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Phil Ochs- I Ain't Marching Anymore (1965)

Updated: Sep 6


Ain’t Marching Anymore (Elektra Records)

Recorded 1964

Released February 1965

Phil Ochs is among the most important and gifted political songwriters, singers, guitarists, and activists. Sadly he has been widely disregarded despite being one of the significant counterculture figures in popular music. Phil Ochs was born in 1940 in El Paso, Texas, into a middle-class Jewish family. His father, Jack, was a medical school student forced to leave his studies behind when he was drafted into the army during World War II. As a medical physician, he treated soldiers at the Battle of the Bulge, and having witnessed the horrors of war, he was deeply affected. His mental state and bipolar disorder affected his medical career. As a result of these conditions, he changed jobs regularly, and the family was forced to change locations due to these work-related issues. Therefore Phil Ochs’ childhood was split between towns such as Far Rockaway and Perrysburg, New York, as well as Columbus, Ohio. As a result of his condition, Phil Ochs's father was hospitalized several times due to his depression, and it’s no question that seeing his father's suffering deeply affected the singer and his anti-war stances.

As a teen Phil Ochs was a talented classical clarinet player, which led him to further his training at the Capital University Conservatory of Music in Ohio at only 16. Although he could have likely had a career as a symphonic musician, Ochs discovered rock and country music in his late teens and became inspired to move in that direction. After attending Staunton Military Academy, Ochs enrolled in Ohio State, where he studied journalism and became interested in politics, notably the Cuban Revolution. While at the university, Ochs became inspired by the folk music of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. He then began learning guitar and writing music in the folk style. In his senior year Ochs, who was angered that he was not made editor of the college newspaper, dropped out of Ohio State and moved to New York’s Greenwich Village in 1962 to become a folk singer and activist. Ochs became a key member of the thriving folk scene and began to write topical songs based on articles he read in the paper.

Starting in 1963, Ochs began to gain some notoriety with performances at the Newport Folk Festival and 1964 when he performed at the Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall, and Town Hall. In 1964 he released his first album, All The News That’s Fit To Sing (Elecktra).

I Ain’t Marching Any More

In 1965, Ochs released twelve original tracks for his sophomore album I Ain’t Marching Any More (Elektra), which was praised by folkies for its intelligence and statements on a variety of social and political issues such as civil rights, nuclear proliferation, and the challenges faced by the working class. Bob Dylan is quoted as saying, “I just can’t keep up with Phil. He just keeps getting better and better.”

Following the Release

Ochs continued to make albums throughout the 60s and remained involved in political rallies and social causes. Along with Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, he was involved with the Youth International Party (The Yippies), which took a heavy anti-war stance. In the early 1970s, Ochs became further disenfranchised by the state of the country and decided to move away from political music and began performing music in the style of Elvis. Ochs went on tour wearing a ridiculous gold suit, backed by a rock band, singing his material along with medleys of songs by Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, and Merle Haggard. This move was met with hostility from his core fans. During this period, he also abused drugs and alcohol and fell into periods of depression.

Ochs then went to South America, where he became involved with new social causes and was arrested in Argentina. From then on, his life and career were a series of ups and downs, and Ochs traveled frequently. While in Tanzania, he was attacked and strangled by robbers, which damaged his voice and further played into his depression. Many of his international friends who were activists were either imprisoned or killed, and Ochs remained unstable and became frantic and erratic. In mid-1975, Ochs took on the identity of John Butler Train and told people that his new alter ego had murdered Ochs. Around this time, he was living on the streets, and although many tried to help him get psychiatric help, Ochs refused. In 1976, he settled in Far Rockaway, New York, where he stayed with his sister and rarely left the house, and eventually committed suicide by hanging at the age of 35. After his death, it was revealed that the FBI had a file of about 500 pages on Ochs.

Side 1

(+ means "recommended track" and * means released as a single)

Track 1- “I Ain’t Marching Any More.” This is one of Ochs most signature songs and a powerful anti-war statement written from the perspective of a fictional soldier who has fought in every US War from the War of 1812 to Vietnam. That would be a very old soldier and, of course, impossible. In the chorus, Ochs pulls no punches with the lyric, “It’s always the old who lead us to the war, always the young to fall. The average age of people joining the military in the US is 19 years old, and the average age of US soldiers is 23. As of 2022, the average age of a US member of Congress is about 58, and a US senator is 64.” The classic version of the song, released on the album and all songs on the original LP, features only Ochs playing the guitar and singing. A later electric version was recorded with the addition of the band Blue Project which included Roy Blumenfeld on drums, Danny Kalb, Steve Katz on guitar, Andy Kulberg on bass, and Al Kooper. Kooper and Katz would eventually play with the band Blood Sweat and Tears. The electric version has been added to the reissues. Regarding the music, Ochs proves right away that he is skilled as a folk guitarist, and his voice has a rich clarity and pleasant timbre. By playing solo, Ochs can perform with a certain rhythmic looseness and speed up and slow down tempos and strumming patterns at will to accent words and phrases. (+)

Track 2- “In The Heat Of The Summer” is a powerful protest song that discusses racial tensions, riots, and the struggles during the 1960s. The lyrics speak of police violence, looting, chaos, and destruction of a city besieged by violence. It's a compelling song that is flawlessly delivered. The Harlem Riots of 1964 are seen as the beginning of a wave of riots that would engulf New York City. More riots took place in cities throughout the country until calming in 1968, with the last being the Martin Luther King Assassination Riots of 1968. The riots resulted in over 150 deaths and over 20,000 arrests, and devastating property damage.

Track 3- “Draft Dodger Rag.” From 1948 until 1973, young men were drafted to fill vacancies in the US armed forces that could not be filled through voluntary means. In the song, a young drafty gives every excuse to the draft board as to why he is unfit for duty with reasons such as poor vision, flat feet, a ruptured spleen, allergies and asthma, back pain, addiction to multiple drugs, his college enrollment, his disabled aunt, and that he carries a purse. As the song ends, the young man tells the sergeant he'll be the first to volunteer for "a war without blood or gore." Contrasting the severe meaning of this protest song is the music and singing, which is performed as a medium uptempo light sing-along ragtime style. (+)

Track 4- “That’s What I Want To Hear” discusses the struggles of poverty and hunger. Throughout the seven years from 1959 to 1966, the number of Americans living below the poverty line was reduced from 39 million to 30 million while the population continued to grow by 2 ½ million per year. Nearly 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, accounting for an estimated 12 percent of the population. (+)

Track 5- “That Was The President.” On Nov 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Upon learning the news, Ochs, a strong supporter of Kennedy, was deeply saddened. His wife revealed that it was the first time she saw him cry. He said to her, "I think I’m going to die.” That night, he wrote a song as a eulogy to the deceased president showing his admiration for the man and his sense of sadness. There have been four US presidents assassinated including Abraham Lincoln (1865), James Garfield (1881), William McKinley (1901), and John F. Kennedy. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt (1912) and Ronald Reagan (1981) survived assassination attempts. In the case of Roosevelt, he was shot in the chest while campaigning, but the bullet first went through a steel-eyeglasses case and a thick 50-page speech he was carrying in his jacket before lodging into his chest. He went on to deliver the speech before seeking medical attention. The bullet remained in his chest for the remainder of his life. (+)

Track 6- “Iron Lady” is Och’s commentary on the death penalty and tells the story of a man's final moments as he is brought to the electric chair. Ochs takes an anti-death penalty stance with the lyrics, “Stop the murder, deter the crimes away. Only killing shows that killing doesn't pay,” “Yes, that's the kind of law it takes. Even though we make mistakes and sometimes send the wrong man to the chair.” The first use of the electric chair came in 1890, and after over 4,300 electrocutions, the last person to die by electrocution came in 2002. In 1946, convicted murderer Willie Francis was set to be electrocuted, but despite being terribly shocked, he survived because an intoxicated guard improperly set up the chair. Six days later, they tried it again, and it worked.

Track 7- “The Highwayman” is a song adapted from a poem written by Alfred Noyes, published in 1906. A highwayman is a horseback robber who holds up strangers at gunpoint. In the story, a highwayman visits his love, an innkeeper's daughter, and speaks of a plot to get some gold and promises to return. Although he did not return, soldiers did and arrested Bess, the innkeeper's daughter. She then killed herself with her musket. The Highwayman heard of her death and returned to avenge her but was shot down. Ochs often spoke of suicide in his lyrics and with friends, and in hindsight, it should have been more of a red flag.

Side 2

Track 1- “Links on the Chain”- Many folkies like Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Phil Ochs often wrote about the need for labor unions to protect the working man from the greed and power of big corporations and corrupt bosses. After unions came into existence, the lives of many working-class people were changed. However, labor unions became too powerful and corrupted like any powerful organization. In the lyrics, Ochs discusses the struggles and pushback between the big corporations and the union. Ochs' lyrics make the analogy that for a chain to be strong, all links must be solid, just as a labor union needs all its members to be committed to the message and the fight for the union to remain strong. As of 2022, 10% of all US workers are part of a union. This number has fallen over the last 40 years. In 1983 20% of all US workers were in a union. (+)

Track 2- “Hills of West Virginia.” In this eight-verse song, Ochs speaks of a drive through West Virginia and the state's beauty with lines like “The red sun of the morning was smiling through the trees. The fog hugged the road like a cloudy, cloudy sea.” As the narrator and his companions continued their drive, they also encountered some scenes of poverty. Ochs recites, “Among all the wealth of the beauty that we passed, there were many old shacks a-growing older. And we saw the broken bottles laying on the grass. When we drove through the hills of West Virginia.” Like all states, West Virginia has its problems. It ranks worst in the nation on physical and mental health and activity limitations due to poor physical or mental health. Statistically, West Virginia has the highest obesity rate in the country. Their economy is widely dependent on coal production, and with a move away from using coal as an energy source, their overall economy has seen struggles.

Track 3- “The Men Behind The Guns” is an interpretation of a poem by John Rooney, a lawyer and part-time poet. The song effectively humanizes the soldiers who go to war; estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout history range from 150 million to 1 billion.

Track 4- “Talking Birmingham Jam.” In the song, Ochs talks more than sings, which is part of the folk tradition. In the mid-1960s, Birmingham, Alabama, was known as one of the most racist areas in the US. In 1963 Birmingham made national headlines due to racial violence and unrest. On May 2, 1963, more than 1000 black children left school and peacefully protested racial segregation. On May 10, 1963, a “Birmingham Truce Agreement” was signed to allow partial desegregation. The next day Martin Luther King, Jr. was forced to leave the city due to death threats. A bomb was thrown into the window of his house and another at the Gaston Motel in a room where he was staying. As a result of the attempt on King's life, protesters took to the street leading to violence and the hospitalization of 50 wounded. This event was known as the Birmingham Riots. On June 11, 1963, Governor George Wallace, a vocal racist, stood at the door with the national guard to block two African American students from attending the University of Alabama. President Kennedy stepped in, and Wallace eventually relented, allowing the students to enter. On September 15, 1963, the KKK bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, killing four young black girls. These are just a few examples of Birmingham’s long history of racism. Like many of his folk brethren, Ochs fought hard to fight racism and helped raise awareness through songs like this.

Track 5- “Ballad of the Carpenter” was written by Ewan MacColl and tells the story of Jesus’ vision and death. In the lyrics, Jesus is portrayed as a visionary who was killed by the rich for trying to support the poor. These lyrics can be considered a commentary against the corruption and greed of the wealthy and large corporations. Jesus may represent the leader and organizer of a labor union. Although he was born Jewish, Phil Ochs was not religious.

Track 6- “Days of Decision” is another powerful protest song urging our leaders to take quick action against racial violence. Ochs pulls no punches here. “Dark is the danger that's knocking on the door.” “Now, the mobs of anger are roamin' the streets. There's been warnings of fire, warnings of flood. Now there's the warnin' of the bullet and the blood. From the three bodies buried in the Mississippi mud” (a reference to the June 1964 murders of civil rights activists James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner). “Days of Decision” is another example of Ochs's genius as a protest songwriter. (+)

Track 7- “Here’s To The State of Mississippi” is a vicious attack on the state known for its extreme racist activities. Ochs urges Mississippi to find “itself another country to be part of.” With each verse, Ochs calls out different community members, getting more specific with his attacks. He first calls out the state and then the people, schools, police, judges, government, laws, and churches. There is no symbolism or innuendo in his lyrics. It's a clear statement in which he urges the state to stop supporting racism.

In Conclusion

I Ain’t Marching Anymore is one of the greatest protest albums ever presented. Ochs’ takes on many social and political issues head-on and delivers his poignant lyrics. Musically his acoustic guitar playing is solid, and his vocals are clear and compelling. In addition to his inspired lyrics, Ochs proves to be a strong writer of melodies. Ochs needs to be better remembered for his message and music. Today the world can use another Phil Ochs.

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