There But For Fortune

The following  is excerpted from a wonderful article by Richard Just titled Why Phil Ochs is the obscure ’60s folk singer America needs in 2017. Although reading the full article from the Washington Post is important, the collection of vintage videos featuring Phil Ochs is priceless.

“Anybody know who Phil Ochs is?” Lady Gaga called out to her audience at a free concert last summer during the Democratic National Convention. Her setlist that day was eclectic: from the Beatles to Edith Piaf to her own gay rights anthem, “Born This Way.” But her decision to perform Ochs’s “The War Is Over,” a 1967 folk song about Vietnam, was particularly surprising.

It isn’t often that Ochs, who died four decades ago and is mostly unknown to those born since the 1970s, gets even a brief moment of mainstream recognition. Yet as we enter the Trump era, and as a new mass protest movement begins to take shape, his music would be worthy of a revival. Taken together, his songs offer an exceptionally compelling tour of the deepest questions currently confronting liberals — questions about democracy, dissent and human decency in a grim political age.

The song Lady Gaga performed is a good example. “The War Is Over” was composed in the middle of the Vietnam War but insists that the conflict had already ended. “One-legged veterans will greet the dawn,” Ochs sang. “And they’re whistling marches as they mow the lawn. And the gargoyles only sit and grieve. The gypsy fortune teller told me that we’d been deceived. You only are what you believe. I believe the war is over. It’s over, it’s over.”


… perhaps the biggest lesson Ochs bequeathed for the coming Trump era is only tangentially related to politics. One of his most famous quotes is from the liner notes of an album: “In such an ugly time the true protest is beauty.” At moments of national crisis, no matter which side you are on, it’s tempting to view art as a worthless distraction from the task of political repair. Ochs’s insistence that “the true protest is beauty” could be the mantra for every liberal artist during the next four years — a time when the creation of thoughtful art of all kinds can serve as a counterweight to the thoughtlessness, even cruelty, emanating from our politics. …

No single artist or activist, of course, can remedy this depressing state of affairs. But Ochs’s music could at least help Americans who care about the future of liberal democracy to grapple with the difficult work that lies ahead. As he once wrote: “One good song with a message can bring a point more deeply to more people than a thousand rallies.”

And that — the moral power of one good song — is why I have a pitch for Lady Gaga. On Feb. 5, she is slated to perform at the Super Bowl. To sing just one Phil Ochs song — to introduce millions of people to his ideas and poetry — would be both a glorious act of cultural transgression and an enduring gift to American democracy.

Which song should she choose? My suggestion would be “Power and the Glory.” “Here is a land full of power and glory,” goes the chorus. “Beauty that words cannot recall. Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom. Her glory shall rest on us all.” America, Ochs sings in one verse, is “only as rich as the poorest of the poor. Only as free as a padlocked prison door.” This is nationalism as it should be deployed: aspirational, ennobling, altruistic.

“Power and the Glory” was brilliant enough as Ochs usually sang it during his lifetime. As it turns out, however, he wrote an additional verse, which is now frequently performed with the rest of the song. It’s a statement of faith in the American people amid encroaching political darkness: “But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate. They twist away our freedom, and they twist away our fate. Fear is their weapon, and treason is their cry. We can stop them if we try.”

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