Phil Ochs Topical Songs

by elmergantry

Perhaps its the fact that my training is as a historian, but I have always liked the historical specificity of Phil Ochs’ song.

An example would be the reference to the United Fruit Company in one of his greatest songs, ‘I ain’t marching anymore”:

For critics of the idea of topical songs, this kind of reference dates the song and renders it instantly disposable. This view is stated, perhaps, most clearly in Suze Rotolo’s book ‘A Freewhelin’ Time’ where she makes a case that bears a striking similarity to the kind of arguments that Bob Dylan made after he had abandoned the writing of ‘protest’ songs.

But, for me, this argument misses the point of such songs by a long way. The fact that Ochs’ songs are grounded in a particular historical reality seems to me to make them more universal, not less..These topical references also seem to me to invite important questions: what was the United Fruit Company’s stance towards Cuba? Why is it that the kind of injustices/exploitation that Ochs wrote about so vividly in his best work still carry on today?

This, of course, should not be taken as implying that there was no ‘bad’ protest music or that the emphasis on writing particular types of songs was not restrictive.

But it does seem to me that Ochs tough-mindedness and emphasis on detail saved him from writing the kind of windy generalities that make up ‘Blowing in the Wind. (pun intended). Some of Dylan’s protest songs appear to imply that the evils of the world would be solved by the moral superiority of his generation.

And what a canard that turned out to be….