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january 2007

Music, Madness and the American Spirit
Questions for Phil Ochs and Woody Guthrie

by Les Marcott

I recently read a biography about the life of the late, great, folksinger Phil Ochs called Death Of A Rebel.  Ochs more or less inherited the mantle of the political activist/topical protest singer from Woody Guthrie.  Guthrie of course is someone we all should know and revere.  If we don't, then shame on us.  He eschewed Tin Pan Alley for the back alleys, back roads, and lost highways of vagabonds, hoboes, and migrant laborers.  John Steinbeck once said of him "...there is nothing sweet about Woody, and there is nothing sweet about the songs he sings.  But there is something more important for those who will listen.  There is the will of the people to endure a fight against oppression.  I think we call this the American spirit." Both of these men gave us music that was significant, meaningful and life changing.

Woody left us in 1966 after a long grueling battle with Huntington's Disease.  Phil Ochs committed suicide ten years later.  While reading the bio about Ochs, I discovered that he sometimes played the "what if" game as songwriters and novelists will often do to come up with ideas for stories or songs.  One such example:  Ochs pondered what if Elvis Presley and Che Guevara combined to form a nightclub act? And what if they were managed by Colonel Sanders instead of Colonel Parker?  Ochs actually followed up on this idea briefly on stage to disastrous results.  My "what if" is simply this:  what if both Ochs and Guthrie could come back from the grave in 2007 and convey their thoughts about putting the past in perspective plus state their views on the present and future pulse of America?

Questions I would pose to Guthrie:

Are political/protest/topical songs a thing of the past?  I mean beyond a handful of individuals such as Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, Bruce Cockburn and Ann DiFranco, who is out there to prod and provoke us?  Are we simply left with the inane, goofy babblings of the Dixie Chicks that passes for political discourse from the music community? At least they could have incorporated their dislike and displeasure with the President and the war into song. That would have been a far nobler thing to do, don't you think?

Is this land really our land?  I don't mean in the sense of ownership but in the sense of laying claim to a dream and in the sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, a commonality but yet a strength in diversity.  The words to your well known song, This Land Is Our Land are welcoming and optimistic.  However there is one verse that was hardly ever sung by you or anyone else that expresses pessimism and despair for the poor, downtrodden, destitute individual trying to earn his slice of the American pie.  Why is that?  And have things really changed today in that regard?

With so many things to be riled up and agitated about in this country, sometimes we seem to be concerned about the most trivia and banal matters.  Is Brittney Spears wearing panties or not?  Should restaurants be banned from serving us transfats?  Isn't that just crazy?   

If you were playing today, would your guitar still have written on it "This Machine Kills Fascists"?  Or would it be killing some other entity?

Questions I would pose to Phil Ochs:

How do you feel about Sean Penn considering a movie project about your life?  It doesn't get any better than that, does it?  What current actor could adequately portray you and bring your complex persona back to life?

Do you realize the FBI was still compiling files on your political activities several months after you passed away?  Do these guys ever stop?  Have they ever stopped?  I can envision a basement office still devoted to your activities.

What is your response to the President and Vice-president when they say, "Just trust me on this."

Can the folk artist ever achieve fame and wealth without being called a sellout and a traitor?  

Do you feel that your  political/social commentary songs such as Draft Dodger Rag, White Boots Marching In A Yellow Land, I Ain't Marching Anymore, Here's To The State Of Richard Nixon, and No Christmas From Kentucky are as relevant today as they were back in the 60's?  And speaking of the sixties, what are your thoughts now about that turbulent period? It was you yourself who said that you actually died in 1968 in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention.  In hindsight it does seem like your disillusionment with  that event, along with the assassinations of MLK and RFK began your long descent into madness and career decline.  And what was it that finally drove you over the edge to the point of suicide?

Those are my questions.  I don't purport to know the answers nor would I try to put words in their mouths.  There is excellent archival material devoted to both men and perhaps I could find clues and hints as to which way they would answer my queries from such documents. Just maybe.  But what if... ?                                                                             

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About This Article

©2007 Les Marcott
©2007 Publication Scene4 Magazine

Les Marcott is a musician, writer
and a regular contributor to Scene4 Magazine.
Check the Archives for more of his articles.

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Scene4 Magazine-Special Issue-View of the Arts 2007

january 2007

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