Phil Ochs was an American troubadour who passionately believed that he and his music could help change the world. Many of his songs became anthems for the anti-war movement during the turbulent 1960s, and his music continues to influence and inspire songwriters today – 35 years after his death. “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune,” a new film about him, features commentary by Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Tom Hayden, Christopher Hitchens, Sean Penn, Pete Seeger, Peter Yarrow and others – interspersed with performance clips of Ochs. Described as “enthralling and fascinating” by Paper Magazine, the film paints what Entertainment Weekly calls “an essential portrait of an artist who ought to be better known.” Sonny Ochs, Phil’s sister and the host of a folk radio show on WRPI in upstate New York, shares some thoughts on her brother and on the documentary about him with AcousticMusicScene.com readers.Phil Ochs was my younger brother. He was an introverted young man who loved going to the movies to watch John Wayne, Audie Murphy and actors of that ilk during his early years. He became an excellent clarinet player while in junior high school. He was good at writing as well.
We grew up in an apolitical family, but when he went to college, he had a roommate named Jim Glover whose father was a socialist. Phil learned a lot from him and was able to wed his music to events of the day, thus becoming a topical songwriter. He won a guitar from Jim in a bet on the 1960 presidential election. This gave him the tool he needed to accompany his songs. The rest is history.
Phil went on to become a very prolific writer, but was brought down by manic depression, which runs in the male side of our family.
He ended up committing suicide in 1976, at the age of 35.
I have been producing Phil Ochs Song Nights since 1983. They take place mainly up and down the east coast, but also in the midwest, far west and Canada. The performers play Phil’s songs, but also their own to show that the art of topical songwriting is still alive and well. There is a sample Song Night on the home page of my website, www.sonnyochs.com.
A documentary about Phil, produced by Kenneth Bowser, opened at IFC in New York’s Greenwich Village on Jan. 5 and has received very good reviews. It is really interesting because it shows Phil against a background of the times, and it doesn’t try to hide his blemishes. It is very honest and strong which is why audiences seem to like it so much. It is my hope that more people will hear Phil’s music and be amazed at its relevancy 40 years after it was written. I am very proud of him!
“Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” continues its limited engagement at the IFC Center in New York and will be screened at select theatres across the U.S. and Canada over the next several months. More information on the film and where you may view it can be found at www.firstrunfeatures.com/philochs.