer Phil’s question – yes. I’m afraid there are.

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Ringing of Revolution

villagers

Oh heck.

I’ve been umming and ahhing over writing about this song for far too long now. So I’m just gonna write the damn thing.

The trouble is that I honestly feel that to some extent with this song Phil reached some kind of perfection. The mixing of his own songcraft with the kind of confident politicking that would inevitably be all too fleeting. There is a wonderful certainty about this song both in content and style. And while his song writing (and song crafting) would continue to evolve and strengthen, the certainty of his political convictions would do anything but.

This then is a beautiful snowglobe of a song, capturing not just an idea but a moment of harmony between content and style, between a songwriter and his politics, and between a singer and his audience. How am I gonna back up such grand assertions, I honestly don’t know…

The title itself is something a giveaway – The Ringing of Revolution – the word “ringing” is crucial. It suggests clarity. Phil would later change it to The Rhythm of Revolution, apparently because it sounded better, but perhaps also because he had already lost some of that clarity. Rhythm suggests the slow building of pressure, ringing suggests a certainty and urgency.

This the kind of song that only Phil Ochs could write. This is the kind of song that only Phil Ochs did write. Read cold on the page the lyrics seem harsh and stark and somewhat brutal – that killer line at the end that “only the dead are forgiven” kind of sums it up. Yet there is something disarmingly sweet about the delivery, something almost lullabyish. For all the brutality and violence of the lyrics, it is steeped in fantasy. Not the wild flights of fancy of The Doll House maybe, but certainly a key stepping stone towards When In Rome, a song with which it shares so much. This is revolution as fairy tale. Songwriting as wish fulfilment. Phil as Hollywood director.

Something else that disarms the listener is Phil’s spoken word introduction, filled as it is with humour and no little self-deprecation. It’s a funny thing (in both senses of the word) to introduce what appears to be such a brutally serious song with such a daft introduction. It brings to mind an idea that would later be used with far less subtlety on Outside of a Small Circle of Friends; this idea of content and style working against each other. In the latter case the style of the song (a jaunty jazziness) allows Phil to almost smuggle in some pretty cutting lyrics. The same isn’t quite so true here, but it certainly allows Phil to grab the listener’s attention and once he gets it he makes damn sure they can soak in every word. And that’s the point. Phil’s delivery belies the caustic lyrics by being careful, showing up the lack of restraint in the lyrics by showing the upmost restraint in his performance. It’s a wonderful thing to behold.

Hollywood is perhaps a key reference point, one accentuated by, and not solely attributable to, his spoken word introduction. Phil’s lyrics are not so much poetic as cinematographic. They sweep and swoop like a camera on a crane. Phil flits from looking in at the “merchants on style” and the “soft middle class” to zooming in and listening in to their desperate conversation. By the third verse we are inside their minds, reading their thoughts. And here comes the first key line, as the separateness of those attacking and those being attacked is described as the “distance only money could measure”. From here on in we are left in no doubt – what is being enacted is a Socialist revolution. The moneyed getting their comeuppance.

A key difference between the lyrical camera of Phil Ochs and the real cameras of Hollywood is a distinct lack of sentiment. There is no backstory, no seeking of understanding, certainly no empathy. More to the point, this is a film that would never be made. The villagers with the pitchfork are Hollywood enough, but the Frankenstein’s monster they are hell bent on destroying most certainly isn’t, for this monster is Capitalism. Phil casts these monstrous Capitalists with the spirit of Charles Laughton (he of Hunchback of Notre Dame fame), a less attractive film star you’d be hard pressed to find. They are undoubtedly the villain of the piece. They don’t even begin to question their own innocence, all they do is plead for mercy. At their last they try to cling on to their final vestiges of wealth (“with pillows of silk they’re embracing”) and end up being mocked for the very thing that has created this desperate situation. Their desperation being met not with violence (not straight away anyway) but with the laughter of the crowd. It’s a mean scene for sure.

This is the end scene of a movie already played out. As such it is total fantasy. It is Phil’s gift to us that he allows to share in it, if only for a few moments. Then again…

There is a key moment in Phil’s introduction where he describes those being attacked as being the “last of the idle rich…the last of the folk singers”. It’s a throwaway, daft remark. Or least it is delivered as such. Yet there is something else there. Phil isn’t willing to create a simple us and them scenario, where the audience is on his side and they, together, attack this other. Ringing of Revolution is followed by Is There Anybody Here? and Love Me I’m A Liberal, two songs that are hell bent on confrontation. I didn’t use the Frankenstein reference glibly (well, I did at first, but thinking about it is rather apt). The point being that if this is a song attacking Capitalism (which it is) then this “last of the folk singers” line is a little reminder of the culpability of all those present, Phil included. Far from being the antidote to pop music’s excesses, folk music by 1966 had become almost totally inseparable from it. In striving for popularity folk singers had become part of the very thing that so many of them had proclaimed to be opposed. The nadir was perhaps reached in 1965 with the release of Barry McGuire’s Eve of Destruction, a pop song masquerading as a folk song*. Phil may have attacked the song due it a lack of quality rather than anything to do with its authenticity, but one could argue that the two things are inexorably linked.

So drink it in. For all Phil’s complaints about Barry McGuire his best response was a song such as this this – fun, sincere and deadly serious. Only Phil Ochs could pull off a song like this. And here it is in all its unapologetic glory.

 

*I feel the need to add that I really like Eve of Destruction. It’s a bit silly as well as being terribly insincere, but I can’t help but enjoy it all the same.

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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.

*

“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.

*

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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Here’s To The State of Mississippi

Mississippi

Phil described this as one of his most criticised songs – and also one of his favourites. That his most criticised song was also his favourite perhaps tells us much about Phil’s no-nonsense approach to song writing at this time.
A great chunk of this criticism came from Dave Van Ronk who wrote this in his autobiography;
“I thought a lot of [Phil’s] stances were too simplistic, which was typical of that whole crowd. His positions would make sense in a limited way, but he had not really thought them through. Like when he wrote Here’s To The State Of Mississippi, I understood that he had been down there and had been horrified by what he was seeing, but I thought that singling out Mississippi as a racist hell hole was unfair to the other 49 states. As Malcolm X used to say, ‘there’s down south and there’s up south’. Without all the activists who were from there, none of that movement would have happened, and having some northerner come down and shit all over Mississippi was unfair to the people who were trying to fix up their state. And it was also too damn easy”.
Phil response came in an article he wrote for Sing Out in 1965:
“…on the surface [Here’s to the State of Mississippi] goes against the basic policies of all the civil rights groups and the established rational voices of the Left…Now, normally you might say that the important thing is to encourage moderate business elements of the power structure of the state, bring about the vote, and get Mississippi back into the Union. I agree with that on a rational political level. But artistically and emotionally, I wrote that song the day 19 suspects [in the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers] were allowed to go free. It’s a song of passion, a song of raw emotional honesty, a song that records a sense of outrage. Even though reason later softens that rage, it is essential that rage is recorded, for how else can future generations understand the revulsion that swept the country? On another level, it is my act of murder against the good name of Mississippi, an act of vengeance that couldn’t begin to avenge the countless atrocities of that forsaken land. In other words, at the depth of its irresponsibility, Mississippi had become the symbol of evil in America, and the song is only exhorting that evil to leave”.
In essence, Van Ronk was spot on, but was still missing the point. Phil wasn’t trying to come up with a level-headed response to what he had seen and heard in Mississippi – he was merely trying to capture his anger, bottling it for future generations to open and smell the stanch of Southern bigotry 1960s style. I am that future generation and none of Phil’s other songs of Mississippi comes close to this one. And they are many; The Ballad of Medgar Evers, The Ballad of Oxford, Colored Town, Days of Decision, Freedom Riders, Going Down To Mississippi, William Moore, Love Me I’m A Liberal and You Should Have Been Down In Mississippi all reference the state and it’s bigotry in some way. This here is Phil at his most belligerent, his most precise. Van Ronk attacked the song for what it wasn’t – a calm reasonable response to belligerent racism. What it is is a Phil Ochs song in all its searing, righteous, unapologetic glory. Sis Cunnigham and Gordon Friesen called it “one of the strongest songs ever to scorch the pages of [Broadside]”. I, for one, am not going to argue with them.

*

Phil travelled down to Mississippi in the summer 1964 as part of The Mississippi Caravan of Music organised by Bob Cohen. Cohen’s piece about the Caravan in Broadside #51 describes it as being part of “the most ambitious civil rights project ever”. Known as Freedom Summer, the idea was to encourage the political participation of blacks through action, education and song. The singers themselves were also there to learn. Cohen tells of them learning about black history, being taught of how Freedom songs were being sung back in the days of slavery and of the contribution made by black musicians to American (and therefore world) culture. They also got and insight into the current lives of Southern blacks.
Over twenty singers including Phil and Len Chandler, Judy Collins, Jim and Jean, Carolyn Hester, Pete Seeger, Peter La Farge and Gil Turner took part, helping with and learning about the thirty or so projects set up all over Mississippi. The intention was to put song, Freedom Song, at the heart of the struggle as Cohen wrote “somehow you can go on in the face of violence and death and inaction of the FBI, the indifference of the Federal Government when you can sing with your band of brothers”.
The experience had a quite profound effect on Phil.
In the midst of this Freedom Summer, three civil rights workers – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner went missing;
“Perhaps the most notable episode of violence came in Freedom Summer of 1964, when civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner left their base in Meridian, Miss., to investigate one of a number of church burnings in the eastern part of the state. The Ku Klux Klan had burned Mount Zion Church because the minister had allowed it to be used as a meeting place for civil rights activists. After the three young men had gone into Neshoba County to investigate, they were subsequently stopped and arrested by Neshoba County Deputy Sherriff Cecil Price. After several hours, Price finally released them only to arrest them again shortly after 10pm. He then turned the civil rights workers over to his fellow Klansmen. The group took the activists to a remote area, beat them, and then shot them to death. [It is suggested] that because Schwerner and Goodman were white the federal government responded by establishing an FBI office in Jackson and calling out the state’s National Guard and U.S. Navy to help search for the three men. Of course this was the response the Freedom Summer organizers had hoped for when they asked for white volunteers.
After several weeks of searching and recovering more than a dozen other bodies, the authorities finally found the civil rights workers buried under an earthen dam. Seven Klansmen, including Price, were arrested and tried for the brutal killings. A Jury of sympathisers found them all not guilty. Some time later, the federal government charged the murderers with violating the civil rights of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney. This time the Klansmen were convicted and served sentences ranging from two to ten years”.

 (From Curtis J.Austin, The Civil Rights Movement In Miss, State Historical Society.)

goodman

*

According to Bob Cohen “the struggle in Mississippi is what this great country of the United States of America is all about”. If Phil’s reaction is anything to go by, those States were not quite as United as the name suggests.
Over eight five-line verses Phil takes aim at the pillars of Mississippi, aiming his sights ever higher with each new verse. Starting with from the land itself (“the fat trees of the forest have hid a thousand crimes”) and it’s people (“who say the folks up north they just don’t understand”) to the education system (“every single classroom is a factory of despair”) , the police (“behind their broken badges there are murderers and more”), the courts (“when the black man is accused the trial is always short”), up to the State Government (“criminals are posing as the mayors of the towns”) and the judiciary (“the constitution’s drowning in an ocean of decay”) before landing the fatal, final, blow of the Man himself – “Heaven only knows in which God they can trust”. Its nigh on six minutes long and every single line is filled with fire and feeling.
Yet for all the obvious anger of its writing it still has a sense of order to it. Phil makes sure that methodically nails each subject before moving on to the next. There is also a rather strange calmness to Phil’s delivery of it on the LP. The words are definitely angry, but there is precious little vitriol in his delivery. This is especially apparent in comparison with his later Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon, with its thunderous strumming and spit-speckled delivery. He sings “Richard Nixon find yourself another country to be part of” with glee. There is no such glee evident as he sings “Mississippi find yourself another country to be part of”. Rather there is just sadness. Sadness that he has been forced to sing such ugly lyrics. Sadness that such events were going on in his own beloved country.
Ironically, despite Van Ronk’s argument that Phil was wrong to pick on one State in particular, the major failing of Here’s To The State of Mississippi was that it wasn’t specific enough. Whilst Richard Nixon was a very real evil to Phil, Phil must have been aware that a state is made up of such a varied set of people that the name Mississippi couldn’t represent them all. What he needed was something to represent all the bad in the state, just as Nixon would later do. Whilse Mississippi essentially becomes a symbol for racism, whilst that works up to a point, the prevelence of racism elsewhere, negates its impact.
As it happens Phil himself was eventually won round by Van Ronk’s argument. He told Lauren Jones and David Fenton of the Ann Arbor Sun in March 1974 that “I stopped singing the song for a while. Especially after Mississippi John Hurt, one drunken night, said ‘Phil, you really shouldn’t sing that song anymore. After all, people like me are from Mississippi too’”.
Nevertheless the song does exactly what Phil intended it to do. This is topical song in the raw. And while Phil’s stance on Mississippi may have softened – as he foretold it would – sixty years later it still retains its power.

*

I was considering how to end this piece, trying to come to terms with what this song is all about – coming as it does at the end of his second album, coming at the end of what one could argue was his early-years. That his songwriting changed after this (both the unreleased songs of this period as well as some of the songs on Phil Ochs In Concert evidence a lurch towards the personal and the pissed-off) also adds significance. But how to fully explain that? Then I read this quote from the maverick film maker Werner Herzog – “the poet must not avert his eyes. You have to take a bold look at…what is around you, even the ugly…decadent…dangerous things”.

What Here’s To The State Of Mississippi suggests, more than anything, is certainty. As much as it is about the evils of the state, it is also a song about protest song itself. And if protest song means anything it means certainty. It wouldn’t be long before a Phil Ochs album would start with the words “I don’t know”. The certainty of Phil Ochs The Early Years would soon seem all the more bitter than sweet. Here’s To The State Of Mississippi doesn’t just capture outrage, it captures protest song in its purest. Rather than knock it for its faults, let’s try and celebrate it for capturing that time when Phil Ochs “saw the devil and called him Satan” – unapologetically, belligerently, but still brilliantly.

It’s one hell of a song to end an album.

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Days of Decision

Days of Decision

(Art and words by Lindsay Mercer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the prize of the victory will belong to the bold

Yes, these are the days of decision.”

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

 

 

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The Ballad of the Carpenter (Ewan MacColl)

jesus

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

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

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

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

And yet Jesus is everywhere.

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

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

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

 *

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

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

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

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

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

 *

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

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

 *

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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