Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share

NEW YORK — Though not the most famous musical figure of the 1960s, the protest singer Phil Ochs was one of the most emblematic. He began the decade raising his voice against injustice and war, but ended it feeling increasingly voiceless.

“His life perfectly reflected the ‘60s,” says Kenneth Bowser, director of the documentary “Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune.” “His rise and fall, his pursuit of fame, his excess and in some ways his manic depression, all reflected the times.”

Featuring interviews with Joan Baez, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg, “There but for Fortune” portrays Ochs as a pillar of the Greenwich Village folk-music scene. He wrote leftist songs about war (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore”) and civil rights (“Here’s to the State of Mississippi”) but also needled the left (“Love Me, I’m a Liberal”). He played in support of countless causes, from a miners’ strike in Kentucky to the demonstrations outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Lesser-known is Ochs’ later career, during which he abandoned his folksy roots. An unusually personal album, 1967’s “Pleasures of the Harbor,” and a surprising bid for mainstream fame, 1970’s ironically titled “Greatest Hits,” made Ochs difficult for many fans to follow.

He also spiraled into a late-blooming manic-depression so severe that he declared himself dead and adopted a new persona enigmatically named John Butler Train. By the time he moved to Queens to live with his sister, Sonny, then a schoolteacher, he had stopped writing or performing. He became despondent, spoke little and spent much of his time playing cards.

“He was always down,” says Sonny, who now lives in upstate Middleburgh, where she hosts a monthly folk-music radio show. “When I would come home from school, if I didn’t see him in the living room, I’d run around the house looking for the body.”

In the film, record executive Andy Wickham describes trying to cheer up the singer, but to no avail. On April 9, 1976, Phil Ochs hanged himself. He was 35. It seemed the failures of the 1960s — the assassinations, the war in Vietnam, the Nixon presidency — had left Ochs too personally and creatively exhausted to continue.

“He had a love affair with this country,” Bowser says. “And finally it just broke his heart.”

Related Articles
31 Aug 2011
As a folk-rebel, Phil Ochs feels charmed and harmed and rattled, talented and slightly twisted, in-the-grain and adrift at the same time.
By PopMatters Staff
15 Jul 2007
Psalm 100 instructs, "Make a joyful noise unto the Lord!". What more joyful sound than the life-affirming song of protest, for that is the sound wrenched from the deepest grief and suffering, from exhausted and diseased lungs, and the voice raised in tuneful protest is among the most beautiful of human sounds. Sing out, indeed!
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2015 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.