SIXTIES SINGER-SONGWRITER-ORGANIZER PHIL OCHS BIO OPENS
By HOWARD ROMAINE, writer, http://www.thetennesseetribune.com/
Just days after its opening in Boston, DC, and other places, the new film biography of Phil
Ochs opened in NASHVILLE at the Belcourt Theatre. If one wants a good, brief biography of the
sixties, taught from the perspective of the ‘singer-songwriter,’ this is the movie. If one wants to see
the origins of the singer-songwriter ‘folk’ crowd before it moved out to places like Nashville, New Orleans, Boston, San Francisco and Macon, and Atlanta, Georgia, Austin, Texas, and Woodstock, New York, this is your movie.
If one is younger, and wants, from lack of personal knowledge, a puzzled back look
at what all the musical and cultural excitement and horror of the sixties was about – from the perspective of the young and engaged – this is the one movie one should see, and have history classes see.
From the early photos, movies and songs about the election of President Kennedy and his idealistic energy to the spread of this spirit to “Negroes” demanding the vote, or a seat at the table, to images of the death of Medgar Evers, and Malcolm X, to the dogs attacking demonstrators in Birmingham, one gets the perspective and the reactions of the young folk crowd in New York, and, in effect, literary commentary on those events which were, at least in my case, as a college student of the era, the ‘facts’ as well as the ‘feelings’ about the facts which only songs, and songs from a certain milieu, in this case, Greenwich Village, and the urban sophisticated ‘south’ of ‘the movement,’ and the folk and coffee houses there, could provide.
Omission – the black presence and creative factor
Unfortunately, for me, the movie fails to provide much of the ‘black song’ which also arose from and enveloped these events – songs by Nashville and New York’s Julius Lester, or Cordell Reagon, or LA’s Lynn Chandler, or Albany and Atlanta’s Bernice Johnson Reagon, who met and married Nashville’s Cordell in the SNCC’s ‘Freedom Singers,’ and continued to create, throughout her career, the musical soundtrack to the resistance to the racist repression of the sixties and ensuing years, rising to a high tide with Barry Goldwater, and his clone, Ronald Reagan.
After an early career with the SNCC Freedom Singers, and a move to DC for a Ph.D. at Howard in Musicology, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon’s created and sustained the acapella genius of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and helped Anne Romaine, here in Nashville, and thru the region, sustain the folk cultural vision for years with events like the Grass Roots Days in Nashville, and concerts with artists around the country as diverse as John D. Loudermilk to Babe Stovall, and the Rev. Pearly Brown, Pete and Mike Seeger, Alice and Hazel, and Lynn Chandler, and many other artists linked like chains of visionary poets to the principal events sadly and sharply depicted in this movie – from civil rights to Kennedy deaths, to Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam, to its continuation by the two criminals Nixon and Spiro Agnew, shown here as they ascend; and the New York folk scene shifts from vocal opposition to active organizing – a role of Ochs which was new and revealing to me. It would have made a better, and more balanced, movie to show the black origins of the music and organizing tradition of the era, as best reflected in Dr. Reagon’s long career.
However, many of the other leading lights of the era appear to give commentary, from Joan Baez, to Pete Seeger, to the record company executives of Electra, Ochs early publisher, to A & M, his publisher as he moved to Los Angeles in the second half of the sixties decade and to new alternative musical modes of creativity, to other musicians, friends, and relatives, sister, brother, daughter, whose appearance as a small child is one of the more moving black and white images in the middle part of the film, as her color commentary at the end, about her father’s life and legacy, is sobering.
The extent of Ochs’ career, as a writer, as well as an activist, which continues with artists like Buono, of U2, is well captured with many later artist-activists, many of which I did not know. The early village scene with artists like Bob Dylan, and Baez, and the concurrent musical themes reacting to the events in the South is very well captured. And the size and diversity of his musical creations are given regular short shots throughout the movie, well paced between song, interview and visuals. Many of Ochs best known performances are available now on UTube, for example –
Although I had read of the competition between Ochs and Dylan, and it is briefly touched on in the movie, it is not a main theme, and indeed, their complimentary if competitive paths re-coalesce at an Ochs organized benefit after the CIA sponsored military takeover of the Allende democrats in Chile, in which the singer-songwriter, Victor Jara, was led into a stadium, filled with onlookers, and the singer’s fingers and hands were systematically smashed by rifle butts as a warning to the populace.
Ochs was sufficiently political and world traveled to have visited the Chilean singer just before the military coup, and organized a concert in Carnegie Hall to protest the vivid and viscious symbolic smashing of the songwriter’s hands by the Nixon-Kissinger-CIA backed military hunta.
According to the movie, the singer, Victor Jara, walked, his hands bleeding, toward the stands, and began to sing a patriotic song, and was joined by all in the stands, gradually, before he was shot down, murdered by the military.
Ochs and Village friends organized a Carnegie protest of this to bring it to world attention. The reconnection between Dylan and Ochs at this event is emphasized, rather than their sometime brutal competition, as footage of their joining together at the Carnegie Concert is shown, an event, again, which had slipped my ordinarily unrelenting Dylan history memory.
One could continue, as some reviews do, with reflections on Ochs ‘manic-depression’ and growing alcoholism, or marvel at his various incarnations – as an Elvis interpreter, in self-ironic jest – as a co-hort of the ‘yippies’ Ruben and Abbie Hoffman, (another alleged ‘manic depressive’ and drug abuser), or speculate about the lack of support of friends and family as he descended into ‘madness’ which various scenes toward the end capture – but, to me, this tragic aspect of his life is not the centerpiece.
No, that’s the beautiful voice, the tunes seemingly unending from his guitar, his laugh and joy in creation and opposition, and the contrast between a beautiful, if defeated creative life, and various evil, misguided, and murderous policies he dedicated his life and art to opposing.
Go see the movie for yourself. Or read the reviews, then go see it.
It plays two or three more days at the Belcourt. It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen about the sixties, but then, again, I see the era from the vantage point of its early literature – the song!! And, I know tragedy and literary triumph interconnect like earth, rain and spring.