Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune

Phil Ochs (1940-1976) was a folksinger and brilliant songwriter who gave us such songs as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”, “There but for Fortune”, “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” and “The War is Over”. Kenneth Bowser has put together a film documenting Ochs’s life and career. Ochs (pronounced “oaks”) came from a non-political middle class family that moved around the country as he grew up. Ochs attended a military academy, which is a bit ironic, in view of his later anti-military views. While he was still very young, he simultaneously became interested in politics and in the burgeoning folk music scene of the early 1960’s. He moved to Greenwich Village, where he met Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan, and where he began to perform in coffee houses. Ochs was initially a supporter of John F. Kennedy, but in response to the civil rights and anti-war movements, he became increasingly radicalized, especially after the police riot at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

Ochs was associated with the Yippies for a time, but he eventually came to the conclusion that their tactic of carrying out public pranks was divisive and counterproductive. He believed that the Left needed some way to reach out to a wider range of people, including the working class. He argued that what the country needed was a “combination of Elvis Presley and Che Guevara”. He tried to find ways to broaden the appeal of his act, at one point going so far as to wear a gold lamé suit in imitation of Presley. These efforts yielded mixed results, but I think Ochs was right in believing that the Left has to find new ways to reach out to people.

Ochs supported the Allende government in Chile. The military coup in that country was a great emotional blow to him, especially since his friend, the folksinger Victor Jara, was brutally murdered by the army. (Ochs rightly suspected that the CIA was involved in Allende’s overthrow.) Ochs suffered from bipolar disorder and from alcoholism, and these conditions began to worsen at this time. His behavior became increasingly erratic, and he eventually stopped performing. He committed suicide when he was only 35-years old.

The film has many interviews with people who knew Ochs. Inexplicably, it also has an interview with Christopher Hitchens, who is precisely the sort of warmongering liberal that Ochs despised. Aside from that, Bowser’s film is a moving tribute to a remarkable human being. I highly recommend seeing it.

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