On many Anti-War marches you will hear “Draft Dodger Rag” a sarcastic song about people who supported the Vietnam War but didn’t want to fight it. “Someone must go over there and that someone is not me”. The man who wrote that song was Phil Ochs and he was certainly not just a one song wonder. "Ochs was one of the finest singer/songwriters and political commentators of his time. " Tom Paxton.
Ochs was born 17th December 1940 into a country which was at war and where racial segregation was still an accepted fact of life in most of the US. The Ochs family was not political and only when he went to college did Phil become political.
By the late 1950’s the US was undergoing social change all across college campuses students were starting to question the ideas that governed their lives. In Ohio State University Jim Glover was the son of a political activist and he was Phil’s room-mate. Ochs was studying journalism at the time. His politics and music was formed by his interactions with Jim and Jim's father. Ochs own father suffered from bi-polar disorder and they were not close. After the he was turned down for the job of editor of the college newspaper because of his political views. He dropped out of college and fallowed his other passion music.
There was a folk music revival at the time Bob Dylan was undoubtedly the most successful of these. The most famous protest of the song is probably “Blowing in the Wind”. However if Dylan was the voice of the 1960’s generation (Dylan has always denied this), Ochs was the heart of it.
Ochs political songs were journalistic in style and listening to them is one of the best history lessons you will ever get. He sung about everything from civil rights, the blacklists, poverty, workers-rights and war.
Throughout the 1960's Ochs sung at anti-war rallies, labour events and black civil rights events. However Ochs was not content to just be a singer for the movement he actually travelled to the southern united states and involved himself in the marches as well as the music. In 1967 he released a song called “The War is Over” and with a group of activists held a street protest where they ran through the streets of New York telling everyone that the war was over.
At the 1968 Democratic conference he was part of a group called the Youth International Party the YIPI's. Ochs purchased a Pig (Pigasus) and ran it as a presidential candidate even demanding secret service protection for Pigasus. The stunt was not merely a piece of theatre it had a serious political point that there was no choice for an anti-war presidential candidate.
The atmosphere around the Democratic conference was extremely hostile and Chicago's mare Daily had given the police sweeping powers to prevent protest. Ochs was one of the few singers to defy the threats and sung in Lincoln Park. When he sung his song “I ain't marching any more” Lincoln park was lit-up as the crowd burned their draft cards.
The police responded to the protests with baton charges and tear-gas. The brutality of the police response shocked Ochs and he later stated that “something amazing died in Chicago America”
After the Election of Nixon in 1968 Ochs called for a political movement which appealed to working class Americans and recognised that this was what got Nixon elected. In 1970 he travelled to south America to look at the protest movements there. During this trip Ochs befriended the Chilean singer Victor Jara. Ochs continued to travel and in 1972 while in Tanzania he was attacked and nearly strangled in the course of a robbery. The attack permanently damaged his vocal cords affecting his singing. By this time his mental health had deteriorated and he was having difficulty writing songs.
On September 11the 1973 there was a coup in Chilea and Victor Jara was murdered. At this time Ochs was going through a depression but still managed to organise a benefit gig for the victims of the Coup.
He even arranged for Bob Dylan to attend the concert by sitting Dylan down and reading him the entire Inauguration speech of Salvador Allende. As well as raising money this gig had the political effect of laying the coup at the feet of Henry Kissenger.
By 1975 Ochs career was foundering and he had never been the success he hoped to be. He organised a concert to celebrate the end of the Vietnam war and sung “The War is Over”. He suffered a manic episode shortly after this and started referring to himself as John Butler Train. When this episode ended he was devisated by the way he had behaved and despite the efforts of his family and friends he hanged himself on 9th April 1976.
The life of Phil Ochs shows that music has a huge part to play in the anti-war movement.