Unheard demos of rare songs and more are included in this set coming out on May 22.
“As much as has been written about the sixties,” said Steve Earle, “it’s arguable that no one experienced that defining moment in American history more personally than Phil Ochs.”
One of the most highly-regarded, brilliant and influential songwriters of our time, Phil Ochs might not be remembered by the mass public as well as other songwriters from recent history. But among songwriters, students of songwriting, authors, artists and activists, Ochs is considered one of the greatest to ever write socially-conscious songs, often leading more than following Dylan and the rest, who received more mass acclaim.
As the actor and folksinger Tim Robbins said, the reverence felt for Ochs by so many persists because he was not only a great singer and song craftsman, but because he was a truth-teller.
“Phil Ochs told the truth before it was ready to be accepted,” said Robbins, “and before it was politically expedient. He was the kind of truth-teller that made liberal allies nervous because his truth demanded an accountability to their own compromise.”
Tom Morello emphasized that Ochs, unlike Dylan and others who wrote songs about social justice, did more than write. Like Pete Seeger, he was a true activist. “Phil Ochs was a tireless crusader for justice,” Morello said. “He is one of the all-time great activist troubadours. With wit and fire, his songs skewered the evildoers of his day and remain perfect examples of how to fight the power with guitar in hand.”
To Billy Bragg, Ochs is remembered not unlike Woody Guthrie is, for the purity and organic truth of his writing. He was a “born writer,” said Bragg. “He played guitar because that was the language his generation was speaking. Today, his questioning voice chimes as clearly as it ever did.”
Now comes a remarkable set, sure to be cherished by Ochs fans and followers, Phil Ochs, The Best Of the Rest: Rare and Unreleased Recordings, which comes out on CD on May 22nd. It consists of many demos he made for Warner-Chappell music which have not been heard by the public ever, some of songs that he recorded on his albums, but also many of songs never recorded and unknown.
Though Ochs is known primarily as a songwriter; his oeuvre extends far beyond that – to short stories, poetry, criticism, journalism and satire More than a torrent, less than a flood-the songs poured out of him so quickly in the early days of his career that not all were able to find their place on his albums, leaving a fair few in limbo. Some of those songs would only emerge decades later and a few have hitherto languished in the archives.
The Warner/Chappell demos which make up the main portion of this new album represent a time period spanning Ochs’ last two albums for Elektra: I Ain’t Marching Anymore and In Concert, when Phil was finding his full strength as a songwriter and moving to include the lyrical in his repertoire, alongside the topical and satirical.
Songs such as “In the Heat of the Summer” and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” will certainly be familiar to most Phil Ochs fans. Others, like “The Confession” and “I’m Tired” (the latter with subtlety adjusted lyrics) may be known only to those who have the Farewells and Fantasies and A Toast to Those Who are Gone albums, respectively (or perhaps Shawn Phillips’ rare cover of “I’m Tired” on his 1965 album for Capitol, Favorite Things).
Readers of Broadside (“the national topical song magazine”) issue 69, in April 1966 would have encountered Ochs’ “Take It Out of My Youth. However, if they missed that issue, or did not have the rare good fortune to hear Ochs perform it live, then they might never have even been aware of the song. Rather than paying for a drink from a five or ten (“depending upon one’s station in life”), Ochs suggests a more personal, and perhaps more draining, means of payment.
“I Wish I Could Have Been Along” is even more obscure-never published in any magazine, with no known live recordings or cover versions. The song ranges from (barely) repressed wanderlust and the desire for experience on the one hand, to introspection and mournfulness on the other (there are times when one can almost hear Ochs sing, “I Wish I Could Have Been Alone,” son of “As I Walk Alone” perhaps?).
Another line calls to mind an even more famous Ochs song, of similar vintage, “tell me of the changes in your mind.” “Sailors and Soldiers,” perhaps partially inspired by the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Memorial Monument in Riverside Park in New York City-with Phil transposing the armed services, either for the sake of emphasis through unfamiliarity or, perhaps more likely for the sake of how the line would scan, lyrically. In any case, it too was completely unknown before being rescued and covered by the Long Ryder’s Sid Griffin with Billy Bragg (Phil fans both) on Griffin’s solo album Little Victories in 1997.
The words (“far from the planners who sent them to die”) cut as deeply today as they did when the song was written.
The bonus tracks delve even more deeply into the Ochs Archives. The version of “The War is Over” from a November 20, 1967 WBAI broadcast, in advance of the protest celebration five days later, features almost entirely divergent lyrics (“all the children play with Gatling guns, tattooed mothers with their tattooed sons”) from those of the released version and is a wonderful example of Ochs never being satisfied with the merely clever and well-written, forever polishing to a fine poetic point.
“All Quiet on the Western Front,” from 1969, was previously only known from incomplete versions recorded live in New York and Philadelphia (both missing, as though through some conspiracy, the opening verses). Ochs was more economical with his songs later in his career and this is a rare example of a lost song saved from those latter days.
In “No More Songs” we close with a familiar song, but something new-a rehearsal take, replete with comments on what instrumentation and countermelodies Phil envisioned. It is a rare glimpse behind the curtain and a fitting last word from Phil.
I’m Gonna Say It Now: the Writings of Phil Ochs (Backbeat Books, May 2020) compiles damn near all of Phil’s non-song works, sourced, in part, from the Ochs Archives at the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Phil is known primarily as a songwriter; however, his oeuvre extends far beyond that – to short stories, poetry, criticism, journalism and satire, all of which are included in this tome.
Spanning foundational texts written while still in school at Staunton Military Academy and Ohio State University-to the music criticism, polemics and satire penned in New York City (appearing in such diverse magazines as Sing Out!, Mainstream, The Realist and Hit Parader).
Onward, with ringing calls to action, from an absurdist point of view, for the two War Is Over rallies in Los Angeles and New York City-to exploring Phil’s more lyrical side, via his poetry (the majority previously unpublished) to, finally, a recapitulation of sorts, in works written in the early 1970’s touching on movies, travel (from his private journal), Bruce Lee and, dare we say it, impeachment and the fate of presidents.
- In the Heat of the Summer
- That’s What I Want To Hear
- The Men Behind the Guns
- Days of Decision
- Here’s To the State of Mississippi
- Sailors and Soldiers (previously unreleased)
- City Boy
- I’m Tired
- I Wish I Could Have Been Along (previously unreleased)
- I’m Gonna Say It Now
- Canons of Christianity
- Song of Soldier
- Colored Town
- The Confession
- Love Me, I’m A Liberal (previously unreleased)
- Take It Out Of My Youth
- War Is Over: 20 November, 1967 (previously unreleased)
- All Quiet On the Western Front (previously unreleased)
- No More Songs (rehearsal, previously unreleased)