The wit and irony of Phil Ochs live on

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A resilient little play carries a torch

“A protest song is a song that is so specific that you cannot mistake it for bullshit,” wrote Phil Ochs on the liner notes of his album, The Broadside Tapes. What would the militant folk singer of the 1960s think of the world today? What might he sing and speak about if he were still performing? Although we'll never know the answer to that one, the music of Phil Ochs remains obbligato for those interested in popular protest songs emerging from the peace movement of the 1960s.

Since his death, small bands of admirers have consistently carried the torch at various folk clubs, festivals, through websites and — uniquely — by way of one resilient little Canadian play that has been touring the country for the past 15 years.

In 1984, Ross Desprez was apprenticing at Winnipeg's Manitoba Theatre Centre as an actor and stage manager while also writing a play about a fictitious folk singer from the sixties. “I wanted a piece to showcase my acting and singing abilities and I played guitar. I also wanted to explore what had happened to all of the folk singers from the sixties and their ideals,” said Desprez in a recent interview.

Two things happened next: Desprez started hanging out with the Manitoba Playwrights Association which was headed up by Alan Williams and while pursuing his research discovered a Phil Ochs album in a used record store.

“I believe the album was Chords of Fame and it had Phil's story in the liner notes. The story said everything I had been trying to say in my piece. The song 'When I'm Gone' made me weep. I ran back to the playwriting group and raved about this play I was going to write. After several weeks of nothing but raving, Alan Williams gave me the final inspiration by yelling at me, 'So then write the fucking thing, I'm tired of hearing about it!' I found the biography Death of a Rebel by Marc Elliot and spent the next two years writing Phil's story into a first person narrative.”

The Ballad of Phil Ochs premiered at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 1988 and was immediately labeled “the jewel of the fringe” by the Vancouver Sun. The next year Desprez took the play to Fringe festivals in Edmonton and Victoria and from there toured Western Canada for two years. He last performed the piece in 1991.

That might have been the end of it until ten years later when a young drama student named Zachary Stevenson began to look for a project that would fulfill his credits toward a B.F.A. while a student at the University of Victoria. Already a trained musician and attracted to the folk festival scene in B.C., Stevenson discovered an old Phil Ochs album in his fatherâe(TM)s collection of LPs.

“After listening to tunes like 'I Ainâe(TM)t Marchin' Anymore' I connected with the music and instantly became a big fan. I felt his life's story had much to say to my generation and in my third year of University began to construct a one-person show around the life and times of Phil Ochs. In pitching the idea to my peers I soon found out there already was a piece in existence and that the playwright lived right here in Victoria! Ross Desprez, who is originally from Nanaimo, gave his blessing to the project and I was off and running.”

Since graduating from University, Stevenson has been touring The Ballad of Phil Ochs to college campuses and folk clubs across Canada. This month and next, he will be appearing at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa, The Winterfolk Festival in Toronto and the Staircase Café in Hamilton.

The show itself is laced with the wry wit and irony for which Ochs was famous while not eschewing the personal tragedy in his life. Stevens himself bears a remarkable physical as well as a musical likeness to Ochs with a voice that captures much of the nuance and melodic sweetness of the early albums.

Stevens says he also tries to be accommodating with encore numbers after his final curtain call for Ochs' fans who want to hear more than just the 12 tunes encapsulated into the two act play: “There have been some humorous moments following a performance where some audience members have made really obscure requests. That's when I put up my hands and say, okay, okay, I must admit I was only pretending. I'm not really Phil Ochs.”

So far he has self-produced and self-promoted the tours and has managed the difficult financial terrain that any theatre producer faces. Says Stevens: “One of the reasons I feel so strongly about performing this show is because we are coming into a time when apathy is one of our society's greatest afflictions and I think Phil fought against apathy and indifference first and foremost with war-mongering and hypocrisy coming in a close second. Songs like 'Love Me; I'm a Liberal,' 'I'm Gonna Say It Now,' and 'When I'm Gone,' are anthems about being pro-active about your opportunities while you're still alive and can make a difference.”

In the 60 songs published in The Complete Phil Ochs: Chords of Fame there are many titles which still call out with a shrill clarity that echoes the daily headlines: “I Ain't Marchin' Anymore,” “Cops of the World,” “Cannons of Christianity,” “I Kill Therefore I Am,” “Too Many Martyrs,” “One More Parade” and “Love Me, I'm A Liberal” to name a few.

Although he was prolific for a time, Ochs never reached the widespread popularity and financial success enjoyed by his fellow folkies Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Gordon Lightfoot. His song “There But For Fortune” made Billboard's Hot 100 when Baez recorded it but despite 32 artists recording “Changes” (which was written in Toronto while he was performing at the Riverboat folk club in Yorkville), it never broke through as a hit. Eventually his perceived failure in this area began to gnaw at his self-esteem and increased the sense of insecurity he felt within the iniquitous, hierarchical business of the recording industry.

But he left behind a musical legacy that still haunts the genre with a direct action approach to movement politics heard today in singers like Billy Bragg and hip hop artists such as Dead Prez. He had a special affection for Canada and doubtless former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien's decision not to engage in the Iraq war would have confirmed his feelings.

Sonny Ochs, Phil's sister, has been active in mounting Phil Ochs Song Nights in New York City since 1983 and has mounted two such events in Toronto (the first was in 1994) with the participation of local artists such as Grit Laskin, Garnet Rogers, Ken Whiteley, Nancy White, Rick Fielding and Eve Goldberg. Although not a musician herself, she continues as a presence on the folk festival circuit.

“I've emceed at Lunenburg Folk Harbour Festival three times and this past year I was an emcee/stage manager at the Ottawa Folk Festival,” she said recently from her rural home in Middleburgh, New York. She also hosts a weekly radio show in New York City. Concerning the on-going relevancy and contemporaneous ring of her brothers songs she notes: “It was strange going into the war in Iraq with the protest songs already written in advance. 'Cops of the World' could have been written last night!”

Ochs' journey into the land of left wing politics was a long, anarchic ride fraught with pitfalls between the personal and the political. The son of an Army man, he was born in El Paso and raised in Ohio where he attended a military academy rather than a public high school. After a brief period at Ohio State University he dropped out and began to play around the folk clubs of Columbus and Cleveland before decamping for New York's Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. By the end of the decade he was growing increasingly alienated, paranoid and depressed, unable to make sense of that looming dark period that would soon become the 1970s.

The 1973 coup d'etat in Chile against the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende only further added to his depression. Ochs, who was well aware of U.S. complicity and support being given to General Augusto Pinochet, had visited the country a short time before the coup. While there he had befriended the famous Chilean folk singer, Victor Jara. In the round up after the coup, Jara had been arrested, tortured and publicly executed in front of political prisoners incarcerated in the Chile Stadium in Santiago.

In one last burst of activism, Ochs organized a benefit concert in 1974 at New York's Felt Forum entitled An Evening With Salvador Allende. At the eleventh hour, he convinced Bob Dylan to perform thus ensuring the evening's success at the box office as well as needed media coverage. Within a year, however, his personal life had derailed again, this time taking the form of an assumed alter ego by the name of John Butler Train. His manic depression aggravated by alcohol abuse now was being acted out as a filmic fast forward action hero that tended to conflate real politick with Hollywood movies. This slow fade to black would soon consume him entirely.

Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976 at the age of 35.

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