Phil, for those of you too young to remember, was a singer/songwriter of topical songs. I hesitate to call them "protest" or "political", although they were full of both. Phil's knack was to humanize our inhuman treatment of each other, and to point out our failings that allowed, if not supported, the sins of our society. His was the voice of the disappointed optimist, the disenchanted patriot, the American dreamer who found himself in a nightmare.
I have always found his writing to be clearer and and far more poetical than Bob Dylan. The only reason I have ever been able to devise for the latter's success, is the obscurity of his images. Ochs' vision was clear, his songs poignant and beautiful, not the hodge-podge of linguistic pyrotechnics that is the hallmark of Dylan.
Take, for example, the following verses from "Crucifixion":
Then this overflow of life is crushed into a liar
The gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire.
First a smile of rejection at the nearness of the night
Truth becomes a tragedy limping from the light
All the heavens are horrified, they stagger from the sight
As the cross is trembling with desire.
They say they can't believe it, it's a sacreligious shame
Now, who would want to hurt such a hero of the game?
But you know I predicted it; I knew he had to fall
How did it happen? I hope his suffering was small.
Tell me every detail, I've got to know it all,
And do you have a picture of the pain
Phil's love songs were more tender, his satire more biting, his soul more bared. He didn't pull any punches, nor did he soft-pedal his beliefs. Whether he was telling the segregationist state of Mississippi to "find another country to be part of", exhorting unions to live up to their own principles and support the rights of black-Americans, or wryly pointing out the hypocrisy of liberals, he was clear, forthright, funny, and, above all, brave.
When Phil committed suicide after a long struggle with manic-depression, it shook me to my core. Even writing about it now overwhelms me and the sense of loss persists after all these years. I was a folk performer too, and I used much of his later material "Changes', "Pleasures of the Harbor", "Crucifixion", "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends". I was not alone in my admiration either. My friend Tom, mentioned above, sent me a recording of a living room session of Phil and another great songwriter, John Lennon, talking and playing together.
Yesterday, I followed a link that I'd bookmarked from the Kottke blog to a website containing podcasts of a 24-show series about Folkways Records, a seminal source for many of us older Folkie/Hippie types, and an archive of some of the most eclectic and interesting recordings ever made. Although originally a commercial enterprise and labor of love of its founder, Mo Asch, it is now a part of the Library of Congress.
I was surprised to see that the 23rd show of the series was dedicated to Phil (MP3), because he had not recorded much that was published by Folkways other than those contributions he had made to their audio periodical Fast Folk Musical Magazine.
Needless to say, it was the first show I listened to.
About halfway through the hour-long presentation, I started to feel sick-at-heart. A deep sadness came over me as I realized that much of what Phil sang about then has not changed. Some of the situations have remained, but even in those cases where they have not, the prejudices, apathy, selfishness, and arrogance that he saw have merely been pointed at different targets.
... and it makes me ill that there are no voices with the same power as Phil's being raised in opposition. We systematize, we categorize, we study and send things to committee, while people are degraded, starved, killed. We look for political or systemic solutions, thinking somehow that we can legislate ourselves into a Utopia, while simultaneously ignoring the human cost of delay and the inevitable failure to actually do anything.
Why are we such sheep? Why do we passively let our potential to be a great country be suborned to financial interests?
I'm not ranting from some angelically higher position either. The sickness in my heart comes from the realization that I too have sunk into middle-aged apathy, that I have become the liberal that Phil spoke of, older and wiser and selfish. I know that it will be an effort to change, but I must. I cannot keep on floating in apathy.
I don't think that I have the talent, or appeal, needed to take on the job of changing this country alone. So I'd like my readers to consider this a challenge, a seed, perhaps ... an acorn. I'll deal with my own apathy, but someone needs to energize, inform, entertain, and start people thinking again of what American values really are. We have people who make us laugh with their clear vision, but none, as yet, strong enough to mount a counter-assault on the money-grubbing, indolent, self-serving power structure.
Phil, in one of his most famous songs, said "I ain't marchin' anymore", but that call to action has become an excuse for inaction. We need to march. We need to act. We need to do something to take back our country from the plutocrats.
Can anyone out there sing? Can anyone out there lead?
I'm tossing this verbal acorn out in the hope that another Ochs will grow.