If Phil Ochs had not died in 1976 at age 35 he would be pushing 70 today and would probably be a revered grand old master of the protest movement. Instead his memory and his music have gradually faded from the public’s awareness.
There was a period of time when Phil Ochs was an important and potent force in American music. He was considered second only to Bob Dylan as a writer of social commentary and anti-establishment songs. His compositions and his albums were brilliant, biting, often humorous, committed, and always unyielding as they intersected and weaved through the fabric of American society.
He was a classic folk singer for most of his career. A journalism major at Ohio State, he would fuse that love with music and create one of the more impressive catalogues of the 1960’s. While his music is at times dated, it is still worth exploring not only as an intimate look at the sixties but also for its consistent excellence.
Phil Ochs released his first album in 1964 at the age of 24. All The News That’s Fit To Sing would be a scathing commentary on war and the establishment, yet at times, would also show a love of America on his part.
“Talkin’ Vietnam” and “Talkin’ Cuban Crisis” are titles that are almost self explanatory. He employed the same type of talking blues approach that Bob Dylan used so effectively early in his career. “Ballad Of William Worthy’ was another song about Cuba which criticizes the arrest of an American who dared to travel there as it was illegal.
The best and most endearing song on the album is his hymn to America, “Power and The Glory,” It is a grand statement that is similar to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” I can’t help but think that if it had been written by almost any other artist it would have made a lasting impact upon the American consciousness.
There are a number of other songs that hold up well. “One More Parade” was written for the soldiers serving in Vietnam and looks toward peace. “Bound For Glory” is a worthy and moving tribute to Woody Guthrie. “The Thresher” was a poignant memorial to the American submarine by the same name that disappeared with all hands on board. “What’s This I Hear” is one of the best two minute statements on the subject of politics in existence.
One of his most creative songs was the musical adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem, “The Bells,” His guitar work is extraordinary and sets the mood for the song. He would adapt other classic poems to music and it would have been interesting to think what might have developed if he had followed this theme more extensively.
All The News That’s Fit To Sing has a purity about it. Except for a lonely harmonica on one track it is just the voice of Phil Ochs and his acoustic guitar supported by that of Danny Kalb who would go on to have a long career himself. The album remains a valuable and uncompromising look at the politics and music of the sixties.