Phil Ochs (1940-1976)
Phil Ochs was an American topical songwriter and singer known for his sardonic humor, sincere humanism, political activism, insightful lyrics and distinctive voice. He wrote hundreds of songs in the 1960’s and 1970’s and released eight albums.
Ochs performed at many political events during the 1960s counterculture era, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, student events and organized labor events, in addition to concert appearances at such venues as New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall. Ochs’s mental stability declined in the 1970s, and he took his own life in 1976.
Some of his best-known songs include “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “Changes”, “When I’m Gone”, “Crucifixion”, “Draft Dodger Rag”, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal”, “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”, “Power and the Glory”, “There But For Fortune” and “The War Is Over”.
The themes and concerns Phil Ochs wrote about are still extremely relevant today, and his songs continue to make a deep and lasting impact.
Phil Ochs was born in El Paso, Texas on Dec. 19. 1940. He grew up in a non-political middle class family. While in college at Ohio State University, he met Jim Glover who became his roommate and whose father was Phil’s political teacher. It was during this time, while he was majoring in journalism, that Phil formed his political beliefs and started putting them to music.
After 3 years of college, Phil dropped out and went to New York City. This was during the early ’60’s when things were booming in Greenwich Village. Phil started out singing at open mikes and passing the hat. By 1964 he was well enough established to release his first album, “All the News That’s Fit To Sing”. His second album, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, was released in 1965, and by 1966 he was able to sell out Carnegie Hall for his solo concert.
Most of Phil’s songs were very political, some humorous and some very serious. He wrote about the topics of the day – civil rights, Viet Nam, hungry miners, and personalities such as Billy Sol Estes, William Worthy and Lou Marsh.
In 1967 he signed with A&M Records where his first release was “Pleasures of the Harbor” in which he used heavily orchestrated arrangements for the first time. Some fans criticized this change, while others accepted it.
Phil continued to perform and to travel around the world. While in Dar Es Salaam, 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. He suffered from manic depression plus an affinity for the bottle. He committed suicide on April 9, 1976 at the age of 35.
Many of Phil’s songs have been covered by other artists. Some of his best known songs are: “Changes”, “There But For Fortune”, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “Draft Dodger”, “Small Circle of Friends”, Crucifixion” and “When I’m Gone”.
There have been 2 biographies written about him. Death of a Rebel by Marc Elliot was written in 1977, and There But For Fortune – The Life of Phil Ochs by Michael Schumacher was published in 1996. Rhino Records released a 3-cd compilation titled Farewells and Fantasies in 1997 which includes all of his best known works plus some previously unreleased tracks. Sliced Bread Records released a double cd of covers of Phil’s songs performed by 28 artists in 1998 entitled The Songs of Phil Ochs.