September-October 2007

Phil Ochs' Greatest Song

By Ross Altman

Phil Ochs was composing The Power and The Glory at his sister Sonny Ochs home in Far Rockaway, New York in 1963, when his sister came into his room and asked him what he was doing. He announced in no uncertain terms, "I've just written my greatest song." She asked him what it was titled. Phil replied, "I don't know yet-I haven't written the words."

You would never have heard that answer from any other protest singer-not Woody Guthrie, not the early Bob Dylan, not Joe Hill, and certainly not from any of the so-called modern inheritors of Phil Ochs songwriting legacy-names withheld to protect the talent-challenged.

The Power and the Glory

By Phil Ochs, © 1963

 

Come and take a walk with me thru this green and growing land

Walk thru the meadows and the mountains and the sand

Walk thru the valleys and the rivers and the plains

Walk thru the sun and walk thru the rain

 

Chorus:

Here is a land full of power and glory

Beauty that words cannot recall

Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom

Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)

 

From Colorado, Kansas, and the Carolinas too

Virginia and Alaska, from the old to the new

Texas and Ohio and the California shore

Tell me, who could ask for more?

 

Yet she's only as rich as the poorest of her poor

Only as free as the padlocked prison door

Only as strong as our love for this land

Only as tall as we stand.

Phil Ochs wasn't kidding when he later wrote, "Ah, but in such an ugly time the true protest is beauty." The music to his songs was his first priority; he knew he had something special just from the opening guitar progression he was playing over and over on his bed, which was what drew Sonny into his room in the first place.

 

I love and perform many of Phil Ochs' wonderful songs, and just last Saturday played his antiwar classic I Ain't Marching Anymore at the big protest march and rally in downtown Los Angeles. It has lost none of its power to engage and inspire an audience more than forty years after Phil introduced it into the anti-Vietnam War movement of the sixties. But I am happy to accept his own assessment that his patriotic answer to Woody's This Land Is Your Land-The Power and The Glory-was his greatest song. In the same way that Woody's song has been recorded by singers of many political stripes, The Power and The Glory is by no means the exclusive property of the left-no less a conservative spokeswoman than Anita Bryant, among other things a notorious anti-gay activist, recorded it as well.

When Phil did write the lyrics to his greatest song they stood the test of time: you may read them for yourself on the right side of this page. Until now there has never been any dispute that these words, in this order, was Phil Ochs' authorized version of the song-the way he wanted it passed on to posterity. It's the way it was first published in Broadside Magazine, # 27 in 1963. It appeared the following year in his first songbook, The Songs of Phil Ochs, published by Appleseed Music in 1964. Phil left it out of his great antiwar collection from 1967, The War Is Over. His brother Michael Ochs published it in 1978 in the final authorized collection, The Chords of Fame, just two years after his suicide-again at his sister's home in Far Rockaway. She was there for the high point of his life-and the final tragic low. Until now, The Power and The Glory has been treated like the classic it is-and been published the way Phil released it on his own records for both Electra and A&M.

I said, until now. Today I got an email originating from a Berkeley professor, forwarded by a dear friend who knows how I feel about Phil's music and his incomparable example of what a great protest singer can be-that we can all at least aspire to. There are no successors to Phil Ochs-we are all working in his vineyard, and those who use his name to promote their own careers and ambitions should remember that. He was an original: we carry it on as best we can, and we should be proud of doing so.

This Berkeley professor writes as follows:

For a book on how songs express differing understandings of US patriotism I am doing research on Phil Ochs' song The Power and The Glory, particularly on what is now regarded as the final verse:

But our land is still troubled by those who have to hate

They twist away our freedom

They twist away our fate

Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry

We can stop them if we try.

Whoa-fasten your seatbelts, and Katy bar the door. We have gone from Phil Ochs' world to the Twilight Zone. Did I hear Professor Glazer say, "...is now regarded..."? My first question is-by whom? Not by me. And more importantly, based on all the recorded and published sources for such an extraordinary claim, not by the song's author, Phil Ochs.

So, by whom? According to Peter Glazer, who is citing Phil Ochs first biographer Marc Eliot (Death of a Rebel), "the song itself was first performed March 15, 1963, but that verse is not included in his report on the event. I'm curious to know of its origins. I've been in touch with Sonny Ochs, Phil's sister, who wasn't aware of the verse until someone gave her a tape of Phil singing it recorded on May 8, 1963, less than three months after the first performance. She also remembers someone discussing the verse in question when she attended a meeting of the San Francisco Folk Music Club. Does anyone know if this verse appears on any released recordings of Phil singing the song, early (mid-1960s) covers of the song including this verse, or under what circumstances it was written or first performed? I'd be most grateful for any information you might have. Thank you,

Peter Glazer

In Reply, an Open Letter to Professor Peter Glazer:

Dear Professor Glazer,

Since your email speaks to the reputation and authorized work of the most important protest songwriter of his generation, I feel it is too important an issue not to make every step of what you are involved in open to public scrutiny; thus my reply will be in the form of an open letter, which I will publish in my column in FolkWorks Magazine. Knowing what I know of the folk community, I trust that your new unsupported and unsupportable version of Phil Ochs' greatest song will see the light of day in a far more high profile folk magazine whose name I need not reveal-but it ends with an exclamation point.

In response to your query I have gone on line and tried a number of different approaches to tracking down any other source for this verse, which I had never heard or heard of until your email. So far as I can tell, all roads of investigation lead back to Sonny Ochs-the tape of one live performance that she received seems to be the single source for what you claim "is now regarded as the final verse" of this song.

Since Phil Ochs is no longer here to protest, I must protest for him. Phil Ochs knew bad writing when he saw it, even his own-no, especially his own. The surfacing of this verse is strong and clear evidence of that. As your letter indicates, the live recording that was passed on to Phil's sister Sonny was of a performance that took place before he published the song in Broadside Magazine and before he recorded the song for Elektra Records, and before he published the song in his first songbook in 1964.

The inescapable conclusion one draws from this is that Phil decided the verse did not measure up to the rest of the song and so did not include it in the final version. He revised the song after trying the verse out, when he dropped it as most likely too abstract and editorializing. He then did what he had done before-in Changes-and would do again in Pleasures of the Harbor, The Crucifixion, I'm Gonna Say It Now, When I'm Gone, and Outside of a Small Circle of Friends: He repeated the first verse as a coda at the end.

That is the obvious and simple explanation for an occurrence which any songwriter or poet would recognize only too well: first you write, and then, unless you are Shakespeare, you revise. Tom Paxton, for example, wrote over twenty verses for his lovely early ballad, Leaving London. Even Bob Dylan, the closest thing folk music ever had to Shakespeare, changed the order of verses from his first draft of Blowing In the Wind (source: The Bob Dylan Scrapbook-1956-1966, which contains a copy of the original manuscript holograph of Dylan's folk classic).

Upon realizing that Phil Ochs had revised the song to his satisfaction and deleted a verse he no longer wanted, I called Phil Ochs' brother Michael Ochs-creator and head of the Michael Ochs Archive in Los Angeles-a resource for both the music and movie industry since 1967-to see if he had anything to contribute to this investigation. In particular I asked him if he had a manuscript copy of Phil's song to verify my hypothesis, or knew of any other unauthorized recording by his brother that would shed further light on the song's history.

Michael told me that he only took over his brother's musical affairs and still-developing legacy in 1967, and that unfortunately his late brother was not big on saving his manuscripts for posterity. Sadly, he doubted that there are any surviving original manuscripts of that song. In any case he had turned his collection of Phil's papers over to Phil's daughter Meegan who for now has put them in storage. Michael Ochs did add, however, that he strongly endorsed my view of what had been the likely process of composition. He also added that if contemporary folkies wish to make one of Phil's songs sound like it was written to protest the current president they were welcome to change Here's To the State of Richard Nixon (which Phil himself had changed from his original Here's to the State of Mississippi) to Here's to the State of George Bush.

Michael Ochs' clear implication was to not mess with Phil's best.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To claim, or even to imply, that a song that Phil Ochs had clearly signed off on in 1963 and never again altered during his lifetime, is now up for grabs to make it sound as if he had George Bush's hateful and hurtful policies in mind when he wrote it forty-four years ago does a profound disservice to one of America's great songwriters.

Phil Ochs has every bit as much right as Robert Frost or Ernest Hemingway to not have his finished work tampered with by well-intentioned but ill-advised myrmidons seeking to make a name for themselves and to promote their own political agendas at one of our classic writer's expense.

I can already imagine at least one kind of objection to this argument, however, and I don't want to leave it unaccounted for: "What of Woody Guthrie's own classic patriotic anthem? Haven't you sung the three verses that were added after This Land Is Your Land had already become a folk standard?" Indeed I have, but circumstances alter cases, as philosophers are fond of pointing out. Woody himself put those verses back into circulation, according to Arlo Guthrie. He tells the story of coming home from school after having sung Woody's song in his elementary school classroom during a show-and-tell. He had only gotten through the chorus when everyone started singing along, and drowning him out. When he complained to his father, Woody said, "Let me teach you the verses they left out of the schoolbooks and you can sing those all by yourself tomorrow!"

No such provenance is attached to the additional verse of Phil Ochs' The Power and the Glory. And, with one proviso, I am willing to put up a $1,000,000 prize to anyone who can produce a documented live recording from 1964 or later of Phil Ochs singing the verse in question. Here is the proviso: They will have to put up an equal amount of prize money that I cannot produce a documented live recording of Phil Ochs singing his copyrighted version-the same version he recorded for Elektra Records and published for Appleseeds Music, Broadside Magazine, and that is republished in his complete songbook, The Complete Phil Ochs: Chords of Fame.

To anyone foolish enough to take that bet, you may deposit your million dollar check in my bank account and I will play you my Vanguard Recording of Phil Ochs singing The Power and the Glory at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival-live, without Danny Kalb playing lead-just Phil and his old J-45 Kalamazoo, Michigan Gibson flat-top box guitar.

That is the version Phil signed off on, the version he regarded as final, the only version he authorized to be published, the version he copyrighted in 1963.

No one, not his sister, not his brother, not Professor Peter Glazer at Berkeley, not the San Francisco Folk Music Club, and not any contemporary folk music magazine has the right to substitute a different final verse for Phil Ochs' final reprise of the opening verse. Dead or alive, that is still now what it was when he wrote it-a Phil Ochs' song.

If you want to make a case to the contrary, don't send me an email; send me your million dollar check, made out to me. Then we'll talk.


  Ross Altman has a Ph.D. in English. Before becoming a full-time folk singer he taught college English and Speech. He now sings around California for libraries, unions, schools, political groups and folk festivals. You can reach Ross at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

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