Phil Ochs and the Renaissance of All-American Communism

How one protest folk icon’s life serves as a warning for today

Jared Barlament

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Phil Ochs may be known today as just another 60s protest folk singer in a sea of other Bob Dylan copycats and would-be activists turned novelty acts. Or, to many, he may not be known at all. In his own day, though, he was a titan of the protest folk movement who directly inspired much of the social change going around. Hits like “Draft Dodger Rag”, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Love Me, I’m A Liberal” lit fires under 60s activists like few other singers’ songs could.

For a short while, a red-blooded American activist rode aboard the inner planetary rings of the popular music world uncontested. But when he decided to tip the balance of activism and entertainment in favor of the former, a new political climate had him ousted from popularity. The revolutionary political attitude that had pushed him to popularity in the first place largely dissolved by the 1970s, and as Ochs’ own political will was shattered in 1968, he did little for the last few years before his 1975 death but slip deeper into a depressive spiral.

A dark end met a man who was once a beacon of light for an entire generation. An activist was emotionally trampled by the failure of his movement and the loss of his future. But how did the light of the 60s really die? Is this really the necessary fate of the activists in doomed movements? And — perhaps timelier — what can this tell us about our own current wave of 2020s-Americana-protest-folk that’s taken root across the country?

Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village, 1963 (photo JK/AP)

Phil Ochs was born in 1940 in El Paso, but after his father’s experiences in WWII left him struggling openly with depression and bipolar disorder, the family endured several tumultuous moves across the country. They ended up in Ohio for most of Phil’s upbringing — during which his abundant musical abilities became evident — and he eventually attended college there to study journalism. In college, music and politics were cemented as his life passions, and after growing disillusioned with his quest for a journalism degree, he left the state entirely in 1962 in pursuit of a new life in the burgeoning folk music scene of New York City.

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Jared Barlament

Author and essayist from Wisconsin studying anthropology and philosophy at Columbia University.