Folk singer Phil Ochs left us with a heartbreakingly small discography. His seven albums only hint at the depth of his insight and wit, which is why his songs are so often performed by others. “There But for Fortune,” made famous by Joan Baez in 1964, is one of several of Ochs’ songs overdue for a revival.
The message of this song, heard here from Ochs’ last traditional folk album, Phil Ochs In Concert, is deeply relevant to our contemporary Black Lives Matter movement, although he does not explicitly mention race in the song. While Ochs often exercises his satirical side in his songs, “There but for Fortune” is distinguished by its sincere empathy.
Another often-recorded song by Ochs is “Love me, I’m a Liberal,” which also made its debut on his live album.
Its lyrics are often interpreted anew, as for instance on a 1994 recording by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon or a 2008 single by Kevin Devine, but the message always remains a criticism of center-left politics and faux liberalism. We’d sure welcome a new version of this song today.
We’ve read that Phil Ochs in Concert is one of those ‘fake’ live albums, because the recordings from the New York and Boston concerts weren’t entirely use-able and studio recordings were overdubbed with audience sounds. This potential inauthenticity isn’t as significant considering so many of the songs didn’t appear elsewhere on Ochs’ albums (a studio recording of “There but for Fortune” was released on a Vanguard Records compilation in 1964). One of the songs introduced on this album is “When I’m Gone,” which could be seen as the bridge between Ochs’ early political folk career and his later works as a more sentimental singer on albums like the ironically named Greatest Hits. This song is also often performed by folk singers (an especially beautiful interpretation appears on Ani Difranco’s 2000 EP Swing Set) but Ochs’ own recording takes on depth in the wake of his tragic passing in 1976. Like the stark cover of his album Rehearsals for Retirement, “When I’m Gone” is strikingly morbid, but unlike much of his music it offers an insight into the optimism buried deep in Ochs’ soul.
Folk music today is often frustratingly apolitical, and we ache for an Ochs out there today. We’ve heard enough well-heeled suburbanites sing about riding rails n’ ramblin’ to last us a lifetime, and we’d like it once in a while they’d say something about the shitstorm which is this election cycle or our collective denial of an entire generation of black men. Or the shocking extent to which we as a society have apparently decided we’re not going to do anything about climate change. Or the fact that the last verse Buffy Saint Marie’s “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone” can be updated with a new alarming injustice to indigenous people basically every year. Instead folk music today seems to be the music of introverted heartbreak, self-loathing and cultural numbness. Phil Ochs probably wouldn’t move a single unit in today’s market.