was one of the best topical singers of his time, focusing heavily on political and protest music
. While his life and career were tragically abbreviated when he committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35, he managed to pen some of American folk music's finest topical songs. Here's a look at some of Phil Ochs' best songs.
© Robert Corwin
Phil Ochs has been criticized for having been too much in his own times and too topical for universality. While he did focus heavily on the topics of his day, he also penned tremendous songs like "There but for Fortune," which is a timeless song about the dire importance of empathy. Joan Baez
had such a hit with this song that Phil joked that she had written it. "Show me a drunk as he stumbles out the door / And I'll show you a young man with many reasons why / There but for fortune, go you or I"
"I Ain't Marching Anymore" is possibly Ochs' most famous song, and is one of his finest narrative protest songs. It covers the history of the American-led conflict in a stirring, provocative story. He sings the song from the point of view of a soldier marching into battle after battle in American history before deciding not to fight in any more wars: "Call it peace or call it treason / call it love or call it reason / but I ain't marching anymore"
After Ochs' tragic death, "When I'm Gone" proved to be a hugely prophetic tune. In it, he sings about all the beauties and obligations of life. From the glory of sunrises and simplicity of breath to speaking out against injustice, the song talks about seizing the day and living fully for the sake of peace and change: "Won't see the golden of the sun when I'm gone / The evenings and the mornings will be one when I'm gone / Can't be singing louder than the guns when I'm gone / So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here."
No group was safe from Phil Och's sharp tongue, including the liberals. This scathing editorial rips apart the left-leaning folks who, as he said introducing the song on his live album, are "10 degrees to the right of center when it affects them personally." Lately, many updated versions of the song have emerged to rip the fickle liberals of our times. "Once I was young and impulsive, I wore every conceivable pin...but I've grown older and wiser / and that's why I'm turning you in / So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal"
Similarly to Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," Phil Ochs' "The Power and the Glory" talks about the beauty and majesty of the American continent, and the strength and resolve of its people. At the same time, it's a call to action to preserve and prolong the legacy of the American movement. "Here is a land full of power and glory / beauty that words cannot recall / Her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom / Glory shall rest on us all"
While the draft currently doesn't exist (knock on wood), this song can still be easily appreciate by people of draft age. It's a humorous spell about all the excuses someone could conjure up for avoiding the draft. Ochs certainly wrote plenty of very serious songs speaking out against the Vietnam War, but this one went for the jugular with humor, and did so exquisitely: "I'm only 18, I've got a ruptured spleen, and I always carry a purse / I've got eyes like a bat and my feet are flat and my asthma's getting worse..."
This was a song pointedly addressed from the young activists during the Vietnam War era to the adults who sought to keep them in check. While many of the topical items in this song are no longer timely, the overall theme of standing up to authority when that authority seems untoward, will likely always resonate: "It's hard to read through the rising smoke from the books you'd like to burn / so I'd like to make a promise and I'd like to make a vow / When I've got something to say, sir, I'm going to say it now."
Phil Ochs believed, as so many peace activists do, that most individuals wouldn't choose to start a war. This song addressed those curiosities, asking if there is anyone who is truly eager and unafraid of going to war, perpetuating the cycle of violence. It's such a thorough, earnest set of questions that still ring true now, decades later. "Is there anybody here who thinks that following the orders takes away the blame? / is there anybody here who wouldn't mind a murder by another name?"
"Changes" came a little later in Ochs' career when he had started to explore more tangential poetic verse, as opposed to the concise and direct language of his earlier topical songs. It's a very introspective song looking back over the failures and successes of life, and its ambiguous memories. "Green leaves of summer turn red in the fall / to brown and to yellow they fade / and then they have to die, trapped within / the circle time parade of changes"
Many songwriters have tried to address the dubious roles Christianity has played in the history of America, and particularly American conflict. Phil Ochs, however, handled the topic beautifully with this "anti-hymn." It has a very lulling melody matched to very biting lyrics: "Holy hands will count the money raised / Like a king the Lord is richly praised / On a cross of diamond majesty / say the cannons of Christianity"