A Defence of Phil Ochs

by elmergantry

There has long been a consensus among Dylan biographers that Bob’s shift away from ‘Protest’ songs was a natural one and one that was firmly based on artistic principles. In this view, the writing of such songs was stifling to Bob’s creativity and it was essential for his artistic growth that he moved away from the absurdly restrictive rules that applied to the genre. Allied with this goes the contention that so-called ‘topical’ songs were ephemeral and were quickly forgotten once the occasion that inspired them was forgotten…

My problem with this contention is, that while it contains a large grain of truth, it is, in many respects, almost as absurdly restrictive as is the view of those folk purists it was designed to combat. Saying that someone should NOT write about politics is as absurd as saying that they should write ONLY about it…

Here, I would also argue that historical specificity does not necessarily consign a song to oblivion once the moment which led to its composition is gone. Indeed, the best of Phil Ochs’ work, for example, is actually strengthened by the fact that it is anchored in a particular historical reality. This is particularly the case at the moment when so many of the issues that Ochs’ addressed remain unresolved. So listening to, say, Ochs’ live album from Carnegie Hall, I was struck by the continuing relevance of so many of the songs.

It also seems to that the later Phil Ochs albums like ‘Rehearsals for Retirement’ and ‘Tape From California’ have never really received the acclaim they deserved.
As a portayal of the fractures in American society at the time that they were released,  it also arguable that they are superior to anything that Dylan produced in the same period…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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