Thinking about Phil Ochs
As I write this, You Tube is running in the background. When I move to the kitchen soon to make lunch, I’ll switch to one of my personalized stations on Pandora. A quick glance at my Twitter page reveals that among the friends, writers, musicians, filmmakers, meteorologists, news broadcasters, and the plethora of others whom I follow, there are a handful of famous celebrities; people you watch on major television networks who attract thousands of fans – technology makes communicating with them instantaneous and incredibly easy. So much so, that it seems quaint to talk about transistor radios. Yet, on Christmas morning in 1966 when I was eleven years old, I danced throughout the house in delight because my parents had given me one.
I grew up in a rural area roughly an hour north of Detroit. From the time school closed in June to the day it opened in September, we had no access to a library or much in the way of books. My siblings and I sprawled out in front of the television. We invented games to play together. My brothers played softball or grabbed their bicycles to enjoy the freedom of dirt roads and state parks. My sister went to help my aunt or my grandmother around the house. I hovered near the radio my parents kept in the dining room, or at least I did until the day my mom could not figure out how to get back to the station she and my dad liked.
My mother seemed not to have a problem with this much isolation. She put little value on books or an education, especially for daughters. College prep courses were discouraged. She declined to allow me Spanish or French classes. Even utilizing more than the simplest vocabulary met with her anger. (I learned many years later that, in fact, she could not read much beyond the children’s stories she shared with us.) Loving and supportive in many other ways, she expected that her daughters would wait tables or be retail clerks until we married and had children (in that order.)
Intellectual pursuits were out of the question, even my writing which was actively encouraged by teachers and various relatives. So my mother attempted to nip things in the bud the summer I turned 10 by removing all the loose leaf paper and spiral notebooks from the house and refusing to purchase more. I wrote on the sides of brown paper grocery sacks. I dug out stories I had written previously so that I could write new stories in the margins.
By the time I regained access to paper in the fall, I developed the habit of reading my father’s newspaper and often would sit and watch the evening news with him. His style of TV watching was both interactive and animated. He would shout at the television when he disagreed with something or beat his fist at the air, demanding that the government line up and shoot dissidents, protesters, stubborn people, or anyone else he deemed deserving. I thought that all dads behaved that way.
Finally, I received the wonderful gift of my own radio. My mother enjoyed seeing how much I enjoyed music. She actively listened to whatever music caught my attention and tried to teach me how to cake walk and jitterbug.
One of the few advantages to where we lived was that it was ideally suited to receive transmissions from several large cities. I could get in stations from Lansing and Ann Arbor, two different rock stations from Ontario, and even Motown from Detroit. The best reception came from Flint, though, and one day while spinning the dial I discovered an acoustic folk music show from now defunct public radio station WFBE.
I liked all of it…everything…all the music, all the singers and songwriters, but host David Tamulevich often played a voice that rang out above the others. Not with the be-bop-ima-believer-pop-bop I recognized, but songs that bit back, confronting hypocrisy, racism, and apathy, albeit tuneful and melodious. It was 1967 and opposition to the Vietnam War suddenly raged in a corner of the bedroom I shared with my sister…raged so compellingly that I couldn’t blink or turn away if I had wanted to. Every week I sought out the show, and looked for others, in the hope of hearing the songwriter who displayed such strong opinions, and eventually I needed to share his new ways of thinking with somebody. The only person around was my mom, so I went to her and said I heard a song on the radio I wanted to discuss; the song was Cops of the World.
It was a short conversation. She remained intently quiet while I talked until she abruptly stopped the conversation with a snap: “He’s right.” Then more gently, “Why do you think they hate us?”
The first time I heard Phil Ochs on the radio I was 12-years-old and realistically too young to participate in any of the protests happening in places so distant from me. My opportunity came when I was a junior in high school. I arranged with our principal to bring in Draft Counselors from Michigan State University to provide advice to junior and senior boys nearing draft age. There were no teachers or other authorities at the assembly except for the principal himself. He stood unobtrusively near the door, and then a few minutes into the presentation he turned in my direction, gave a slight nod, and walked out.
After the furious 60s subsided, news about Phil Ochs came along only occasionally. I heard about the Allende benefit concert. I continued to listen to his records. Local folk radio shows continued to play his songs. Coverage in major media outlets was absent. Without Facebook and Tumblr, without fan forums and fan-run websites which provide direct flow of information, there was no practical way to know what he was doing.
It seems absurd in today’s 24/7 world where one can touch someone else, anywhere, within moments, that I never actually met Phil Ochs. I never saw him in concert. I never earned the right to mourn him as a friend, a family member, or any type of loved one. Nevertheless, because he had the courage to be an activist, because his songs reached that inexpensive, little transistor radio, I realized that I could make my own decisions; even if they were not popular; even if they were uncomfortable; even if somebody tried to make me shut up about them. Ultimately, as beautiful as Phil Ochs’ voice was to hear, it was what he had to say that drew me to listen.
The day I read about his death, I sat alone in my living room, and cried.
David Tamulevich http://tamulevich.com/
Remembering Phil Ochs Song Nights http://sonnyochs.com/events.html
Currently the documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune is readily available to stream online.
There is a comprehensive list of Phil Ochs’ body of work on Spotify. I recommend checking some of the songs out. In the meantime, here is a link to Phil Ochs – Cops of the World: