CULTURAL WORKINGS

Welcome to THE CULTURAL WORKER, a blog dedicated to protest arts on the Left ranging from the radical avant garde to revolutionary folk song. This blog is aligned with John Pietaro's revolutionary music website www.DissidentArts.com . The Cultural Worker celebrates art at its boldest and features a variety of articles, reviews, fiction, essays and musings by myself--a musician, writer, and labor organizer by design. Scroll straight down and you'll also find also find an extensive, ever-expanding Photo Exhibit of cultural workers in action, and a series of Radical Arts Links. The features herein will be decidedly revolutionary and unabashedly partisan---make no mistake about that. The neo-fascists and the slaves to capital and conformity will find no words of warmth in the content of this blog. The concept of the cultural worker as a force of fearless creativity, of social change, indeed as an artistic arm of radicalism, has always been left-wing when applied with any degree of honesty at all. No revolutionary act can be truly complete in the absence of art, no progressive campaign can retain its message sans the daring drumbeat of invention, no act of dissent can stand so strong as that which counts the musicians, writers, painters, dancers, actors and performance artists within its ranks. Here's to the history and legacy of cultural work in the throes of the good fight...
john pietaro

Friday, December 17, 2010

WHERE IS THE PHIL OCHS OF THESE DANGEROUS TIMES?


WHERE IS THE PHIL OCHS OF THESE DANGEROUS TIMES?

By John Pietaro

A bloodthirsty Right-wing power-grab. Virulent xenophobia. An ongoing illegal and immoral war. National divide. Governmental spying. Rising popular unrest. Social welfare in turmoil. Fear-mongering. A military industrial complex gone mad and a Democrat in the White House whose poll numbers are in rapid decline….

Contemporary headlines or those of the Vietnam War years? Today’s “great recession” notwithstanding, one overt difference in these times is the silence; God knows we don’t have Phil Ochs this time around.

History will demonstrate that Philip David Ochs (December 19, 1940 - April 9, 1976) was one of our nation’s most profound voices of protest. He was active in the fertile period that bridged the Civil Rights era with the struggle for peace and the youth movement; around him were erupting battles on campuses, town squares and in Washington DC. For an artist of conscience, there was much work to do, so Phil Ochs sang out against war and demanded equal rights and an egalitarian society. His songs damned the establishments that begat the murder of Medgar Evers and allowed organized labor to forget its true mission. He cried for our nation and praised its promise.

Ochs’ songs unashamedly revealed our faults but also offered the means to rectify them. Phil was a presence at demonstrations and other radical actions, not merely a voice on a record. A proud member of the IWW, Ochs traveled to Hazzard, Kentucky during the bloody strikes in the earliest 60s and boldly performed for the pickets and in ear-shot of the mine-owners’ threatening goon squads. Several songs document these struggles, including the hauntingly beautiful “No Christmas in Kentucky”. Shortly thereafter, Phil became entrenched in Civil Rights, traveling to many points on the Klan’s radar. His periods in the Deep South are chronicled in songs such as “Freedom Riders” and the brutally blunt “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”.

From Greenwich Village coffee houses to the national stage, Ochs sang his protest loudly. While his first two albums set the standard for topical singers henceforth, both All the News That’s Fit to Sing and I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore offer stark moments of beauty. Over the next few years, as he matured as a person and a writer, he’d offer the haunting “Changes”. And with “Crucifixion” he emoted about the loss of John Kennedy, but wasn’t he also singing about the loss of innocence, perhaps conscience itself? And “One More Parade”, “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore” and then “The War is Over” gave us anthems that would carry the peace movement. “The Power and the Glory” spoke of his pride in our nation’s mission and greatness—even as the FBI began an investigation of him that would span a decade and fill 410 pages. “Cops of the World” spit back into the faces of the reactionary government. Ochs was nobody’s fool.

Phil toyed with fans, and surely his own sense of doom, by titling a 1968 album Rehearsals for Retirement. Its cover depicted his own gravestone with the year of death listed as, of course, 1968. Continually plagued by demons, both inner and outer, Ochs struggled with bi-polar disorder, anxiety and alcohol dependence. Often, his performances became strained as lyrics were increasingly forgotten and melodies faded. In his later period, gigs became arguments with the audience.

Ochs was a major part of the protest surrounding the ’68 Democratic Convention in Chicago, performing his best topical material right in Lincoln Park. Later, he was called in as a witness for the defense on behalf of the Chicago 7. Ochs told anyone who’d listen that he felt he spiritually died in Chicago, as the police riot rained blows upon democracy.

Ochs staged several ‘The War is Over’ concerts which featured many name performers in both folk and rock music. He would also travel to Chile and befriend the great songwriter Victor Jara. Shortly thereafter, the CIA-backed coupe would take the lives of Jara and thousands of others; this was a terminal assault to the faltering Ochs. By 1976, unable to prevail in this battle on every front, Phil Ochs would die by his own hand.

The protest song’s grandest voice dared to speak back to the criminal Nixon administration, uncovering and exposing with anger and wry humor. He alerted his audiences to corruption and brutality and especially to the right-wing’s manipulation of ‘the American dream’. Ironically, he also warned us that, “a protest song is something you don’t hear on the radio”. He dared us to care, at the expense of himself. And now, as the anniversary of what should have been his seventieth birthday approaches we are left to watch new generations of right-wing opportunists flail joyously with a new sense of slovenly power----the silence of Ochs’ loss has become deafening.

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this, John. About the title....In Phil's wake, and the wake of the 60s generally, many songwriters took up the challenge. But I would caution that political songwriting extends over a diversity of styles, and does not always appear with a single guitar. It could be reggae, hip-hop, rock or a lot of things. It's world-wide now. History does not repeat itself precisely, and there are plenty of Phil's around - they just don't look exactly like him, nor sound exactly like Dylan, nor Baez, nor Woody, nor.....know what I mean?
    Dave Lippman

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  2. Hi Dave,
    Thanks for your response. I more than agree that protest song is not specific to a singer/guitarist, in fact I have been struggling for years to make sure that the full scope of political/protest music is more widely understood. If you scroll downward here you'll find lots of photos of and links to cultural workers that take protest well beyond the realm of folk music. Before Ochs time came musicians who spun their protest through orchestral or theatre music and then within Ochs time there were also many jazz musicians making serious statements of protest. And of course in the 70s, 80s and into today there were punk, reggae and hip hop artists making loud and proud statements, yes.
    My opening question was not so much why haven't there been ANY protest musicians since Ochs; that would be a silly question. However, I was asking about the presence of the popular musician who has almost entirely dedicated himself to the cause----this is something that has been rare. The top reggae artists who were so dedicated (Marley and Tosh) are both gone now, and much of music has tended to offer political activism usually only at certain points (like around elections). I am very impressed by Michael Franti, but his latest album tends to downplay the politics which made his prior one so amazingly bold. And while there are artists like Billy Bragg in the UK and the rapper Immortal Technique in this country, neither of these could be seen as mainstream enough to make a wider impact. And even if Ochs was never on the Top 10, his popularity throughout campuses carried his message far and wide. But what is so impressive is that regardless of any concert or recording work, Ochs was physically present at the events that activists were at----normally recording artists will make safe, isolated stops at demos, and generally only when there's media around. Ochs visibility in the freedom rides or in Harlan County Kentucky or Chicago '68 clarified the stuff he was made from. And that stuff is few and far between.
    As for a "new" Phil Ochs: I would be happy to see a rock or hip hop artist who's popular with young people today as present as a guy like Ochs was in the movement----this is the whole point of my article.
    peace,
    john

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  3. John: Are you familiar with the People's Music Network? There are a number of singer/songwriters in this group who are also activists and participate on picket lines and antiwar demonstrations, etc. People such as Charlie King and Karen Brandow among others. I was recently at the US Social Forum in Detroit where Charlie performed at a march and demonstration against Chase Manhattan Bank for its mortgage foreclosures and its bankrolling of JC Reynolds who holds its farmworkers in NC in a form of extreme wage slavery.

    In solidarity, Ann Ferguson

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  4. I don't have any friends who don't know of Phil Ochs' music!

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  5. Hello to both Fergs and Anna. Thanks so much for writing in---between comments posted here and on facebook, I am pleased to see such a response to memories of this guy Phil. So many of us continue to be moved by him.

    As far as the People's Music Network goes, yes, a great group of people who engage in much activism--through the arts as well as plain old grass-roots work. I was a member some years ago and still feel they play an important role. Also the People's Voice Cafe folks and any number of dedicated others. Every one of we cultural workers,especially in total, make a powerful statement and this work is essential in every battle. But the difference between groups and individuals like this and a musician like Phil Ochs is that in the 60s it was possible for a folksinger to get a major label contract and his records were immediately released worldwide. The record co also paid for global tours, so even without a "hit" Ochs could keep writing more and more protest material and it would be heard---by millions. This is what we pain for now. But even when there's a powerful voice like Ani DiFranco or Michael Franti or the rapper Immortal Technique making deeply relevant statements, they remain on the fringes. And too often, the next CD could be non-political. In order to make the optimum social change, a protest artist must have the dedication of a Phil Ochs while also having the major label global outreach----here's a tough thing to see realized today! In the meantime all of we lesser-knowns in the field must keep working and trying to win (or at least inspire) the smaller battles.
    peace,
    john

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