Dylan accused Ochs of being a journalist. That was far from the truth. Phil, like Bob, did scout through the newspapers to find stories and causes that would resonate with his ideals. But that isn’t all he did. He chose his words and aimed them at their targets with honesty and craft.
Phil was a part of that early sixties Folk scene in Greenwich Village. He was the most political and outspoken of them all. He was a ‘Protest’ singer. There’s nothing wrong in being a protest singer. There’s a lot that needs protesting about. It got itself a bad name after Dylan popularised ‘Protest’ and made it a commercial success. The media coined the phrase, ridiculed it, pigeon-holed it and every Tom Dick and Harry jumped on the band-wagon. They all wanted a bit of that fame and fortune that Dylan had grabbed. We need our protest singers. We need to protest. If only we had our Och’s and early Dylan’s to high-light the woeful capitalist exploitation, global inequality, war and wanton of destruction of the environment we might be better placed to deal with it. Where are the singers writing songs about the butchery of the elephants, rhinos and apes? When are we going to hear songs about the crazy overpopulation crisis that is destroying the world? Surely the new generations have the talent but do they have the sensibilities, the compassion and idealism that Phil and Bob possessed? Can they create a zeitgeist to carry a whole generation along with them like Bob and Phil did?
Both Dylan and Ochs baled out of ‘Protest’ into more poetic expressions of artistic depths. Phil always seemed to walk in Bob Dylan’s shadow and was consumed with jealousy and destroyed by alcoholism before killing himself.
But should not detract from the work he produced. His early work was full of fervour and idealism. He tirelessly set about writing his songs of hope. He shone a searchlight on the issues going on around us and by highlighting them raised them up into everyone’s consciousness. He brought those issues to life and wakened the consciousness of a generation. We became enlightened to the atrocities going on around us and activated to protest about it.
Phil targeted the civil rights war that was being fought particularly in the Southern States where the Blacks were free but still kept in slavery, where they were denied votes, rights and equality and lived in poverty and fear. Where racism was endemic, the Klu-Klux-Klan ruled and people still got lynched, beaten and tortured for speaking out or stepping out of line, where there was no justice. He sang about the assignation of Medgar Evans, the murder of civil rights campaigners and the way the hierarchy supported the suppression of black rights. People had been killed for less.
Phil targeted the war in Vietnam and American foreign policy where they felt entitled to invade other countries with impunity and sanctimoniously set themselves up as Cops of the World, dishing out their gum, rape, casual violence and disdain.
Phil targeted injustice and fought for a strong union system to protect the rights of workers yet he felt free to criticise the unions in their stance to Blacks and Communists. He had no faith in government, the establishment or the legal system. They all had their snouts in the same trough.
Phil was a man of integrity who followed on in the tradition set by Woody Guthrie. He wasn’t afraid to put his face where his words were. His songs were full of intent yet he deployed humour and produced well-crafted works of art. He was unique and that was probably his downfall. He was a little too quirky and out of step with the times. He did not easily slip into the long-haired freaks of the sixties counter-culture. He was a bit too political, too extreme and too different. He did not adopt the same uniform of freakdom or produce music with the right instrumentation for the times. He did get heavily involved with the YIPPIE political group and all their antics but he was still a little left-field. He did espouse all the right causes but he did it his way and did not quite fit in to the zeitgeist of the time. Where Dylan easily slipped from Protest to an equally incredible stream of consciousness and mercurial new sound that rode the crest of the new consciousness Phil’s created a sound that was not so much of the moment.
In hindsight it is possible to appreciate the later songs and albums. They had depth and intricacy that was just as wonderful as his early protest material. You can sense his desperation and disillusionment seeping through. He deserved much more. If he had not been so ignored and put down he probably would have blossomed even more. Who knows?
Phil left us a legacy of greatness with songs like ‘Cops of the World’, ‘Links on the chain’, ‘Here’s to the State of Mississippi’, ‘Too many martyrs’, ‘I ain’t marching anymore’. ‘There but for fortune’, ‘When I’m gone’, ‘Changes’ and so many more, that still resonate to this day!
Phil was an outspoken genius. We are desperate for more like him. Perhaps he will inspire a new generation who will create a new positive zeitgeist, highlight the wrongs and put us back on the right road.
We miss you Phil.