Phil Ochs “There But For Fortune” Documentary Honors 60’s Icon

| September 10, 2011 | 0 Comments

by Richard Cone

In the halcyon days of the early 1960’s folk music explosion that was centered in Greenwich Village in New York City, Phil Ochs, a baby faced, handsome folk singer with a battered acoustic guitar took to the stage and sang songs of protest with themes ripped directly from the political headlines of the day. With a singing voice that while untrained, was stark and filled with the commitment he felt to his lyrics, Ochs’s popularity rose to the point where he became a mentor to others who were striving to make it big as folk singers and musicians, including the young Bob Dylan. Both were thought of as the two most important songwriters of the day. Why it was that Dylan rose to the top of the genre while Ochs labored in what might be called near-obscurity before taking his own life at age 35 after years of schizophrenia and drug-induced insanity, is a question that has been discussed for decades in articles, books and commentary about the history of folk music. The finest and most detailed analysis to date is filmmaker Lee Bowser’s documentary film “There But For Fortune.”

Meticulously researched and composed, “There But For Fortune” blends the themes of Ochs’s troubled life with the political strife of the 1960’s, blended together with the lyrics of the hundreds of protest songs he penned (though he eschewed the term “protest song” and referred to them as “topical songs.”) Ochs was a song-writing machine, he could write four verses and a chorus about a social issue or injustice he’d read about in “Newsweek” in a matter of minutes. His songs were deep, and he could take a dry recitation of facts from the newspaper and spin it into a moving and emotional lyric about civil rights, the military, the government or a criminal case being prosecuted. Ochs came out of Journalism School at Ohio State University, was greatly affected by the killing of students by National Guard troops at Kent State, and he was passionate beyond the pale about injustice and sought to right it wherever he saw it. There was no benefit or rally that was too small or insignificant for Ochs to organize or attend. Indeed, one of the commentators in “There But For Fortune” says wryly, “Phil would show up if they were opening an envelope with a check for ten dollars for the guy who handed out crackers to the homeless, he’d write a song about the cracker giver-outer.”

Ochs described himself as a “left social democrat” who became “an early revolutionary” after the protests at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, where he was the only “name performer” to show up, and especially after the assassinations of his heroes John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, and his friend, Robert Kennedy. Bowser is direct in his admiration for Ochs and he weaves archival footage of Ochs at political rallies and protests and in concert with commentary from Ochs’s political contemporaries and fellow musicians and singers like Joan Baez, Dave Van Ronk, Tom Paxton, Jerry Rubin and Pete Seeger. The result is a revealing look at the most misunderstood singer of the 1960’s. “Although he never achieved the same star-studded fame and commercial success that rival Bob Dylan did, Ochs was a cultural force to be reckoned with,” notes Bowser. Dylan recognized the exact same thing. The two men shared a friendly rivalry, and Dylan once commented about Ochs that “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he just keeps getting better and better and better.” Those were rare words of praise from Dylan, and Ochs took them to heart like a love letter, but as is the case with Dylan, who has a well-earned reputation for taking out the long knife and using it, Dylan also famously disrespected Ochs, even taunting him on occasion. The story is well-known of the time that Ochs and Dylan were riding together in a taxi cab, and Dylan asked Ochs what he thought about “Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window?” which Dylan had just written. Ochs replied “It’s not as good as “Positively 4th Street.” Dylan responded by ordering the driver to stop the car, and he threw Ochs out on the street, with the words, “You’re not a folksinger, Ochs, you’re a journalist.” Dylan also crushed Ochs by refusing to invite him on “the Rolling Thunder Tour.” Years later though, when Ochs was organizing the 1974 “Evening with Salvador Allende” benefit, and ticket sales were so low it was on the verge of being canceled, Dylan volunteered to appear and the event sold out in hours. Still, in Dylan’s own biography, “Chronicles Vol. 1” you won’t find the name “Phil Ochs” anywhere.

Ochs also was on the end of some scathing reviews, and one of them, from the Village Voice’s Robert Christgau, the self-proclaimed “Dean of American Rock Critics” was particularly galling: “The thing about Phil Ochs is that he’s unquestionably a nice guy. He’s so sincere, you know? Too bad his voice shows an effective range of about half an octave, almost no dramatic quality, and a built-in vibrato that makes it sound warped; too bad his guitar playing would not suffer much if his right hand were webbed.” Interestingly, years later, after Ochs took his own life, Christgau took it all back: “I came around to liking Phil Ochs’s music, guitar included.”

Phil Ochs (photo by Robert Corwin).

More than three decades after his death, Ochs’s music remains relevant. Bowser has done a splendid job of introducing that music to a new generation of listeners. Ochs’s sister, Sonny, who still runs a series of “Phil Ochs Song Nights” is appreciative of Bowser’s efforts, and told me “It’s good to see Phil get his due, finally! Ken Bowser did a very good job researching the film and it is quite accurate. It bravely shows the blemishes as well as the praise. Phil was a complex person, and this is brought out in the film. I hope that young people will see the film and check out Phil’s music. Unfortunately, most of it is still relevant. You’d think that after 40 years, his topical songs would no longer be topical, but that is not the case.” “There But For Fortune” is available through NetFlix, or you can buy it through for a mere $18.00. You’ll want to watch it more than once.

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