Phil Ochs: A Voice That Carries Across Generations
Quincy, MA – Sonny Ochs has been producing concerts for a long time. A polite reporter doesn’t ask a woman her exact age. But since it’s well known that she participated in the first of many musical events dedicated to her brother Phil in Greenwich Village, New York City, in 1983, let’s just say 28 going on 29 years. She started organizing the shows herself the following year.
Launching the 2012 series of Phil Ochs Song Nights at the Stone Temple Coffeehouse in Quincy this evening, performers from across the folk music spectrum will be singing Phil’s songs and a few of their own as well. Musicians include Kim and Reggie Harris, Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino of Magpie, John Flynn, and SONiA Rutstein, co-founder of the band disappear fear.
Normally, says Sonny, she produces three such events in the Spring and three in the Fall. But this year, she estimates, at least eighteen are planned throughout the country.
OMB Audio: Sonny Ochs says she’s not sure there’s more “urgency” today to perform Phil’s topical music but certainly “his songs are just as relevant as they were forty years ago.” (:47)
“I have a load of shows this year. More so than ever before,” says Sonny. “It just fell in that way, it’s really bizarre.”
What’s not bizarre is how many of the performers express feelings of pride when Sonny Ochs seeks them out for these shows. Most already have performed covers of Phil’s songs on their own albums and on stage.
Baltimore native SONiA Rutstein, who has performed as disappear fear, the band, and solo, since the mid 1980’s, says she learned how to trust her writing skills by listening to Phil Ochs.
“I didn’t really trust my talent, my voice, to create a symphony, to create a pop song or anything, but I did trust myself to write a song [about] something that I wanted to say. And in that way, Phil Ochs really opened that door for me…because his music seemed to be exactly that way as well.
He had something to say and he said it…whether he sold ten vinyl albums or ten million, that wasn’t the essence.
The most important thing was to create the song of what he wanted you to hear. But mostly, what he needed to say, and hopefully those paths would meet.”
OMB Audio: SONiA describes how she was influenced by Phil Ochs (:58)
In addition to performances at the Song Nights over the years, SONiA released an album last September of Ochs covers called “Get Your Phil.” Sung with her sister and disappear fear collaborator, CiNDY Frank, the record includes some of Phil Ochs’ strongest anti-war messages (“Is There Anybody Here” and “I Aint Marching Anymore”) as well as his anthem to activism, “When I’m Gone.”
Phil Ochs committed suicide in 1976 following a long battle with depression.
It’s not a prerequisite to be an overtly political songwriter in order to appear at the Ochs Song night, but it seems to help. Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino (Magpie) have been performing at these shows longer than anyone else. With album titles such as “Working My Life Away,” “Living Planet,” “Raise Your Voice,” and their tribute to civil-war era abolitionist John Brown, the duo shares a kindred spirit with Ochs.
John Flynn, whose most recent album is called “End of the Beginning,” includes a song he dedicates to participants in pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt and the #Occupy movement, “Democracy (The Weed).”
Many of Phil’s songs could serve as rallying cries for the 99 percent. For the most part, however, occupiers on Wall Street, in Boston, and around the globe, have embraced younger, more contemporary songwriters. David Rovics and Talib Kwali come to mind. On the other hand, veterans such as Lou Reed, Tom Morello, Amanda Palmer, and Bill Frisell have stated their public support for the movement and performed at Occupy encampments.
Sonny Ochs says she wishes the millennial generation, many of whom support the agenda of the occupy movements, would come out for the song nights.
Reggie Harris, along with his wife and musical partner Kim Harris, have been playing the Phil Ochs Song Nights for many years. He too has witnessed audiences at these shows getting more and more grey. They’ve noticed that enough years have passed that some long-time fans have started bringing their own children and grandchildren to these shows.
Harris agrees with Sonny Ochs that society at large could benefit from listening to the protest music of the 1960’s and to current political music as a way to put contemporary issues into context.
“The relevance of the Song Nights is not that they have become sort of a tribute to Phil, a performer who is no longer with us…(Sonny) has stated many times that she wants us to be cognizant of what’s going on around us and to really use song nights to address what’s present in the world.”
OMB Audio: Reggie Harris says it’s important to avoid turning the Phil Ochs Song Nigh into a museum piece but it’s critical to address issues of race and economics that affect people today (1:31)
Through their songs and words, Reggie says he and Kim plan on addressing the palpable tension over race relations as people try to make sense of the violence in this country from Tulsa to Sanford to New Orleans and everywhere in-between.
The 2012 Phil Ochs Song Night Series, produced by sister Sonia (Sonny) Ochs begins tonight at the United First Parish Unitarian Church in Quincy, MA. Over the weekend, many of the performers will travel to Portsmouth, RI, and Canton, CT, as the series continues.