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Documentary shines light on '60s folk singer Phil Ochs

Rafer Guzman
Newsday (MCT)

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."

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-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

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Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
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There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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