The Song You May Hear On My Forthcoming CD---Or Not

One song has affected everything else I'm been writing or working on for decades. It's called "The Ballad of Phil Ochs." It's supposed to be on my forthcoming CD, "Reflection." You may never hear  it, though. Stay tuned.

 So here's the background of that song, and why I wrote it to someone else's tune. The labor song, "Joe Hill," was written by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson in the depths of the Depression in 1936. Workers were struggling to survive. The New Deal was finding ways to employ some of the unemployed workers. And the National Labor Relations Act in 1935 finally allowed workers to try to unionize without harassment. But workers who got jobs at all usually worked for extremely low wages and had few rights.

"Joe Hill" was written and sung on the picket lines during the Great Depression, decades before the protest songs of the 1960s. Many of the greats of modern folk music were inspired by Joe Hill--both the man himself and the songs he wrote. His martyrdom in 1915, at the hands of a firing squad in Utah following conviction for a murder he almost certainly didn't commit, made his story all the more more compelling, as did the song about him, written by Hayes and Robinson two decades after his death.

Hayes and Robinson's song was a major influence for folk musicians from Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger to the protest singers in the late 1960s, such as singer-songwriter Phil Ochs, and singer-social activist Joan Baez. Here's Joan Baez, performing "Joe Hill" at Woodstock in 1969.

 Phil Ochs, the subject of my song, was one of those folkies who flocked to Greenwich Village in the early 1960s. Unlike those who sang traditional folk songs or those who wrote poetry set to music, Ochs wrote songs of protest, songs that were merciless, satirical, heartbreaking, inspiring calls to action against racism, war, greed, poverty, and the other ills of our society. He wrote passionately about the murders of civil rights workers and others in the South. As the Vietnam War began to grow--and while the country still supported it--he wrote unforgettable anti-war songs, such as this live recording of "I Ain't Marching Anymore," which I first heard around the time I was graduating from high school.

As time passed, Ochs' songwriting became more nuanced, and he dug deeper into the American psyche as well as his own. But in April 1976, after years of battling depression and alcoholism, he committed suicide at the age of 35.

 Joe Hill and Phil Ochs had much in common. Both were radical, charismatic protest songwriters. Ochs must have seen the connection when he wrote "The Ballad of Joe Hill." His version of the story discarded the sentimental feel of Hayes and Robinson's earlier song and, instead, captured Hill's rebellious nature--and Ochs' own. Ochs' melodies were almost always his own, but for this song he borrowed the melody from another folk song, "John Hardy" (one of the reasons I chose to borrow the melody of "Joe Hill"). Here's Phil Ochs' song about Joe Hill, recorded at a live concert.

 Ochs probably doubted he would live a long life. Some of his songs, including the last song he recorded, "No More Songs," presaged suicide.  One of the songs on a previous album had this chorus: "But I'm gonna give all that I've got to give, Cross my heart and I hope to live." The cover of Ochs' album following "The Ballad of Joe Hill" (and following the chaos of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago), featured a fake tombstone of Phil Ochs, suggesting that he--and the America he loved--died in the Chicago police riot at the Democratic Convention in 1968.

Alas, neither Joe Hill nor his songs changed the world. American law did little to protect workers for decades after Joe Hill lived and died. Even now, over a century since his execution, too many working men and women still struggle for a living wage.

Phil Ochs didn't save the world, either. His songs didn't end racism and didn't end the Vietnam War. Indeed, he seemed to realize this when he recorded his last album, "Phil Ochs Greatest Hits," (not a "greatest hits" album at all). The cover showed him wearing a gold suit and imitating Elvis Presley.  It was performance art, illustrating Ochs' assertion that revolution in the country would only occur when Elvis became the head revolutionary. So Ochs, had decided to become Elvis Presley.

Alas, many of Phil Ochs' songs are as timely now as they were when he wrote them half a century ago, because racism, greed, poverty, riots and war persist. The self-absorbed nature of the Boomer generation, of which I am a member, once vowed to change the world. We failed.

 Did Joe Hill and Phil Ochs fail us, or did we fail ourselves? I think the latter. That's why I wrote this song. Phil Ochs's songs gave us the inspiration to change the world, but ultimately, he died a tragic death, and our generation was a lot less significant than we thought we would be.

 I first composed The Ballad of Phil Ochs in 1999 and initially recorded it in 2000. I hoped to include this song on my first CD over 17 years ago, but I couldn't get copyright permission to use the melody, so I shelved it and moved on. Last year I took another look at it. I still liked the idea, but hated the lyrics. So I re-wrote them. I re-recorded it, while keeping Skip Parente's lovely, doleful violin from the original recording that drifts in toward the end. And, once again, I'm trying to obtain copyright permission to publish the song.  It's been nine months, and I still don't know whether one of the two copyright holders will say yes or no. But I've waited almost twenty years, so a few more months are no big deal.

 I have never performed this song. As of now, I can't post my recording of the song because of the copyright issue, but I'll post my lyrics, and you can figure out the rest if you match the lyrics to the melody of "Joe Hill." I haven't given up. I hope you get to hear it someday.

 Here are my lyrics.

 I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I, “But Phil, you’re decades dead.”
“I never died,” said he.
“I never died,” said he.

“You fought the fight for civil rights
When racial hatred thrived.”
Said Phil, “So long as justice fails
My music stays alive.
My songs and I survive.”

 “Perhaps you died while overseas,
A casualty of war.”
Said Phil, “Not so; I’m here ‘cause
I ain’t marching anymore.
Ain’t marching anymore.”

“Chicago riots, ‘68,
Your cover art can’t lie.”
“Twas no more than metaphor,”
Said Phil, “I did not die.”
Said Phil, “I did not die.”

I told him, “No more songs appear
To say the things you said.”
“The heat of summer then and now
Just proves I can’t be dead.”
Said Phil, “I can’t be dead.”

“Your songs for social change,” said I, 
“Didn’t change a thing.”
“But segregation’s gone,” said Phil,
“And Elvis is the king.
So then I played the king.”

“Revolution’s on the right, now
Filling folks with fear.”
“Just love them like the liberals,”
Said Phil, “They’ll disappear.”
Said Phil, “They’ll disappear.”

I offered Phil my thanks
For giving all he got to give.
But Phil replied, “I’ll cross my heart,
And I will hope to live.
And I will hope to live.”

 But was that you in deep despair
Who hanged himself and died?
“So sad, there but for fortune,”
Said Phil, “Go you or I”
Said Phil, “Go you or I.”

I dreamed I saw Phil Ochs last night
Alive as you and me.
Said I, “But Phil, you’re decades dead.”
“I never died,” said he.
“I never died,” said he.