by Sonny Ochs (Phil’s sister)
On April 9, 1976 my brother, Phil Ochs, ended his life by hanging himself. He was 35 years old. He had written over 100 songs, and had traveled to many countries. He suffered from manic-depression and had been experiencing a long term writer’s block. Many of his songs had been recorded by artists such as John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Gilbert, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger.
Six years after Phil’s death, Ned Traynor who was then active with the musicians’ cooperative which was producing concerts at the Speakeasy on MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, suggested that they do a Phil Ochs Song Night. I said that I thought it was a great idea. From time to time I would call up and suggest the name of a performer I would like to see in the program. Everyone I suggested was accepted. After a while, I realized that nobody was really in charge.
Anyhow, I was at that first show and emceed a good portion of it. It was in October of ’83, but I don’t recall the exact date. It was quite disorganized with far too many performers. I left at about midnight, and there were still many others waiting to perform. Most of the performers were members of the Hudson River Sloop Singers who are affiliated with the Clearwater.
The following year we did another Song Night at the Speakeasy on Oct. 6 which I organized and emceed. Once again, most of the performers were members of the Sloop Singers Other performers included Sammy Walker, Tom Intondi, David Massengill, Rod MacDonald, Oscar Brand and The Washington Squares.
By 1984 I decided to move the show to Folk City which was better known and where I had been working the open mike on Monday evenings. We continued with most of the same performers, but that was a very special year because Magpie joined the show, and they have been in every single Song Night since then.
Our second show at Folk City the following year was really memorable. We had quite a who’s who of performers that night including Suzanne Vega, Melanie, Tom Paxton, Fred Small, Happy Traum, Eric Andersen, Christine Lavin, Frank Christian, Dave Van Ronk and Magpie. The place was wall-to-wall people.
By December of ’86 Folk City had closed down. Realizing that the Song Night had become quite popular, I decided to move it to a larger venue. For that year and next we were at the Bottom Line which seats about 400 people. We sold the place out two years in a row. (Not surprising considering the quality of the performers we were featuring – John Gorka, Aztec Two-Step, Ronnie Gilbert, David Massengill, Alix Dobkin, Sammy Walker, Buskin & Batteau, Fred Small, Rod MacDonald, Magpie, Kim & Reggie Harris, and Christine Lavin, among others)
I had moved up to the Albany area in ’86, so I decided to move the Song Night upstate so as not to have to travel to the city anymore. In 1987 the Song Night was held for the first time at the Eighth Step Coffeehouse on Nov. 6th, and it was held there every year until 1999 except once when there was a date mix-up, and it had to be held elsewhere in the Capitol District. That same year we did a Song Night in Philadelphia.
Up to this point all the Song Nights had the same formula. Each performer would sing one or two of Phil’s songs, depending on how many they knew, and that was it. The philosophy behind Song Night was to keep Phil’s music alive, to give all the monies collected to organizations in the folk field who were struggling financially, and to showcase performers. Money was given to groups like People’s Music Network, Broadside Magazine, Sing Out Magazine, New Song Library, various non-profit folk clubs and college radio stations. I would appeal to the audience to go out and see the performers when they were in town doing their own material. I found it frustrating that people would pay money to hear Phil’s songs, but not the songs of the performers. Sammy Walker said, “Phil Ochs draws a larger audience dead than we do alive.”
A side benefit of the creation of the Song Night was that several performers liked the songs that I asked them to sing so much that they included them in their repertoires and sang them all around the country. The ultimate thrill was when Kim and Reggie Harris not only recorded “In the Heat of the Summer”, they also made it the title song of their first cd.
After several years of only doing Phil’s songs at the Song Nights I started to get bored hearing the same songs over and over by basically the same performers. We were playing in different venues including Washington DC and Cambridge, Massachusetts by this time so the audiences were different, but I needed a change. I decided to change to format so that each performer would do one of Phil’s songs and one of his/her own, thus giving the audience a taste of what is being written today. As of now, this is still the formula we’re using. I much prefer it, but some of the performers think we should only do Phil’s songs, and that’s what some of them do.
Another minor change was added when we did a show at the Village Gate in Manhattan in November of ’93. There was a biography of Phil by Michael Schumacher being written at that time. He let us have some of his transcripts from several interviews. We had two excerpts read which described some of Phil’s adventures in Africa and South America. They were quite humorous and added a new dimension to the Song Night. We have included this practice in several Song Nights since then.
So the Song Nights continue. Many performers have taken part in them, and many more will be invited in the future. Some of the regulars include Emma’s Revolution (Pat Humphries & Sandy Apatow) , John Flynn, David Roth, Greg Greenway, Kim & Reggie Harris and Magpie. In 1994 we made our first foray into Canada, doing a show in Toronto, in 1996 we did a min-tour covering 8 cities in the mid west, and in 1999 we went to 7 cities in the mid west including a major tribute to Phil at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We also did 2 nights at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage.
We toured the northwest in 2004, starting in Vancouver, with shows in Washington and Oregon, ending up in California – San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Berkeley. It’s really exciting to be a part of a constantly evolving show with the main purpose of keeping Phil Ochs’ music out there.