Phil Ochs didn’t just chronicle the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s in song, he was part of them. Like Bob Dylan, his friend and idol, Ochs became a spokesman for young people who were both energized by the election of John F. Kennedy and angered by what they saw as the discrepancy between the American promise of equality and justice and the reality of racial segregation and a never-ending war. When Dylan, around 1964, decided to stop writing and singing “protest songs” in favor of more introspective (though still socially charged) material, performed to a rock ‘n’ roll beat, it was Ochs who carried the torch, and the burden, of being America’s leading political folk singer.
The story of Ochs’ inspiring rise and sad demise is told with eloquence and insight by filmmaker Kenneth Bowser in his feature-length documentary, “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” out recently on DVD (First Run Features, $27.95, not rated).
It was as a student at Ohio State University in 1960 that Ochs, who favored country music and Elvis Presley, got turned on by his roommate Jim Glover to the topical folk music and radical politics of Woody Guthrie, the Weavers and Pete Seeger. The film tells the amusing story about how Ochs obtained his first acoustic guitar by winning a bet with Glover over who would triumph in the 1960 presidential election, Richard Nixon or JFK. A few years later, just before he was due to graduate from Ohio State, Ochs followed Glover to New York’s Greenwich Village, where Glover was making a name for himself as part of the folk singing duo of Jim and Jean (Ray).
Ochs soon became a part of the Village folk music scene, along with such contemporaries as Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen, David Blue and, of course, Dylan. He had an apartment on Bleecker Street with his girlfriend and future wife, Alice Skinner, which became a hub of musical activity. An avid reader of newspapers and news magazines, Ochs started to turn out song after song on current issues and events. Seeger recounts the time when he went with Dylan and Ochs to the office of Broadside magazine, which published sheet music and lyrics, news articles and the occasional recording of new protest songs, and marveled at the talent and creativity of these two young men.
Ochs had not only become a prolific songwriter, he was performing everywhere he could — in clubs, concerts, at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and at benefits for civil rights groups, striking mine workers, and eventually, as the War in Vietnam escalated, at anti-war rallies. In 1963, Ochs was signed by Elektra Records, an independent New York label which wanted to release the topical songs Ochs could provide. As Elektra’s Jac Holzman put it, “Phil had what was essential: a stance, six strings and an insistent voice wanting to be heard.”
His first two albums, “All the News That’s Fit To Sing,” from April 1964, and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” released in February 1965, showcased Ochs’ sweet (if a little thin) tenor voice, his melodic gift and his wide-ranging interests. His topical songs were passionate and pointed, as Ochs sang about racism and the murders of civil rights workers (“Too Many Martyrs,” “Talking Birmingham Jam,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”), urban riots (“The Heat of the Summer”), the deaths of John F. Kennedy (“That Was the President”) and Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory”), the plight of migrant farm workers (“Bracero”), the crisis in the labor movement (“Links On the Chain”), the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley (“I’m Going to Say It Now”) and the War in Vietnam and American foreign policy (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Cops of the World,” “Is There Anybody Here?”).
But Ochs was also writing beautiful and poignant love songs, none better than “Changes,” a sad look back at the breakup of his marriage, which appeared on his early 1966 album “Phil Ochs in Concert,” as well as romantic ballads (“The Highwayman”) and sharp-witted satires (“Draft Dodger Rag,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”). Ochs’ live album also included his memorable and empathetic “There But For Fortune,” which became a minor hit in America and a Top 10 single in Great Britain for Joan Baez, as well as the prophetic “When I’m Gone.”
In 1967, with the Village folk scene crumbling in the face of the rock music explosion and the emergence of the counterculture, Ochs moved to Los Angeles and signed with A&M Records. His fourth album, “Pleasures of the Harbor,” released late that year, was more ambitious, musically, than his previous work, incorporating lush orchestrations, ragtime piano and classical touches to adventurous songs such as “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “Crucifixion,” and the title cut.
Ochs remained as much an activist as ever, performing at some of 1967’s massive anti-war demonstrations, as well as novel “War is Over” rallies (based, in part, on his song of the same name) in Los Angeles and New York — two years before John Lennon and Yoko Ono developed a similar idea. But the 1968 assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and the violence that occurred at demonstrations near the Democratic National Convention in Chicago had a profoundly disturbing affect on him. Combined with his growing problems with depression (an ailment that had incapacitated his father many years earlier) and alcoholism, he began a downward spiral in his career and personal life.
Ochs continued to make albums for A&M into the 1970s, but with diminishing returns aesthetically and commercially. He rebounded occasionally, as in 1973, when Ochs even persuaded the elusive Dylan to join him in a benefit concert for victims of the Chilean military junta that overthrew Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government. But he was becoming increasingly despondent and erratic. Ochs committed suicide in April 1976, at the age of 35.
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” benefits from the filmmakers’ excellent use of archival film and photographs from throughout Ochs’ life, as well as live performances and newsreel imagery from key events of the times. In addition to obtaining vintage interviews, on both film and audio, with Ochs, director/producer Bowser and his crew have conducted new interviews with members of Ochs’ family, fellow participants in the ‘60s folk music scene such as Seeger, Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul and Mary), activists and observers of the ‘60s including Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Cora Weiss and Paul Krassner, and present-day admirers such as actor Sean Penn and British singer Billy Bragg.
Outside of an occasionally confusing chronology, the main problem with the documentary is the absence of complete performances of songs by Ochs. Bowser provides snippets of many of Ochs’ songs, which allows him to show the range of Ochs’ political interests and personal concerns. But viewers never get the opportunity to hear or see Ochs performing even his most important songs in their entirety.
This may not be a “concert film,” but the decision to only include excerpts means that the historical scope of “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” or the full beauty of “Changes,” to take just two examples, is never shown. The excellent CD box set, “Phil Ochs: Farewells & Fantasies,” released in 1997, would provide a useful and important supplement to this otherwise admirable documentary — if you can locate a copy.