A Small Circle of Friends

A Celebration of Phil Ochs 70th Birthday

By Ross Altman

Phil_OchsPhil Ochs took his life 35 years ago in 1976, during the Bicentennial, at the age of 35. Composer of the patriotic anthem Power and the Glory—second only to This Land Is Your Land in its melding of the American landscape with a profound identification with its people, including the downtrodden and imprisoned—Ochs raised the modern protest song to a high art; it has since been recorded by singers as diverse as Pete Seeger and (we kid you not) Anita Bryant. With such classics as I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Draft Dodger Rag and There But for Fortune he became the voice of the antiwar movement; and with such classics as Here’s To the State of Mississippi, What’s That I Hear and Too Many Martyrs (for Medgar Evers) he became a voice (along with Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Len Chandler) of the civil rights movement.

Ochs began as one of “Woody’s Children” at Gerdes Folk City in Greenwich Village, penning songs as fast as Woody Guthrie had a generation before; when Pete Seeger took him and Bob Dylan up to the offices of Broadside Magazine at the beginning of 1963 to hear songs they had written in just the past two weeks—and which Broadside would be the first to publish—Seeger came away astonished at both their creativity and productivity; he concluded that “Here were two of the greatest songwriters in the world, only no one knows it yet.” By the end of 1963 they were the two leading lights of the modern folk revival.

Two years later, when Dylan went electric, Phil Ochs expanded his own musical vocabulary by going classical, surrounding new songs like Pleasures of the Harbor and Outside of a Small Circle of Friends (a trenchant satire about the murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City in broad daylight) with piano accompaniment and orchestral settings. But he also continued his musical and political activism, becoming a founding member of the Yippies (with Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden) at the Chicago Democratic Convention in 1968, and testifying on their behalf at the Chicago 8 conspiracy trial. Despite the famed theatrics of the trial, all of the defendants were eventually acquitted.

But Phil Ochs did not need a conspiracy to organize effective protests against the war in Vietnam; he was a one-man movement who brought together thousands of people in the famed The War is Over demonstration in 1970, inspired by his song of the same title. Unlike his hero James Dean, Phil was a rebel with a cause, and he was not afraid to rebel against even his own fans; at his landmark late concert recording Gunfight at Carnegie Hall, he wore an Elvis gold lame costume and mixed in his favorite Elvis and Buddy Holly songs along with his classic protest material, much to the chagrin of his audience, who had come to see a folk singer, not a rock and roll star. So Phil documented the traumatic confrontation in his song Chords of Fame, with the telltale line “God help the troubadour who tries to be a star.” His brother Michael Ochs chose that as the title song for The Complete Phil Ochs Songbook.

Shortly thereafter, at the threshold of the depression that would eventually take his life, he wrote No More Songs, an unflinching self-portrait of an artist who was coming to the end of the road, after a decade-defining outpouring of songs that—were all the books and speeches of the time to be burned in a Fahrenheit 451 nightmare—would enable historians to reconstruct both its highs of idealism, hope and the quest for social justice and its lows of failed dreams and cynical politicians that led to Watergate and Cambodia.

The Found Theatre is proud to celebrate this wonderful artist on what would have been his 70th birthday, December 19 at 7:00pm. Two of the artists who shared much of that history with Phil Ochs—fellow Broadside recording artist Len Chandler and folk singer Carolyn Hester. Joining them is  “singer-songfighter” Ross Altman, Neil Hartman, Eva Scherb, Drayfus Grayson and Lenny Potash.

To honor the occasion, Smithsonian Folkways Records is generously donating posters, free downloads, and the grand prize boxed set of Broadside Recordings, including the early work of both Phil Ochs and Len Chandler, to give away in a raffle, which along with a special birthday cake will highlight the evening with fun and refreshments.

Come and celebrate the life of an American original, with Phil Ochs’ music and the personal memories of those who knew him and remain committed to his ideals. A Small Circle of Friends Celebrate Phil Ochs 70th Birthday will be an evening to remember.

For more information visit The Found Theatre ; to learn more about Phil Ochs visit his sister’s web site.

 

The Found Theatre

599 Long Beach Blvd (at 6th), Long Beach, CA

562-433-3363 info@foundtheatre.org

 

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 Greygoosemusic@aol.com