American singer/songwriter Phil Ochs (1940–1976) was a folk-music artist best known for the passionate, pointed political commentary in the songs he wrote. He came into prominence amid the folk-music revival of the 1960s, and was often compared to fellow songwriter Bob Dylan. Ochs's career arced with the protest movement of the turbulent 1960s, fading with the winding down of the Vietnam war before ending in depression and alcoholism and, ultimately, suicide.
Philip David “Phil” Ochs was born on December 19, 1940, in El Paso, Texas. The son of Jewish couple Jacob “Jack” Ochs, a physician, and Gertrude Phin Ochs, he grew up with an older sister, Sonia, a.k.a. “Sonny,” and brother Michael, who was three years his junior. At the time of Ochs's birth, World War II was underway in the Pacific and in Europe, and Jack Ochs was eventually drafted to tend wounded soldiers in Europe. Traumatized by his battle experiences, he was honorably discharged late in 1945, but building a peacetime medical practice proved to be more than he could handle. Dr. Ochs ultimately worked at a series of hospitals around the country, bringing the family with him and staying at each position as long as he was mentally able.
Due to his family's many moves, Phil Ochs was an introverted young man. Enjoying listening to the radio, he enjoyed the early rock music of Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley as well as country-western hits by Johnny Cash and Hank Williams. His movie heroes included John Wayne and Audie Murphy, who typically played “good guys,” although he gravitated toward rebels such as those played by Marlon Brando and James Dean. Ochs received his first musical training in junior high, when he took up the clarinet, and by high school he was considered an excellent player. He was skilled enough in the clarinet that he was asked to perform at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Columbus, Ohio, where he was principal soloist at age 16.
Ochs finished his high-school studies at a military academy in rural Virginia before matriculating at Ohio State University (OSU). After a rocky start, he decided to take a break and go to in Florida, where he considered changing his major to journalism because he had an eye for news and a way with words. Returning to Ohio State in 1959, Ochs met Jim Glover, who would encourage his interest in politics as well as introducing him to protest music. His friendship with Glover forged the link between politics and music that shaped Ochs's future.
Glover introduced Ochs to the music of political folk singers such as the Weavers, Woody Guthrie, and Pete Seeger. He also taught him the basics of folk guitar, which was played on an acoustic rather than electrified instrument. As they debated politics, Ochs's writing for OSU's student newspaper became increasingly political, to the point that it was excluded from print. Undaunted, Ochs began publishing an alternative newspaper, The Word. He also shared his radicalized viewpoints in original songs that he performed with Glover, calling their duo the Singing Socialists.
New York's Greenwich Village neighborhood began attracting folk musicians in the late 1950s, and when Ochs arrived in 1962, the scene was well established and closeknit. Singer/songwriters and members of performing duos and trios were well–known to one other as well as to the national folk-music fan base. In addition to respected elders, such as the Weavers and Seeger, who were products of the Labor movement of the 1940s, younger musicians were learning the craft and trying their skills in the clubs. Some of these younger folk musicians were already bona fide stars, most notably Bob Dylan, whose songs would prove iconic in the growing counter culture of the 1960s. Ochs reportedly idolized Dylan, who for the most part encouraged the younger performer. While Dylan's style would evolve from folk to more abstract, poetic work backed by a loud and plugged-in band, Ochs continued to perform spare vocals against acoustic guitar, providing astute commentary at any time, for any good cause.
Although Ochs's early performances were unpolished, New York audiences took note of his talent, comparing his biting political commentary to that of Dylan. The same year he arrived in New York City, Ochs met Alice Skinner, and he married her when she became pregnant with their daughter, Meegan. The couple would separate three years later when Skinner moved with their daughter to California, although they never divorced. The year 1963 held several personal tragedies for the up-and-coming musician: He learned that his father had died and he was also shocked, like most Americans, to hear of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, on November 22, 1963.
A prolific songwriter, Ochs was inspired by the issues of the day and would stay up late, scouring newspapers in search of topics for songs. He was smart, funny, and trenchant in his political commentary, and his songs often put current crises into context. The Vietnam war was escalating and young men were required to register for military service at age 18. Ochs's popular protest song “I Ain't Marchin’ Anymore” took the point of view of a soldier who, having fought in many historical wars, decided to stop. “The Ballad of Medgar Evers”—also called “Too Many Martyrs”—protested the murder of a black man while making a broader point about racial violence in a supposedly free country. Ochs quickly became known for such vibrant, topical songs, which he delivered in a ringing tenor over powerful guitar chords. According to The Rough Guide to Rock contributor Peter Buckley, he described himself as “a singing journalist.”
Ochs was as busy performing as he was writing. Hootenannies, or open folk jams, were a frequent venue, as were clubs, marches, rallies, and any gathering supporting causes such as peace, workers’ rights, or civil rights. Signifying his growing popularity, Ochs was invited to perform at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, staged in Newport, Rhode Island. There he shared the stage with Dylan, Baez, Peter, Paul & Mary, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Judy Collins, Maybell Carter, the Freedom Singers, Jean Redpath, Bill Monroe & the Bluegrass Boys, and Ian & Sylvia. Organized in 1959 and by now the most important showcase for folk music, Newport welcomed Ochs, and he was asked to return the following year. Soon he was signed to a recording contract with Elektra Records, recording three albums over the next few years, sparely recorded with just his vocals and guitar, each better received than the last.
Ochs's albums for A&M marked a departure from his spare and politically charged work. Perhaps attempting to appeal to a broader sector of the music-buying public, they featured polished and heavily orchestrated arrangements. Ochs was sure he was on track for stardom, making several albums in this new, polished studio format. He also shifted the focus of his writing, producing lyrics about loneliness, social apathy toward suffering, escapism, and the rise and fall of political heroes. None connected with the wider audience he sought, his fans had mixed reactions, and critics panned the new sound.
Supplementing his studio work following the move to California, Ochs reconnected with those who shared his politics. He organized political rallies in Los Angeles and helped found the Youth International Party (members were referred to as “Yippies”) with Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, and other leaders of the anti-war movement. Ochs personally paid for Pigasus, a pig that would be the group's candidate for president in 1968, and he became a frequent, funny performer at Yippie events.
In the spring of 1968, civil-rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, as was Bobby Kennedy, a presidential candidate and the brother of the former U.S. president. Kennedy was popular, articulate and charismatic and his campaign championed the cause of peace and an end to the war in Vietnam. After his death, other Democratic nominees could not bring the anti-war movement, let alone the convention, together. Peaceful protests at the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Chicago over-flowed their designated locations, and hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched toward the convention itself, meeting opposition from the Chicago police. Violence ensued and escalated. Rioting would repeatedly draw news coverage away from the convention.
Ochs arrived in Chicago during the week the DNC was scheduled, planning to perform for the Yippies in several political events as well as supporting presidential candidate Eugene McCarthy. He appeared at several rallies, witnessing the violence as the Chicago police and protesters faced off. Arrested at one point, he was later called as a defense witness for Yippie colleagues Rubin, Hayden, et al.—now known as the “Chicago Seven”—who were on trial for inciting violence at the convention. After he left the courtroom, Ochs sang “I Ain't Marchin’ Anymore” for the assembled press and was featured on network news that evening.
As the uproar over the disastrous convention faded and Republican candidate Richard M. Nixon won the presidency, Ochs's spirits fell. The Yippie effort had been a failure and his songs had not turned the tide of popular consciousness. For him, America had died, along with a big part of himself, and it showed in his next album, Rehearsals for Retirement. The cover eerily featured Ochs's gravestone, with place and date of death marked as “Chicago, 1968,” and the album sold poorly.
With interest in his work fading, Ochs decided to tap the music of his youth—early rock & roll and country—and envisioned embedding a revolutionary manifesto in an upbeat rockabilly tune. Greatest Hits, released in 1970, contained all-new rock and country songs and he appeared on the cover in a tightly tailored gold lamé two-piece suit created by Nudie Cohn, costumer to Gene Autry, Elvis Presley, and Porter Wagoner.
A drug- and alcohol-fueled tour soon followed, featuring Ochs in his Nudie suit, backed by a rock band. He performed his new repertoire, interspersed with medleys of early rock & roll hits. His fans were largely unhappy with the new songs and look; when his two Carnegie Hall concerts in 1969 were packaged as a live album titled Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, his recording career was at its end. Ochs then slipped further into depression, and although he performed for various benefits, he experienced writer's block. At performances, he updated his most popular protest songs to fit the current political climate. Unfortunately, alcohol was now a permanent factor in his life, and it was beginning to show.
With his popularity dipping in the United States, Ochs turned to international audiences. In 1971, he traveled with a friend to Chile and elsewhere in South America, befriending Marxist Chilean folk singer Victor Jara and meeting other musicians. After performing at a political gathering in Uruguay, Ochs was arrested and detained by police, the first of a series of warnings reminding the Americans that they were not welcome. After a near-miss in Bolivia, where the intervention of an American commercial airline pilot kept him from being imprisoned, he and his friend made it back to the United States. Months later, in the fall of 1973, Ochs learned that Jara had been tortured and murdered by the Chilean army during a military coup.
Trips to Australia, New Zealand, and Africa followed in 1972 and 1973, and they were equally unsettling. One night during his stay in Tanzania, Ochs was attacked and strangled by robbers, resulting in damage to his vocal chords and, consequently, to his singing. He came to believe that the attack had been arranged by government agents, possibly the CIA. Later in 1973, he organized a benefit to raise money for the people of Chile, whose democratically elected Marxist government had been over-thrown. Joining Ochs as headliners were Seeger and Dylan, and several political speakers were featured amid the music. This event was followed, two years later, by a benefit celebrating the end of the Vietnam war. Held in New York's Central Park, this concert featured Ochs, Baez, Harry Belafonte, Seeger, and others.
Although the delusions would fade, Ochs's depression deepened and he began talking about suicide. In 1976, he moved in with his sister Sonny and her children in Far Rockaway, New York. A psychiatrist diagnosed his condition as bipolar disorder and gave him medication, which Ochs may have not used. Subdued and visibly depressed, he watched television much of the day, taking time out to playing with his nephews. On April 9, 1976, while staying in the home of his sister and her children, Ochs hung himself.
In the years following his death, Ochs joined the pantheon of counterculture heroes, and his songs reached new listeners in recordings made by many others. Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune, a documentary by Ken Bowser, was screened to good reviews in 2010 and aired in an abbreviated version on the Public Broadcasting Service program American Masters. In 2014, Ochs's daughter, Meegan Ochs, donated his recordings, papers, and other materials to the Woody Guthrie Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Buckley, Peter, The Rough Guide to Rock, third edition, Rough Guides, 2003.
Rotolo, Suze, A Freewheelin' Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the 'Sixties, Broadway Books, 2008.
Schumacher, Michael, There but for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs, Hyperion, 1996.
Village Voice, April 19, 1976, Robert Christgau, “Phil Ochs 1940–1976.”
Acoustic Music Scene website, http://acousticmusicscene.com/ (April 6, 2016), Michael Kornfeld, “Remembering Phil Ochs on the 40th Anniversary of His Death.”
New York Times online, http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/ (September 5, 2014), Allan Kozinn, “Phil Ochs Archives Go to Woody Guthrie Center.”
Phil Ochs: Live at Newport/Vanguard website, https://sites.google.com/site/philipdavidochs/liveatnewport (March, 1996), Mary Katherine Aldin, “Notes.”
Sonny Ochs website, http://sonnyochs.com/ (December 27, 2016), Sunny Ochs, “Phil Ochs Biography.”❑