Remembering Phil Ochs and a revolution interrupted

    When I heard there was going to be a Philadelphia tribute to folksinger Phil Ochs, I had to attend. Ochs provided the soundtrack to my high school years. As my grades attested, I spent more time reading the liner notes of his albums than doing my homework. I had seen Ochs perform at Philly coffee houses and knew all the words to his songs. As did the 50 or so others who gathered at Malelani Café in Mt. Airy on April 9.

    Organized by local folk music maven Ray Naylor, performers included: underground radio pioneer Michael Tearson, Art Miron, Betsy Moore Robinson, Mike McNichol, David Kleiner, Jan Alba, Rusty Corwell, and Naylor, who also doubled as audio/video engineer while live-streaming the concert.

    The event benefitted the Philadelphia Interfaith Hospitality Network, an organization of diverse congregations that provide shelter and support to homeless families. Ochs would’ve approved. His songs were a rallying cry for social and political engagement.

    Ochs was a gifted writer who dropped out of journalism school just a month before graduation at Ohio State University and headed to the Greenwich Village folk music scene of the 1960s. There, along with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, and other rising singer/songwriters, Ochs penned the anthems of the anti-war movement: “I Ain’t Marching Any More,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Power and Glory,” “What’s That I Hear,” etc.

    They say Ochs was radicalized by the events of 1968 which included a violent clash between police and protestors at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, as well as the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. That was the same year Ochs supported anti-war, Democrat presidential candidate Senator Eugene McCarthy. If he were alive today, Ochs, who would be 76, would have plenty to say about the current presidential race and upcoming Republican National Convention.

    I noted all the Bernie buttons worn by performers and members of the audience. Ochs would’ve found a kindred spirit in Bernie Sanders whose anti-Iraq War platform reflects the message of Ochs’ “There But for Fortune,” written in 1963 and popularized the following year by Joan Baez :

    Show me the country where the bombs had to fallShow me the ruins of the buildings once so tallAnd I’ll show you a young man with so many reasons whyThere but for fortune, go you or I …

    The occasion of the tribute was the 40th anniversary of Ochs’ death. He committed suicide in 1976, one year after the Vietnam War ended. He was 36. At the time, I mistakenly attributed Ochs’ death to a career crisis. The music scene had shifted from folk to pop, from coffee houses to stadiums, and Ochs didn’t make the transition.

    I also thought Ochs couldn’t adapt to the shift in the cultural landscape. The Revolution never happened. The war was over, there was a Republican in the White House and former hippies were scrambling to get their MBAs. I was wrong on all counts.

    We now know that Phil Ochs was bipolar, a condition that wasn’t officially recognized by the medical community until 1980. Ochs’ father, a physician, also suffered from the same syndrome and had been hospitalized several times. During Ochs’ lifetime, the illness was called manic-depression and there was no effective treatment. Patients received little help financially because Congress refused to recognize manic depression as a legitimate illness.

    Ochs also suffered from alcoholism, a form of self-medication common among those afflicted by the syndrome, along with drug abuse. By the time Ochs was officially diagnosed in 1976, it was too late. He hung himself that year. (Note: Political and social activist Abbie Hoffman, a friend of Ochs who also suffered from bipolar disorder, committed suicide in 1989.) According to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, 5.7 million American adults currently have bipolar disorder.

    They say that Bob Dylan once told Ochs, “You’re not a folksinger, you’re a journalist.” While I don’t know how Dylan meant that, I’d like to think Ochs took it as a compliment.

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