By Richie Unterberger
Phil Ochs's debut album, 1964's All the News That's Fit to Sing (also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music), established him as one of the foremost folk musicians in the topical singer-songwriter movement. While Ochs would eventually broaden his vision to encompass just as much personal and poetic verse as political protest, 1965's I Ain't Marching Anymore contained perhaps his most issue-driven songwriting. Militarism, American imperialism, the Vietnam War, labor struggles, and the explosive conflicts of the Civil Rights movement -- one or the other of these concerns were behind the messages of almost every song. If this ensured that some of the pieces would be more dated than Ochs's subsequent, more diverse repertoire, they also provide something of a snapshot of the mid-1960s social turmoil that both enraged and inspired his generation.
"He was getting better in his writing," says Elektra founder and president Jac Holzman, who (as he had been on Ochs's debut) was credited as production supervisor for the LP, with Paul Rothchild billed as recording director. "He was extremely prolific, but there's a big difference between craft and art. He was becoming much more of a craftsman. It was tough being a songwriter [in that era], because of this 800-pound gorilla, Bob Dylan, who could dash off stuff in no time that was superb."
That wasn't stopping, of course, a legion of young singer-songwriters such as Ochs from stepping onto the road that Dylan had done much to pave. "He was angrier," responds Holzman when asked what set Phil apart from his competition. "But not a nasty anger. But you could hear it. He had more edge. Buffy Sainte-Marie had edge of a different kind; some of her edge was a shrillness. But I think he had righteous edge. [Tom] Paxton was a better songwriter in the strict song sense, and he took a much lighter view of things, which I think sometimes is very effective."
There was certainly no shortage of topical material for Ochs and Paxton to draw upon, and both were doing a lot of recording for Elektra in the mid-'60s. "There's another thing that's important about topical songs, especially on Elektra," continues Holzman. "We came out with records frequently. We didn't wait three years, or two years, between releases. Phil Ochs, he could have one out every six months. I learned a lot about the frequency of interaction between an artist and their audience from most of my singer-songwriters. We kept them recording." Certainly Ochs had plenty of material ready to lay down when he went back into the studio to cut his second album, comprised entirely of original compositions, with the exception of a cover of noted British folk musician Ewan MacColl's "Ballad of the Carpenter." (Phil did give co-writing credits to Alfred Noyes on his adaptation of the poem "The Highway Man," and to John Rooney on another such adaptation, "The Men Behind the Guns.")
Undoubtedly the song that reached the widest audience was the title cut -- not just via Ochs's recorded version and concerts, but also via its subsequent adaptation as one of the anthems of the anti-Vietnam War movement, sung by crowds at innumerable demonstrations (and still sung at some such events today). "Oh yeah, it was a natural," laughs Holzman. "It was easy to remember, it was catchy, and it was singable. All of those are good things." It's still not well-known that Elektra also had Ochs record an electric folk-rock remake of the song, "hoping to see if we could get some radio on it," according to Holzman. With backup by the Blues Project (whose Danny Kalb had played second guitar on All the News That's Fit to Sing), the 1966 single was only issued in the United Kingdom (and also as a flexi-disc with Sing Out! magazine).
The two other tracks on I Ain't Marching Anymore to make the greatest impact also took on the era's most controversial outrages. "Draft Dodger Rag" was, like "I Ain't Marching Anymore," also picked up at many anti-war rallies, demonstrating that Ochs could blast the military with satire as well as earnest declaration. "Here's to the State of Mississippi" -- at nearly six minutes, a very long track for 1965 -- generated some controversy of its own, particularly in Ochs's advice for the state to find another country to which to belong. Phil himself likely remained proud of the song, as he updated it for the Watergate era, retitling the number "Here's to the State of Richard Nixon" on a 1974 single (the other side of which, incidentally, was an updated version of another number from his early career, "Power and the Glory").
Though I Ain't Marching Anymore helped Ochs continue to expand his fan base, it wasn't the sort of thing that could enter the hit parade. Nonetheless, Holzman has recalled how Phil, rather surprisingly, would constantly inquire about how his records were selling, though at that point his sales were modest and dominated by pockets of enthusiasts in big cities in the Northeast. "I thought that was kind of charming, as a matter of fact," says Holzman of Ochs's commercial ambitions. "He was always interested in how he was doing, always comparing himself to somebody else, and that drove him nuts. I think the seeds of it were certainly there at Elektra. I think it was clear to all of us that this is not how you did it, but his illusions did not stop that material from coming. If he had tried to write pop songs or much more popular-oriented songs for Elektra, I wouldn't have recorded 'em. That's not where I saw him. I would have given him his release and let him go elsewhere."
Ochs did actually dent the lower reaches of the Billboard charts for the first time with his third and final Elektra album, 1966's In Concert. Yet this did indeed occasion his release from the label. As Holzman recalled in his autobiography Follow the Music (co-written with Gavan Daws), "We kept him on Elektra for three of the six albums we could contractually claim, and then he asked to be released because he felt we weren't doing enough for him. In a way that was true, because by then...the whole music scene was shifting away from what Phil did, or at least what he did best, which was the topical political song. With fewer people listening, his personal devils took over." I Ain't Marching Anymore, however, captures him at a younger, fresher time, when he was reaching his peak as a master of topical song, even if his artistic restlessness would move him onto different fields as well in the future. -- Richie Unterberger
Unterberger , 2000-2010
unless otherwise specified.
HOME WHAT'S NEW MUSIC BOOKS MUSIC REVIEWS TRAVEL BOOKS
LINKS ABOUT THE AUTHOR SITE MAP EMAIL RICHIE BUY BOOKS