My ongoing relationship with “topical singer” Phil Ochs began during a brief road trip from Boston to rural Maine, amid the final, agonising years of the Bush administration. At the time, I was an undergraduate student, about to enter my sophomore year, in a car filled with recent graduates. We were all involved with activism and had taken part in many rallies together. Because they were all older than me, and because of their incredible level of commitment to various pro-social and humanist causes, I felt quite honored that they considered me their friend.
On a mix CD was the superbly witty track “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” and sharing Phil's discontent with the centrist leanings of the Democratic Party, both then and now, we all found the song both brilliant and hysterically funny. At the time, I cannot say I understood all of the references to sixties culture and media in that song, but I do remember being struck by how American the singer’s accent sounded, like that of a father in a 1950s Midwestern suburb, or like a parody of that accent.
After returning from Maine, I read some more about Phil and listened to a few more of his songs. It quickly became impossible for me to stop listening to his music. I’m tempted to write that Phil Ochs made-up about 75% of what I listened to for the next two years, reaching a crescendo when I studied abroad in Glasgow during my third undergraduate year. When I came back to Glasgow for my Masters degree, I was thrilled to discover that some of my Scottish friends were likewise still listening to Phil. Hopefully, this indicates that I’ve had some success in spreading the gospel of Phil Ochs across the pond.
Phil Ochs genuinely cared about the left-wing causes that he championed; in fact, they may or may not have contributed to his eventual "insanity" and untimely death. Most of his works were overtly political. His early songs are characterised by political passion: while the United States had its serious problems – including poverty, segregation and the worsening war in Vietnam – the country had enough spirit to tackle these serious issues, as America is capable of great things. As the sixties progress, however, his works become characterised by an intense political despair. I would argue that songs like “The Crucifixion,” “When in Rome” and “My Life,” plus just about everything on his final album, Greatest Hits, are among the most depressing songs ever written.
I have some happier, early Ochs songs for you today. Both are rare and do not seem to be available for streaming on the internet, and so I'll share them here (although I must admit that they aren't as good of an introduction to Ochs as "Love Me, I'm a Liberal," "Draft-Dodger Rag" or "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends"). The first is from his bizarre, extremely obscure album of children’s campfire songs before becoming well-known, alongside some as-of-yet unknown female musician. It’s called “I’ve Got Sixpence.”
The Campers - I've Got Sixpence
Hilariously, Ochs recycled the melody of this song into one of his more characteristically-political songs. “I Like Hitler,” or "Loyally We Birch Along," is written in the style of a sing-along, albeit for right-wingers. This live version appears to be the only extant recording: