Troubadour of 1960s New Left Is Celebrated in New Exhibit at Woody Guthrie Museum
The Woody Guthrie Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma where I live has opened up a new exhibition about Phil Ochs, one of the most popular anti-war folk singers during the 1960s and early 1970s.
The exhibition includes videos of some of Ochs’s performances at anti-war rallies, along with memorabilia from his shows, posters, pictures and even a letter to him from Eugene McCarthy, the Senator from Minnesota who challenged President Lyndon Johnson, and then Hubert Humphrey, in the 1968 Democratic Party primaries, running on an anti-war platform.
McCarthy was the choice of many in the youth counterculture after the assassination of New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy following his victory in the California primary. The field had been broken open when President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not seek re-election because of the failure of his war policy in Vietnam.
McCarthy asked Ochs to help him in persuading delegates to support him at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago taking place in late August, which became perhaps the greatest fiasco in Democratic Party history.
As the party nominated Humphrey, a Vietnam War hawk who had supported anti-Communist witch hunts, thousands of young people protested outside the convention at the Hilton Hotel and were battered by the police under orders from Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
When Senator Abraham Ribicoff (CT) spoke from the podium and denounced the use of “Gestapo tactics” by the Chicago police, Mayor Daley was caught on camera shouting down Ribicoff using an anti-Semitic slur, exposing the viciousness of the Democratic Party establishment.
While the Democratic Party was imploding inside the convention hall, Ochs performed his eloquent anti-war ballads outside.
Ochs’s songs were part of what organizers called a “festival of life” to counter the “convention of death” that the Democratic Party had become.
Ochs worked closely with the Yippie leadership, who staged theatrical protests to highlight some of the absurdities of American politics and to gain media publicity for left-wing causes.
Ochs’s most famous anti-war song was “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” It contextualized the Vietnam War as part of a larger pattern of unjust U.S. military interventions going back to the Indian Wars and Mexican-American War when the U.S. had stolen California. According to Ochs, it was “always the old to lead us to the wars [but] always the young to fall. Now look at all we’ve won with the saber and the gun. Tell me, is it worth it all?”
At the time that Ochs sang these words, thousands of young men were defying the draft and refusing to serve in a war whose lies were exposed when former Defense Department analyst Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers—government war-planning documents which pointed to covert U.S. intervention in Vietnam going back to the 1940s.
Born in El Paso, Texas, Phil Ochs went to a military academy and Ohio State University before moving to Greenwich Village, New York, in the early 1960s. There he joined the folk revival scene where he played with such luminaries as Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton and Pete Seeger.
Woody Guthrie was an inspiration for Ochs, whose songs, like Guthrie’s, mixed humor with biting social commentary.
Many of Ochs’s songs were in the tradition of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a militant labor union in the early 1900s that advocated for worker-run industries. In one, Ochs celebrated the life of Joe Hill, an IWW songwriter who was framed on murder charges in the State of Utah and executed. Among Hill’s last words were “Don’t Mourn, Organize!”
The Woody Guthrie Museum exhibition spotlights another tribute that Ochs sang to William Worthy, an African American journalist and early opponent of the Vietnam War who was arrested after traveling to Cuba during the travel ban following the 1959 Cuban Revolution.
Ochs’s song raised awareness about Worthy’s case while, in trademark fashion, ridiculing American foreign policy. Ochs sang that the only way to Cuba from the U.S. was “through the CIA” which had orchestrated an exile invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and tried to assassinate Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro dozens of times.
One of my favorite Phil Ochs songs is “The Ballad of Billie Sol” about Lyndon B. Johnson’s financial bagman Billie Sol Estes who went to prison for 20 years for his involvement in an agricultural fraud in the State of Texas. Ochs sang:
Stand tall, Billie Sol, we don’t know you at all,
We’ve taken down your pictures from the wall.
Well, we don’t want to handle an agriculture scandal,
We have got to face elections in the fall.
Ochs continued: “And now I’d like to say, that crime sure doesn’t pay,
But if you want to make some money on the sly, well you can always rent the U.S. government, it’s the best one that money can buy.”
Another favorite of mine is Ochs’s 1966 song “Love Me, I’m a Liberal.” It mocked the pretensions of liberal Democrats of his era who supported the purge of communists from the AFL-CIO, saw Malcolm X as a dangerous radical, backed U.S. military intervention in Korea, and were all for civil rights, that is, until the Blacks and Puerto Ricans moved next door.
It is enticing to think about what Ochs would have said about the hypocrisy of today’s liberals in the age of Russia Gate and billion-dollar U.S. weapon supplies to Ukraine, which they all support.
Tragically, Ochs committed suicide in April 1976 at the age of 35. He had become disillusioned by the political scene in the U.S. with the demise of the 1960s movement and rise of conservatives and lost his ability to sing after his vocal cords were damaged when he was strangled by robbers while traveling in Tanzania.
One of the high watermarks of Ochs’s career featured in the exhibition was a concert he headlined in 1967 in Los Angeles to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War—eight years before it actually ended. A song that Ochs sang was titled “The War Is Over.”
One of Ochs’s last public performances was at a concert in Central Park, New York, in May 1975 that celebrated the actual end of the Vietnam War. Ochs performed with Joan Baez and Peter Yarrow, of Peter, Paul and Mary, who said that even though the war was finally over, people should never forget its human tragedy and make sure something like it never occurred again.
The Woody Guthrie Museum has a copy of Ochs’s diary from a trip that he made to Chile during the early 1970s when that country’s government was headed by socialist Salvador Allende, who was overthrown in a 1973 fascist coup backed by the CIA. Ochs was close with Chilean folk singer Victor Jara, who embodied his same values. Tragically, the day after Allende’s government was overthrown, Jara was taken prisoner by soldiers and, over the next four days, beaten and tortured, and then murdered in a hail of machine-gun bullets.
The Woody Guthrie Museum has done a great public service by spotlighting Ochs’s career and introducing his music to younger generations. Ochs’s biting commentaries remain resonant in an era where the U.S. government continues to provoke wars overseas and sends young men to fight and die on dubious grounds. If Ochs were still around, he would have plenty of material for updates on his classic songs that are timeless in th
eir content and quality.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine. He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
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