' I've lost the power I had to distinguish between what to ignite and what to extinguish' – Rowland S. Howard

Category: Topical Songs

Kevin Hewick & Johnny Duhan

Two tracks from fine new album by these two fine, but unduly, neglected songwriters.

The first is the song ‘Winter’ from Duhan’s new album of the same name:

The second is ‘A Young Man’s Dream of Revolution” from Hewick’s new cd ‘The Heat of Molten Diamonds’”:

Pete Seeger

A small tribute to the late great Pete Seeger. As well being a superb musician, a fine singer and songwriter and a great populariser of all kinds of songs, he was also a brave, decent and conscientious man.

He was also a direct link to the great Woody Guthrie and a mentor to a whole generation of younger musicians.

I first heard his music on a TV documentary in the early 1970s and was hooked by it then – thankfully, still am…

Phil Ochs’ Last Stand

A link to Phil Ochs singing ‘The Blue and the Grey’ at Gerde’s in 1975 –

This was his last public performance, I think. Bob was also there that night – and part of this gig is in Reynaldo & Clara (there is a short clip showing Ochs taking the stage & borrowing Bob’s hat here – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aOg5dK6EnuE).

The existence of this clip may also mean that Ochs’ performance of ‘Lay Down Your Weary Tune’ on the same night is out there somewhere…

Mary Gauthier, Steve Earle and Goodbyes

Have recently been listening to a lot of Mary Gauthier recently, who, I think, must be reckoned among the great songwriters of recent times.

There is a honesty about her music, which is enormously appealing in an age of so much manufactured garbage. Her songs also pack a great deal of emotional weight. This one, perhaps, most of all:


The song this one brought to my mind is Steve Earle’s Goodbye, perhaps his most perfect song and one of the saddest songs I have ever heard. The harmonica solo on it is the sound of complete loneliness (sez he):


And to round it off, here is ‘Invisible’ from Earle’s new album – another song which proves the continuing relevance and potency of a good ‘topical’ song:






IMF & Bruce Cockburn

Here is the best song I know about the IMF, by the great Bruce Cockburn. This song, like the best of Phil Ochs’ work has become more rather than less relevant over time. It also proves the continued potency of a good topical song:

Phil Ochs Topical Songs

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….

Phil Ochs

I think this video very eloquently makes the case for the continuing relevance of Phil Ochs’ work:



All I will add here is another video of one my favourite Phil Ochs’ songs:

A Defence of Phil Ochs

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…