Category: Phil Ochs

Covered In Folk: Phil Ochs
(On songs of social justice in a post-millennial world)

January 16th, 2011 — 03:40 pm

It’s Martin Luther King Day, and I’ve been thinking about social justice, even going so far as to try to explain the term to my eight year old in the car on the way to the dentist. But explaining why I teach in the inner city in the language of a third grader is easier said than done. Two generations after King, Kennedy, and so many unnamed others fell as martyrs to the civil rights movement, we live in a world of twice-removed injustices, deeper, more abstract, more slippery and subtle, harder to name, and harder still to put into words.

That the obvious differences which once separated us are now encoded into law and practice as taboo subjects for discrimination shows just how far we have come since the sixties. That in our pursuit of change and justice and equality we have reached the murky core, where it is harder to name the abstract injustices which still linger deep at the root of society, is perhaps King’s greatest legacy, and it’s a fine legacy, indeed.

But it still leaves us with the problem that that which we have to overcome is much harder to define than it once was. So much of our rhetoric is defined by dissatisfaction and dis-ease, and though it’s easy to rally around such ill- and negatively-defined straw men, it’s almost impossible to leverage that muddy, vitrolic speech as a clarion call to well-defined action. The distance between We Shall Overcome and I Don’t Wanna Be An American Idiot is vast, indeed. And the fatalism which has replaced This Little Light of Mine with the deliberate aloofness of We Didn’t Start The Fire is a constant threat to our ability to live the dream, to stand up and lead the charge for the subtle change we all know, in our deepest hearts, remains urgently at hand.

As a tool of political discourse, folk songs – which spread by word of mouth, and speak of and for the community – play a vital role in cultural change. And though it is his speeches which ring so indelibly in the ears of history, MLK, Jr. was a firm believer in the power of song as a vehicle for freedom, seeing it as a critical tool in the hands of the movement.

Most of the songs King’s followers chose to utilize, of course, were remodded from older sources, in keeping with the folkways approach to song which best characterizes the movement itself. But many of the songs which the civil rights movement has chosen to adopt since then come more directly from the generation of singer-songwriters who grew up in the midst of the struggle.

And though his name is not as familiar as a host of others who survived the era to continue performing, and who spread the gospel through a more diverse collection of songs, perhaps no artist has had more of an impact on the modern protest songbook than folksinger Phil Ochs.

Which is to say: like so many great songwriters of depth and poignancy, Phil Ochs – who came to the Greenwich Village scene from the world of journalism, and never shed the constant search for the truth which this entailed – was haunted and ultimately done in by depression, truncating his canon and corrupting his legacy. And in keeping with the discourse drift described above, his catalog is rife with the kind of songs hardly anyone sings any more.

Indeed, Guthrie’s famous guitar slogan nothwithstanding, there is perhaps no other artists who so deliberately and successfully focused his career on protest through music as Ochs himself. The Ochs songbook is relentlessly political, almost exclusively so, unlike those of the numerous artists who include social justice songs in their work – Michael Franti, the Indigo Girls, Ani Difranco, Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, and others among them – but also diversify their message to include more generalized narrative tales of love and life.

And as a result, though Ochs hated the term “protest song”, preferring to say that he wrote “topical songs”, most of which he claimed he wrote based on articles in Newsweek, the vast collection of songs he left behind are a legacy of political protest much like that of the words of King himself, and arguably of a scale and scope which rivals that of the fallen Reverend.

There’s an inherent risk in staking your claim on topical song. But the best protest songs merely gain power through metaphor as they lose their direct relevance in the world of the concrete as history moves ever-onward – Biko has been dead for decades, for example, but Peter Gabriel still sings his life story into fervent life on stage. And though several of Ochs’ songs have been updated in recent years, the best live on intact, their potency all the more for their inward gaze.

Today, Ochs’ critical gaze and determined lyrics still ring true in the hands and mouths of artists across the globe, many of them – From DiFranco to Seeger, from Billy Bragg to John Wesley Harding – known for their own association with the continued struggle for rights and justice in modern society. And his prescient anthem When I’m Gone – surely his most covered song – speaks achingly to the need for every one of us to live and fight for today, while we still have breath.

Which is good. Because even as talk radio and Facebook become tools of discourse, rallying spaces are not rallies: as long as there is still injustice, we still need to be able to stand up and be counted in physical space. Facebook may be a great way to organize, but its silent screen is no match for the full emotional power of the spirit uplifted by song.

Singing to make change cannot be done without songs that demand it. We still need songs that give us courage and hope; we still need the deep feeling of standing together, singing loud and strong, to show ourselves what can be done, to keep us strong and whole and connected in the darkness.

And sing we must, in the end. For there is still so much to overcome.

For more coverage and covers of Phil Ochs, check out Life of a Rebel, a blog devoted to news and memories our featured artist.

[UPDATE, 3:50 pm: thanks to reader Dave, who reminds me that the brand new documentary Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, had its US theatrical premiere just last week. The film, according to fellow folkfan Jeff of Notlob Concerts, "reveals the biography of a conflicted truth-seeking troubadour who, with a guitar in hand, stood up for what he believed in and challenged us all to do the same." Phil's sister Sonny will be a guest on Jeff's Tuesdays 5-8pm, WCUW-fm show In The Tradition on March 8th, just before the Boston premiere of the film. Look for it in theaters near you!]

918 comments » | Holiday Coverfolk, Phil Ochs

John Gorka Covers: Townes Van Zandt, Kate Wolf, Pete Seeger, Stan Rogers

March 23rd, 2008 — 02:51 am

I’ve strayed from the folkfold a bit over the past weeks, testing the limits of folk subgenres and hybridization, trying to feel out just how far one can throw the modern conceit in which everything is a slash-folk hyphenate. I make no apologies for this — folk is a big tent, with many murky corners worthy of exploration. It is also, by definition, tied to the listening culture in intimate, cyclical ways which make it natural for folk to be in a state of constant interaction and integration with…well, everything. Including other forms of music.

But he who would claim to run a folk music blog cannot spend all his time at the periphery of the genre. It’s time to get back to the core of modern folk music, where the artists who made their name performing intimate acoustic songs to tiny bohemian audiences still lug their backseat guitars from city to city on the coffeehouse circuit. And I can think of no more worthy subject for such a triumphant return to the core of modern American folk music than John Gorka.

I’ve seen John Gorka perform live more than any other musician, and I haven’t had to work too hard at it. Since his early days in the Fast Folk songwriter/performer cooperative, Gorka has been one of the hardest working singer-songwriters in the folk business, an anchor for folk festival lineups and a crowd-pleaser at struggling coffeehouses. One year I saw him six times — twice indoors, four times outdoors — and by the end of the season, we were nodding recognition to each other as we passed among the folk fest food vendors.

John Gorka came up through the ranks the hard way, opening for Bill Morrisey and Nanci Griffith before taking first place at the 1984 Kerrville Folk Festival at the age of 26. Three years later, upon the release his first album I Know, Rolling Stone named him “the voice of ‘new folk’”. Since then, he has released ten albums, five of which I listened all the way through this evening, trying to put words to Gorka’s greatness.

And let me tell you, I’ve had a hell of a time trying to pin down what it is about John Gorka that makes his work so powerful.

It’s not his humor, though Gorka can write light, wry, self-effacing and funny better than most. It is not his elder-statesman status among the post-Fast Folk generation, though it’s always good to listen to those folks who the folks you love are listening to. It is not anything especially adept about his technique, though that rich, clear baritone and gentle way with a guitar comprise a powerful instrument. And it is not his infamous kindness, though I have never seen a performer take more genuine grateful pleasure, more sincere and untainted glee, in being given the gift of sharing his songs…and though there is nothing more folk than the way Gorka grins that infectious crooked grin, like Dennis Quaid without the mischief, in the face of applause.

For many listeners and critics, the above is more than anough to secure Gorka’s place in the pantheon of folk gods. But for once, I’m not going to try to speak to what makes Gorka good in any objective sense. Because, to me, what makes Gorka the epitome of folk is that he has the ability to truly speak to a part of me that, once realized through his music, turns out to be exactly what I have always felt.

Gorka is the only songwriter I know that, so often and so well, speaks for the secret, sensitive part of me that rails against the trappings of what our overcommericalized, testosterone-laden culture says a man should be. His ability to capture and express deep love and commitment as brave, honorable, and bittersweet, through deceptively simple guitarwork and an unusually rich, pure voice, is both uncanny and perfectly expressed.

And Gorka does this better, and more often, than any musician I know. He gives voice to a particularly sincere, masculine ownership of self as fragile and human which I have heard in other artists, and he applies this sensibility to more aspects of who I am – father, son, lover, laborer, wanderer – than any other musician I have heard.

Perhaps this subjectivity is not so subjective. Perhaps, though it is our commonality of white male experience which makes this work on one level, it is also true that, like with Joni’s longing for Canada or Josh Ritter’s unfinished adolescence, anyone can find their own emotional story in Gorka’s tales of blue collar labor, parenthood, and love. If so, then this is the kind of folk artist that makes you feel things you didn’t know you felt, in ways that are clearer than you knew possible.

The intimate connection I feel with Gorka’s music may affect my ability to judge the path of his career more objectively. Though all his albums have topped the folk charts — his 2006 release Writing in the Margins won numerous “best of” awards in the folkworld — in my opinion, some of Gorka’s recent work has been a bit erratic. His newer political songs are weaker; tracks on his recent albums suffer from overproduction which drags them out past their power. Though his later work speaks brilliantly to the bittersweetness of fatherhood, his cover of Marc Cohn’s Things We’ve Handed Down on a recent kidfolk compilation is an unfortunate trainwreck, pitched far too high for his voice. And though Gorka brings life to Stan Rogers’ poignant The Lockkeeper on Writing in the Margins, his older live version is far better.

But even on an objective level, this is minor quibbling; Gorka’s output has been so strong for decades, it is easy to excuse an occasional lapse in concentration. In live performance, and in recent tracks like Townes Van Zandt’s Snow Don’t Fall, Gorka can still call up an absolutely stunning power. And happily for cover fans, over three decades of performing and recording at the center of the folkworld, Gorka has contributed songs to many folk cover compilations and tribute albums, where, invariably, his song choices and his performance stand out from the crowd.

Today, a select few songs Gorka has chosen to make his own over the years.* All are good, and many are great; take them with my blessing, and be prepared to be spoken to. I cannot claim that you will feel what I feel, but by all accounts, this is what folk is supposed to be.

Everyone who reads this blog should have at least one John Gorka album in their collection. There are many, including Pure John Gorka, a “best of” compilation of the five albums Gorka released on the Windham Hill label between 1990 and 1996, but if you’re just starting your collection, I absolutely recommend Gorka’s second, his major label debut Land of the Bottom Line. From there, pick up his debut, and his last four CDs, at Red House Records, which celebrates 25 years in the folk business this year. Even better, pick up Gorka’s in-print albums directly through John Gorka’s website, where autographs come with every CD at no additional charge.

Today’s bonus coversongs include two Gorka originals covered with care and beauty; David Wilcox, especially, captures the best of Gorka’s emotive power in a song originally cobbled from an old prayer written by a soldier in wartime. Plus a fun, familiar song with Gorka on backup, just to show off that voice a little more:

Previously on Cover Lay Down:

  • John Gorka covers Girl of the North Country
  • John Gorka covers one of many Christmas Songs Written By Jews

    *I am also desperately seeking a recording of John Gorka covering Dylan’s Love Minus Zero/No Limit, which appeared on the out of print A Tribute to Bob Dylan, Vol. II (Sister Ruby Records: 1994).

  • 745 comments » | David Wilcox, John Gorka, Kate Wolf, Maura O'Connell, Phil Ochs, Stan Rogers, Townes van Zandt