It’s funny how Phil Ochs continues to pop up every few years when the social and political climate of this country reach a certain heightened state. Given his stature as a revered social and political commentator/folk singer – albeit one largely overshadowed by his contemporary, Bob Dylan – it’s little surprise that this should be the case. It’s just unfortunate that it takes this level of unrest for an artist like Ochs to be brought back into the public consciousness. Very much a product of his time – though equally as much a part of a decade’s, if not centuries, long tradition of, to co-opt his phrase, singing journalists – Ochs’ music remains firmly rooted in the ‘60s due to his very specific approach to songwriting.

His debut, 1964’s All the News That’s Fit to Sing was just as its title indicated, immediately date-stamping the material. 1965’s I Ain’t Marching Anymore continued largely in this same vein, albeit with a greater focus on the songs, making it something of a definitive statement in protest music. Covering topics ranging from the assassination of the president (“That Was the President”) to the growing unrest over the conflict in Vietnam (the title track, “Draft Dodger Rag”) to the Civil Rights Movement (“Talking Birmingham Ham,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”), Ochs’ approach on I Ain’t Marching heavily refined that of All the News, streamlining and taking to the next level his idiosyncratic approach.

Yet as an artist and musician, Ochs has largely been forgotten in favor of the bigger names of the ‘60s folk revival and subsequent fetishization of The Sixties as an ideal rather than a reality. Much of this is due to the more overwhelming influence of Dylan, his peer in the Greenwich Village folk scene that played such an instrumental role in steering the direction of music and social and political discourse in that most tumultuous of decades.

Where Dylan tended to utilize poetic abstractions that lent his lyrical messages both an air of timeliness and timelessness (not to mention a great deal of mystique), Ochs’ focus was instead on socially and politically-minded specifics of the day, fashioning himself as a singing journalist of sorts. This stricter adherence to topicality helped ensure his music would remain forever entwined with the era in which it was created, conceived as a means of communicating the social and political frustrations of the here and now without concern for a potential broader or longer lasting application. In a way, this makes Ochs’ songs simultaneously both more effective and more ephemeral (see, in particular, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and his scathing takedown of the intolerance of the state and its people who “smile and shrug their shoulders at the murder of a man”). By choosing to write for the moment, Ochs forgoes the idea of songwriting as an act of creating for perpetuity in favor of writing for and commenting on the moment in a manner resulting in maximum impact.

To be sure, Dylan employed similar means with his more topical songs, but his prolific nature, his ever increasing public profile and the aura of mystery with which he chose to surround himself and his songs, helped ensure he could walk both sides of the same road. He created a body of work that could stand the test of time while also effectively positioning himself as the voice of his generation, despite his protestations to the contrary. And while Ochs certainly must’ve aspired to at least some degree of similar success – the human ego is a powerful thing, after all – his concern seemed more in the moment, more in keeping with the tradition forged by Woody Guthrie in being a singing voice of and for the people, than in any sort of lasting legacy.

In this, Ochs took on a far more journalistic approach to his writing, recognizing the fact that what may well be news today will become history – yesterday’s news, as it were – almost immediately. But it’s significance in that moment could not be undervalued and, like the first-hand accounts of journalists chronicling the Civil Rights era and the burgeoning anti-war movement, his job was to ensure the message was heard and conveyed when it mattered most, rather than worry about his legacy.

Due to the ephemeral nature of the form to begin with, the majority of songs, like each day’s news, tend to be lost to time once the significance of a given event begins to fade from memory. It’s not for nothing that there have been countless one-hit wonders and flavors of the month (or week or day or minute, as our attention spans have shrank over time). Add to this the urgency with which Ochs delivered his message – songs often ebbed and flowed wildly in tempo as the words came rushing forth, an early antecedent to the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle’s, a singer who bears a striking resemblance to Ochs in terms of form and structure, if not necessarily subject matter – and you’ve got a vital body of work that, while rooted to its time, would still resonate in subsequent eras of unrest.

It’s an interesting approach to songwriting in which the idea of the protest singer seems inherently tied to the folk revival and social unrest of the highly mythologized ‘60s, and it’s something that seems lacking in our increasingly comparable era of strife. With the exception of a handful of hip-hop artists, few higher-profile musicians seem to engage in the type of timely protest music favored by Ochs. This, again, seems to stem from the issue of favoring a more poetically perennial approach over immediately date-stamped specificity.

Yet even Ochs himself would not find this approach commercially viable, largely moving away from the role of singing journalist following the release of his first two albums; Pleasures of the Harbor, I Ain’t Marching’s follow up, while rightly revered, sounds unlike anything Ochs had produced up to that point and even more of the time in which it was produced, in this case 1967. And who can blame him, what with the far greater degree of success and acclaim afforded Dylan by taking a more poetically abstract, though no less resonant, approach?

Either approach obviously has its own merits, but there’s a far greater sense of authenticity in a plainly-spoken message rather than nebulous allusions and muddled metaphors. Where Dylan chose to be increasingly and willfully abstract as his celebrity status rose, Ochs remained true to the ethos of the socially and politically-minded folk and protest singer, acting as town crier instead of revered bard.

Ochs would pay a heavy toll for this, watching as his albums failed to resonate even as he moved into a more pop-oriented direction. This darker undercurrent was reflected in the self-deprecating titles of his 1969 and 1970 albums, Rehearsals for Retirement and Greatest Hits. The former saw a return to the more topical approach of his earlier albums using the horrific events of 1968 and, more specifically, the Democratic National Conventional in Chicago, while also somewhat ominously featuring a photograph of his tombstone (the site of his death noted as Chicago). For the latter, he teamed with Van Dyke Parks to create a more idiosyncratic set of pop songs, released with the tagline “Fifty Phil Ochs fans can’t be wrong!” that proved, once again, to be a commercial failure. Six years later, Ochs hanged himself at his sister’s home at the age of 35.

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