Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton

I promised music, so here it is, if only briefly. There’s a mild political slant as well.

Some people my age may remember Phil Ochs; I doubt that too many younger people will. He was a “folk” writer/musician/singer protester from 1964 through 1975 (but mostly through the very early 1970s), who wrote some stunningly beautiful songs as well as many extremely political songs, not surprisingly for the times. Many of his songs were angry–also not surprisingly for the times. Many were powerful, and some have been recorded by others (In the Heat of the Summer, There But for Fortune, Changes, probably others).

[The political part: I'm always bemused by the phrase "Lefty liberal" and its ilk. Phil Ochs would have been astonished, given that one of his meanest songs was "Love me, I'm a liberal"--a left-winger's attack on us wishy-washy liberals, who I believe Ochs regarded as even worse than conservatives.]

Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976, after years of depression.

I’d owned several Phil Ochs LPs, but never replaced any with CDs. When Elektra/Rhino released a three-CD (and book) set of most of Ochs’ work, I bought it, planning to pare it down to two CD-Rs of the stuff I liked the most. I wound up with one very full CD-R with the 19 songs (of 53 on the set) that I thought I’d ever want to listen to again.

Tom Paxton was also a “folk” writer/musician/singer in the 1960s and 1970s, dealing with many of the same issues (segregation, the Vietnam war, etc., etc.). Paxton also wrote some stunningly beautiful songs, and had a gift for writing songs that were so natural that people assumed they were “folk songs” rather than contemporary compositions. “The last thing on my mind,” “I can’t help but wonder where I’m bound,” “Ramblin’ boy,” and too many others to mention. I’d owned most of Paxton’s LPs during those decades–and until two or three years ago hadn’t replaced any of them with CDs. I picked up one compilation (just a sampling), and found that I like all of the songs on it. I’ve since picked up more.

Tom Paxton has also suffered depression at times. But there’s a difference, and I think it comes through in the music. Tom Paxton is still with us–and still writing and singing (he’s done CDs of children’s songs, and some of you must remember “the wonderful toy” from decades ago). He’s not a big star, but he still writes wonderfully and has pretty much the same rich voice he had 40 years ago.

One difference was clear when listening to their protest and anti-war songs. Tom Paxton hated war, hated segregation, hated pollution (“Whose garden was this?” continues to be a classic)–but always liked people. Even his anti-war songs were as much celebrations of life and people as anything else–”Lyndon Johnson told the nation” is powerful and just plain good listening at the same time.

No necessary inferences here. I believe that many people who commit suicide really can’t help it, or at least never found the right combination of medicine, therapy, counseling, and meditation to find some inner peace. I just find it interesting that Paxton, who couldn’t even seem to mount a vicious attack on a person when he completely disagreed with the policies, has persevered–while Ochs, who seemed to relish attack more than anything else, faded away years before he died.

7 Responses to “Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton”

  1. Seth Finkelstein Says:

    There could certainly be a correlation between termperament and art – but it’s hardly complete, as many horror writers aren’t any more deranged than the average writer, and many artists are less than their work.

    But even if it was completely random, there’d still be art/artists who match up in terms of emotional aspects.

  2. walt Says:

    I agree on both counts. Look at Randy Newman’s work: Is he “You’ve got a friend in me” or “I just want you to hurt like I do”? (My guess is more the latter, with enough of the former to keep him busy writing film scores & songs.)

    In the case discussed, my guess is that Tom Paxton’s apparent love of humanity, for all its flaws and foibles, has helped sustain his creativity and his plain willingness to keep going.

    What the heck. You want profundity? Not here: This is Walt at Random.

  3. Ruth Ellen Says:

    There was a brief upsurge of interest in Phil Ochs a few years back when Sean Penn took an interest. I believe Penn was exploring the idea of a film about Ochs.

  4. walt Says:

    That’s really interesting–I wonder if that’s when the boxed set came out?

    I must say, the range of comments on the range of entries (almost as random as the title implies) continue to fascinate and enlighten me (and I hope readers).

  5. Beth Scott Says:

    There seems to be a lot of interest in Phil Ochs this month. There has been a discussion about Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan, their friendship and falling out, and who was a better songwriter on the SingOut! list for the last several weeks.

  6. walt Says:

    “Who was a better songwriter”? Now there’s a debate with no real hope of resolution, in my opinion…although, admittedly, I’ve stepped into this in the past by identifying my own “best living songwriter” candidate, without the qualifier “pop” as part of the equation.

    So much depends on how you define songwriting. Lyrics? Melody?

    And, of course, for performer/composers, there’s the link between musicianship and composition that’s hard to break. It isn’t entirely a matter of, say, vocal or instrumental quality; it’s partly a matter of ability to claim a song.

    Best example: Willie Nelson does not have the most mellifluous voice on this earth–but once he’s sung a song that he cares about (even a little bit), and particularly one that he wrote, I find it hard to listen to anyone else’s version without hearing Willie Nelson’s in the back of my mind. That even includes “Crazy.”

    If I start posting more about music (which could happen), there are lots of interesting aspects–but I’m not involved in things like the “SingOut! list” so might sound awfully ignorant. Not that sounding ignorant is anything new for me!

  7. Elmer Jan Says:

    Hi Walt,

    I had the pleasure of meeting you briefly at the CLA Conference in San Jose.

    Phil Ochs left a deep impression on me when I first heard his music in the 60s. Since then I have replaced his LPs in my collection when they were reissued on CD and when Rhino released the three-disc “Farewells & Fantasies” set, snapped that up, too.

    I always thought it was unfortunate that singers like Ochs and Paxton labored in the shadow of Bob Dylan’s commercial success. Dylan could be wistfully vague and non-committal when it came to making a social statement: “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” Great. Here’s a butterfly net, my friend; catch it if you can. Phil Ochs, on the other hand, attacked topical issues head-on with scathing, sardonic lyrics. Songs that he wrote still mirror America’s foreign policy over 30 years later: “(We’re the) Cops of the World” or just change the name of the country in “(The Marines Have Landed on the Shores of) Santo Domingo.” Ochs’ answer was not blowing in the wind. His answer was to challenge us to listen to our conscience and to commit ourselves to action:

    Won’t be asked to do my share when I’m gone… Can’t say who’s to praise and who’s to blame when I’m gone… Can’t be singin’ louder than the guns when I’m gone… Can’t add my name into the fight when I’m gone… Won’t be laughin’ at the lies when I’m gone… And I can’t question how or wonder why when I’m gone… Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone… So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.

    Both Ochs and Paxton were often played on underground FM stations (KMPX, KSAN) in San Francisco in the sixties. But it wasn’t until 1985 that I purchased a Tom Paxton recording, One Million Lawyers and Other Disasters, after hearing the wonderfully satiric track, Yuppies in the Sky.

    Happily, works by and about Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton are available through our public libraries.


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