I would imagine that not too many people today remember Phil Ochs. His music and his fire was of a different era. Born in El Paso, Texas on December 19,1940, Phil grew up in a largely middle class family and found himself, like much of America, becoming radicalized in response to the political direction our country was taking in the 1960s.
After 3 years of college, Phil dropped out, went to New York City and quickly made a name for himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scene. His career was cut short after being mugged in Dar Es Dalaam, where he wound up losing the top three notes of his vocal range. His last years were characterized by a manic depression and an unabashed affinity for the bottle. He committed suicide on April 9, 1976 at the still tender age of 35.
Much like his contemporary, Robert Zimmerman, Ochs was defiant in the face of inequality. A gifted and innovative troubadour, he always found engaging ways to compare and contrast the plights of a wide range of people and institutions during his short career. The AMA Song, for example, was a hilarious and biting satire that focused its wrath on America’s doctors:
“We are the nation’s physicians
Yes, we give to our lobbies every day
We will fight against disease
When the money comes with ease
And when we get together, we say:
Hooray for the A – M – A.
And for us doctors lots of higher pay
If you can’t afford my bill
Don’t you tell me that you’re ill
Cause that’s the free enterprise way
Like most folk singers of his era, Ochs managed to turn the fight for equal rights into a face-off between compassion and technical skill. His acerbic wit often pitted the haves against the have-nots in a non-existent battle for scarce resources. Many of his songs seem to imply that a society that can’t take care of the poor and indigent doesn’t deserve to stand as a beacon for freedom of any kind.