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Phil Ochs, There But for Fortune

Thirty-five years ago this Saturday, Phil Ochs, the earnest singing polemicist of the 1960s, hanged himself. He suffered from depression and other emotional problems, as his father had, and he drank too much. I was thinking of Ochs earlier this week, when I was with a group of legal scholars at a conference on “Bob Dylan and the Law” at the Fordham University Law School. We traded thoughts about a small handful of songs that Dylan wrote about social justice, most (but not all) of them dating to the early days of his career, almost 50 years ago: “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” “The Death of Emmitt Till,” and a few others. They were never Dylan’s best work, as he seemed to realize when he largely abandoned the genre and dismissed it as “finger-pointing.” Like most ideological art, Dylan’s protest songs had a fervent certainty that makes them good propaganda, though the same unambiguity makes them not-so-great poetry. I doubt the Chinese authorities had this in mind when they tried to forbid Dylan from singing songs with incendiary language in the concert series he has begun in Beijing. (What did they expect him to sing--”Ooka Dooka Dicka Dee”?)

Ochs was always less a poet than he was a singing journalist, a role he mastered by writing dozens of songs like “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” “Talkin’ Cuba Crisis,” and “The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of Santo Domingo,” on albums like All the News That’s Fit to Sing. A conference on Phil Ochs’s songs about jurisprudence and politics could run for a week, but it will never happen. Ochs’s songs, like most works of journalism, are frozen in their day. A new documentary about Ochs, There But for Fortune, tells the story of his mercurial, tortured life without grossly inflating his importance or glamorizing his mental illness. I interviewed Ochs only once, on the phone, for an article on “Ghosts of the Folk Era” for an undergraduate journalism class at NYU, and he was incoherent. Panicked, I got off the phone after a minute or two, and I had no idea what to make of him until a few months later, when I read his obituary.

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