Mt. Toby Concerts presents Phil Ochs tribute

  • Phil Ochs Contributed photo

  • Sonny Ochs Contributed photo

Recorder Staff
Tuesday, May 29, 2018

There was no shortage of singer-songwriters in the 1960s who gave potent voice to the dreams and the protests of that era, with songs that echo to this day.

Yet, few of them were as poetic, poignant and powerful as that of Phil Ochs, the folk singer, guitarist and lyricist who took his own life at age 35. Ochs, whose music provided some of the strongest protest against the Vietnam War and insightful commentary on civil rights, freedom of speech and the values of the day, is remembered as among the most important folk musicians of a decade that showcased such talents as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell.

“He was known for his rebel stance, his iconoclastic wit, his self-burlesque and his literate way with word play and philosophy,” wrote Robert E. Tomasson of The New York Times in the singer-songwriter’s 1976 obituary. “He preferred to be called a topical singer rather than a folk singer, and by the time he was playing cabarets in Greenwich Village, he had a repertory of more than 60 songs, virtually all of which had a social punch line or question.”

Ochs will be remembered in a Phil Ochs Song Night, which will be held Friday, June 8, at 7 p.m. at First Church, 165 Main St. in Amherst.

The event, emceed by sister Sonny Ochs, will feature Reggie Harris, Tom Prasada-Rao, Greg Greenway and Pat Wictor. The suggested donation for admission is $10 to $30, sliding scale.

“I grew up listening to Phil Ochs,” said Diane Crowe, who runs Mt. Toby Concerts, the organization presenting the concert. “It was an incredible time of social change and there were few people who came along who were as good at writing lyrics and music.”

Phil Ochs Song Night is organized by Sonny Ochs as a tribute to the legacy of her brother, known for songs like “A Small Circle of Friends,” “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and “There But for Fortune” — which is also the name of a recent documentary by Ken Bowser.

“Phil Ochs worshiped the idea of America,” Bowser said recently. “A great, idealistic country that was strong enough to admit its mistakes and powerful enough to fix them. The events of his life brought those beliefs into question for him, but the passion and humor of his music continue to inspire many.”

In The Village Voice, critic Robert Christgau wrote, “Not since Pete Seeger has there been a folksinger of Ochs’ stature who could claim his unswerving opposition to political and economic oppression. But Ochs never fell into the trap of purism. He both loved America and respected Americans, and he always remained aware of the elitist pitfalls awaiting those who would shape its art and its politics.”

His sister has been organizing tribute concerts for more than 30 years, beginning with one she did when requested by the Speakeasy coffeehouses in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village. In 1984, when she began running the open mic at Folk City, she started organizing annual tributes with performers like Tom Paxton, Eric Andersen and Dave Van Ronk.

Now, living west of Albany, N.Y., she does several tributes a year: in New York, on the West Coast, in Washington, D.C., the Midwest and other parts of the country. But this will probably be the last year of the concerts, she said.

“It’s much more of a smorgasbord,” she told the Greenfield Recorder in a 2010 interview. Every concert, said Ochs, who was four years older than her songwriting brother, brings a standing ovation.

“It’s mainly people who remember his music, but I also get people who get dragged along by a spouse or friend who’ve never heard it. They come up to me at the end and just say, ‘Wow.’”

Phil Ochs, she recalled, “was very much of a loner. He was very shy. Went to the movies often and believed a lot of the propaganda of those John Wayne movies.”

Even after the Vietnam War began to take its toll on the U.S. and civil rights injustices became clear, demanding expression in the songs of Phil Ochs and others, she said, “He was a real patriot, in the good sense. His thing was not, ‘My country — love it or leave it.’ It was, ‘My country is good, but we can make it better, let’s make it better. We have a lot of injustice here that’s hurting people. Let’s take care of them.’”

But she wrote on her website, “He suffered from manic depression, plus an affinity for the bottle.” While traveling in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, “he was mugged and lost the top three notes of his vocal range. This event seemed to send him on a downward spiral. His last years were troubled ones.”

Yet the songs Phil Ochs left behind are a powerful reminder of his passion for speaking out against injustice.

“All my days won’t be dances of delight when I’m gone

And the sands will be shifting from my sight when I’m gone

Can’t add my name into the fight while I’m gone

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here

And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone

And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone

Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone

So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at the Greenfield Recorder for more than 35 years. He can be reached at:
rdavis@recorder.com or
413-772-0261, ext. 269.