Phil Ochs, Singing Journalist

December 19, 2010, would have been Phil Ochs’ 70th birthday, had he not died half a lifetime ago at age 35. During his brief time on Earth, Ochs walked that too-familiar line between creative brilliance and mental disturbance, eventually ending his life on April 9, 1976.

Before his decline and death, Ochs inspired and motivated a restless generation with his folk music. While others labeled him a protest singer, he preferred to call himself a “singing journalist” who wrote “topical songs” (based on stories he read in Newsweek) – not protest songs. Yet songs like “Here’s to the State of Mississippi” and “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” touched the hearts and minds of young people who were weary of the Vietnam War and eager for the U.S. to embrace civil rights. Ochs may not have been trying to write protest songs, but he inspired protest nonetheless.

In honor of this singing journalist, here are five of his greatest and most topical songs:

1. “The War is Over.” Many people who were very young or not yet born during the Vietnam War era don’t have a good sense of the true scope of the war and its draft. More than 9 million soldiers served – 9.7% of their generation – and more than 1.7 million of them had been drafted. These soldiers faced horrible odds. They would either die serving or they’d come back forever changed – physically injured, mentally scarred, or both. The war weighed heavily on the young men who fought, and on the people at home as well. As the war dragged on and on, more soldiers and civilians died, and tensions tightened in the U.S., Ochs declared the war over. The song can be taken as a bit of wishful thinking, or as a quiet but forceful demand.

2. “Here’s to the State of Mississippi.” Ochs pulled no punches in this scathingly nasty tribute to an entire state. Inspired by the 1964 murders of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the song also touches on the Ku Klux Klan, corrupt public officials, substandard schools, and prejudice of all types. The shocking song drew anger, resentment and controversy at the same time it fired up many who were devastated by the murders and other travesties being committed against African Americans and their supporters in the struggle for civil rights.

3. “Is There Anybody Here?” Ochs wrote many anti-war songs during the Vietnam era, approaching the subject from a wide variety of angles to most effectively drive his point home. Anyone listening to the first couple verses of “Is There Anybody Here?” would be excused if they thought Ochs was actually pro-war, as he asks for an enthusiastic soldier whose hand he can shake. As the verses continue, though, Ochs’ view becomes clear as he speaks of “murder by another name” and “the courage of the blind.” Ultimately, what Ochs seeks is not a willing soldier, but one who actually understands and acknowledges the full horror of war.

4. “Power and the Glory.” Ochs saw in the 1960s and ‘70s a deeply conflicted country. It was rich with beauty and prosperity, the most powerful and celebrated country in the world. At the same time, its corners and crevices hid poverty, injustice, racism – all the social ills that Ochs and his contemporaries spoke out against. “Power and the Glory” details Ochs’ deep love for his country, and it calls out that same country for its mistakes and misdeeds. It’s one of his most patriotic songs, and one of his most effective. Ochs himself called it “the greatest song I’ll ever write.”

5. “I Ain’t Marching Anymore.” No look at Ochs’ songs would be complete without his best-known – and arguably greatest and most emotionally charged – anti-war song. It’s written from the point of view of a universal soldier, one who has fought in U.S. wars for centuries. From the War of 1812, when “the young land started growing, the young blood started flowing” to World War II, when the soldier “set off the mighty mushroom roar,” he has fought and killed a million men. And now, at the start of the Vietnam War, the soldier refuses. His weary listing of war after war is punctuated by his repeated denial, “I ain’t marching anymore.” Ochs’ soldier spoke for the millions – men and women, soldiers and civilians – who ached for an end to the war.