Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune

Phil-OchsPhil Ochs loved movies. As a youth in Far Rockaway, he and his brother would see several films a week. Later, living in Los Angeles, he got a pass to the theater of the American Film Institute and spent much of the time he was not on tour watching movies. Still later, in New York City, he would go to movies with Bob Dylan and Dave Van Ronk to see films they knew so well they could recite the actors’ lines as they were spoken on screen.

I like to think that Ochs enjoyed Bo Widerberg’s 1971 film about Joe Hill, a film we had hoped to screen tonight to commemorate the centennial of Hill’s execution — 19 November,1915. Ochs would certainly have found it ironic that the corporation holding US distribution rights would not permit us to screen the digitally remastered film.

But we do have Ochs’ 1968 song, The Ballad of Joe Hill, which reads like a script treatment for the film:   Joe Hill arrives in New York from Sweden; he works at a bar, on the docks and on the railroad; he heads to California, where he joins the Industrial Workers of the World. He discovers his calling as an organizer and songwriter. He is framed for murder, convicted and sentenced to death. The Governor of Utah rejects all appeals, including one from President Woodrow Wilson, and Hill is executed by a firing squad.

Especially interesting is Ochs’ description of Hill’s work as a songwriter:   “In the dark of night” during long and bloody strikes,

Joe would stay awake and write
In the morning he would raise them with a song
And he wrote his words to the tunes of the day
To be passed along the union vine
And the strikes were led and the songs were spread
And Joe Hill was always on the line.

Here Ochs is imagining Joe Hill but describing his own practice. A former writer for his Ohio college paper, Ochs avidly read and clipped newspapers, amassing information to be worked into songs. Most of his early songs, he said,”were straight journalistic narratives of specific events, and the later ones …veered in the direction of themes behind the events.” His first record album was appropriately titled All the News That’s Fit to Sing.

Although he participated in the 1964 Newport Folk Festival, Ochs thought of himself not as a folk singer or a protest singer but as a writer and performer of topical songs in the tradition of Joe Hill, whose songs were intended “To fan the flames of discontent.” Indeed, he dedicated his first song- book (1964) to Joe Hill, who had addressed issues faced by the itinerant workers who made up the IWW: warnings against job sharks, disdain for scabs, calls for labor solidarity through the IWW,  sympathy for the plight of working class girls and for old and injured workers. Hill also satirized workers who were scammed by bosses, by the Salvation Army and even by the American Federation of Labor.  Hill also wrote songs critical of militarism and in praise of sabotage — the ’conscientious withdrawal of efficiency.’

Set to familiar tunes and printed in pocket size booklets with red covers, Hill’s songs spread quickly and widely and were sung at rallies and pickets, in IWW halls and hobo jungles, and in the jails where Wobblies were confined for vagrancy and for making soap-box speeches. As Joe Hill noted, “a pamphlet, no matter how good, is never read more than once, but a song is learned by heart and repeated.”

Joe Hill’s execution as an advocate of class-conscious militancy made him a martyr. His advice — “Don’t mourn — organize” — became a slogan of the entire labor movement. His request that his body be hauled to the state line — ˆI don’t want to be found dead in Utah” — was honored: after cremation in Chicago his ashes were  placed in packets and mailed to Wobblies everywhere but Utah. Each packet bore a photo captioned, “Joe Hill — murdered by the Capitalist class, November 19, 1915. Industrial Workers of the World. We never forget.”

With the exception of The Ballad of Joe Hill, which he set to the tune of Woody Guthrie’s Tom Joad, Phil Ochs composed the music for all his songs. Celebrated for his steadfast opposition to militarism and the Vietnam war, especially I Ain’t Marching Anymore, Ochs devoted many songs to the struggles for civil rights and civil liberties. He also wrote about labor issues ranging from the displacement of workers by machines {Automation Song), the conflicted role played by unions (Links on the Chain), the poverty endured by Appalachian coal miners (No Christmas in Kentucky) and, of course, the story of Joe Hill, the Wobbly song writer whose life and legacy inspired workers to organize and to fight for their rights.

But it was Ochs’ opposition to the war in Vietnam, sung to thousands of protesters at dozens of rallies and concerts, and his association with Yippies Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin that drew the scrutiny of the FBI. He was especially targeted for his participation in the Lincoln Park demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic Party Convention in Chicago, particularly his role in the Yippies’ attempt to nominate a pig for President of the United States. The FBI was also concerned that during a 1973 trip to Chile Ochs had become friends with Victor Jara, whose version of the Lord’s Prayer (Plegaria a un labrador) called on workers to mobilize.

Until his death in 1976 (and even after), the FBI considered Ochs a threat to national security. Billy Bragg got it right in his tribute to Ochs, modeled on the Hayes/Robinson song I Dreamed I saw Joe Hill Last Night:

The FBI harassed you Phil
They smeared you with their lies
Says he, “But they could never kill
What they could not compromise
I never compromised”

Phil Ochs loved movies so much that, as one biographer says, ‘he often saw dramatic events in his life as if they were scenes in a movie and he was the film’s protagonist.”  I like to think that  he would have enjoyed There But For Fortune, a film in which he actually is the protagonist. And I hope that you enjoy it.

Phil Ochs and Joe Hill, murdered by the capitalist class. We never forget.

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About Jon Garlock

Jon Garlock chairs the Education Committee of the Rochester (NY) Labor Council. He coordinates an annual Labor Film Series, now in its 26th year, presented at the International Museum of Film and Photography at George Eastman House. He has published on 19th century US and local labor history, co-directing a video and developing teaching materials on Rochester's unions.