Phil Ochs Collection Displays Late Folk Singer's Politics, Power

Phil Ochs: The Early Years offers 20 tracks by leading songwriter of '60s folk scene.

Despite a recording career that spanned barely more than a dozen years in the turbulent '60s and early '70s, singer/songwriter Phil Ochs was considered a peer to the most famous musicians to emerge from the era's folk scene, including Bob Dylan.

Ochs committed suicide in 1976, but even today, his impassioned music is influencing young artists.

Some of Ochs' memorable efforts can be heard on the retrospective album Phil Ochs: The Early Years, just released by Vanguard Records on Tuesday (June 20).

Among his triumphs as a songwriter were "There but for Fortune," a hit for folk star Joan Baez, and "The Power and the Glory," an anthem to the possibilities of American society, which, in an unlikely twist of fate, became a hit for former beauty queen and anti-gay rights activist Anita Bryant.

Ochs' original recording of "There but for Fortune" is included on Phil Ochs: The Early Years. "The Power and the Glory" is there, too, in a vivid live performance from the stage of the Newport Folk Festival.

The bulk of the 20 tracks on the collection deal with the political and social upheaval Ochs saw around him.

"Phil brought so much to songwriting as a political writer," said folk singer Anne Hills, who was one of more than two dozen artists who recorded Ochs' songs for the 1998 tribute album What's That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs (Sliced Bread Records).

"He wrote so passionately about things, and he had passion and compassion for human beings in his writing. And his political concerns are still shockingly relevant all these years later," Hills said.

On the Vanguard disc, there are six tracks — including "There but for Fortune" — (RealAudio excerpt) from Ochs' first days in New York's Greenwich Village in 1962. They reveal the 22-year-old as an accomplished writer, delving into social concerns that range from capital punishment ("Paul Crump") to war clouds on the horizon ("What Are You Fighting For?").

Facing Down History

"His talent was to stand up to history," said Michael Ventura, who wrote a biography of Ochs for the 1997 Elektra retrospective Farewells and Fantasies.

Ochs did that with a reporter's eye for detail, as in the Newport recording of "Ballad of Medgar Evers" (RealAudio excerpt) — a song about the murder of the renowned civil-rights leader. At other times, he turned that meticulous storytelling and a twisted sense of the ridiculous to a subject such as the brutal response to civil-rights marches in the South, a topic that he skewered in "Talking Birmingham Jam."

"His attitude was so 'in your face,' " songwriter Tom Paxton, a contemporary of Ochs', remarked, "that I think a lot of people have learned from him. I know I have."

As the conflict in Vietnam heated up and formed a subtext for almost every aspect of American life in the '60s, Ochs became one of that era's most sharp-eyed (and popular) chroniclers. On the new anthology, "Draft Dodger Rag," a bouncy tune filled with biting irony, is included along with the mournful "Is There Anybody Here?" (RealAudio excerpt) about the sad lessons warriors may learn.

"Is There Anybody Here?" has resonated throughout the years. Twentysomething singer Sonia Rutstein, formerly of disappear fear, said, "I began singing that song when I was still in high school. I love the songs of Phil Ochs, the way they show his soul and spirit."

The Music Goes On

Gene Shay, another contemporary of Ochs, heard disappear fear singing one night. "I realized that here are these kids, singing Phil's songs, keeping them alive and vital in a new way," Shay said. He would go on to produce What's That I Hear? The Songs of Phil Ochs.

The Early Years gathers recordings from 1962 to 1966. Most are broadsides on history and politics. Ochs would write many more in that vein. But he also would write several beautiful love songs, a direction hinted at on The Early Years with the bittersweet "Pleasures of the Harbor."

His work took darker turns as the '70s wore on. In 1976, Ochs took his own life at the age of 35.

Ochs' words and ideas have lived on, in the song-night gatherings that sprang up in Greenwich Village after his death and have been held around the country over the years; in the tribute albums and reissues of his music; and in the work of artists who have been influenced by him.

Cathy Fink is one of those musicians who reveres Ochs. "Phil left a legacy of thoughtful, powerful and beautiful songs," she said. "It's not about the '60s, but about the process of question and the power of using culture for protest.

"This is a way to keep the songs living, and to keep alive the idea that there is power in music and your beliefs are worth singing about."