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Phil Ochs was among the best songwriters ever, particularly among the segment of the songwriting profession we classify as topical, politically-oriented, or “protest music,” as the form was condescendingly dubbed by the media in the 1960’s. Phil began his career as a musician when the Civil Rights movement was still young, at the very beginning of the Sixties. He wrote songs about the social movements he participated in, in various ways, to varying degrees, particularly the movement against the US war in Vietnam.
Throughout Phil’s twenties — that is, throughout the 1960’s — social movement activity in the US (and much of the rest of the world, for lots of different reasons) grew. It was a period of constant tumult and change of all sorts, and Phil’s style of music was probably more popular in the early Sixties than in the later part of the decade, with louder, more electric instruments being more dominant in the scene, and on the FM airwaves. But regardless of various career ups and downs — and despite what was later demonstrated to be an organized campaign conducted by the FBI against a variety of musicians, including Phil — he continued to write, record, tour and perform throughout the United States and occasionally elsewhere, throughout the period.
In the early 1970’s a lot of things were happening that were supposedly affecting the antiwar movement’s size and scope, such as the massacres of protesters at Kent and Jackson state universities, as well as the scaling back of the presence of ground troops in Vietnam, since so many of them were refusing to fight anyway, and fragging their officers instead. (If you don’t happen to know what “fragging” means, please look it up, you’ll be glad you did.)
I was only a little kid at the time, so I don’t speak from lived experience so much as from a lot of strong hunches and hearsay on this point, but looking back, my impression is what most profoundly took the wind out of the sails of the movement that became to be known as “The Sixties” — which really lasted until the mid-Seventies, as a massive-scale social movement across the US — was the second election of Richard Nixon to the White House.
Regardless of what everyone in the movement might have known about the corruption of politics in the US or about how rigged the electoral system was in favor of the capitalist, imperialist establishment of whichever party, despite the fact that people knew that Nixon’s reelection was largely predicated on the Democratic party leadership sabotaging their own candidate’s presidential campaign, the fact was that a very large percentage of the American public had just reelected Richard Nixon. To the extent that many people within the movement were not just having a love-in, but were intent on winning the hearts and minds of the American public in favor of not dropping millions more bombs onto southeast Asia every year, the reelection of Richard Nixon was intensely depressing.
Certainly looking at the many wonderful albums Phil Ochs put out between the early Sixties and into the Seventies, the tenor and the themes of his songs in the early Seventies seem to clearly reflect what I’m talking about. Phil tried to have something to say about the reelection of Richard Nixon, and it was some of his weakest, least inspiring songwriting. A day before my 9th birthday, on April 9th, 1976, Phil Ochs hanged himself.
I know a lot of people who knew Phil, I’ve read two biographies about him and listened to all of his music a lot. So I realize these things are always complicated, and there were lots of other factors at play. But the connection between what felt to many like the death of a social movement that had once been so full of promise and possibility and the death of Phil Ochs would be hard to overstate. It’s an easy connection to make just from listening to his music, especially his live shows from the early Seventies, and it’s a connection made only more concrete the more you look into it.
I think about Phil Ochs’s life and death often, and I know that in the circles I travel in, I’m not alone in that. I know other people with similar life trajectories, and I’m not alone in that, either. When anyone is really tied up in something — a social movement, a profession, a relationship, a country — and then that social movement or relationship ends, or they lose their job, or they have to flee the country of their birth, this can be profoundly upsetting.
While I’d like to mention at this point that despite the subject matter, this is not a plea for help and I’m not feeling the least bit suicidal, it has recently been occurring to me that there are certain established patterns here worth discussing, which have taken on particular relevance lately.
One of the major themes in the world of pandemic music news for much of the planet has been about how normally-touring musicians who have been forced to stay home have been doing there, often by taking the opportunity presented by free time and unemployment money to do a lot of writing and recording. Others talked about being depressed and feeling isolated and having writers’ block, so circumstances and responses to them have certainly varied a lot. But a lot of people produced a lot of music during the pandemic, and probably spent more time and money doing that than they normally might, because they had both of those commodities at their disposal. My own case as far as recording projects was a classic example. After receiving the windfall from the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, I spent about half the money on three different album projects, each involving hiring musicians and recording studios and such, all during the first half of 2021.
Unpacking this whole phenomenon a bit, I would suggest based on my own personal experience that all the recording that’s been going on can be at least to some extent separated from all the writing that’s been going on. I have no idea how universal this phenomenon is, but I do know that a lot of people strongly identify with and share my understanding of the life and death of Phil Ochs, and a lot of people have a deeply-felt understanding of the emotional impact that a fading social movement can have on its former participants and admirers alike, and we’re in one of those cycles again, it seems.
I spent much of 2020 writing at least a song a week, about the news of the world and especially about the many events on the streets of the United States going on — the killings, the protests, the mutual aid projects, and so much more. I had plenty of material for the albums I put out after the PUA windfall came in, which didn’t actually happen until the end of 2020 (a typical, seven-month wait for the checks to arrive), which is why those bigger recording projects all happened in 2021, not in 2020 itself. I’m pretty sure a lot of other artists did big projects in early 2021 for the same reasons.
For the last half of 2021, though, the songwriting has slowed down dramatically for me, as my more ardent fans have occasionally observed, sometimes with concern. While averaging a song a month might not be considered writer’s block, it’s definitely a trickle compared to what was going on for the previous year or so.
What this is about, I’m realizing only in the past few weeks, is a reaction to circumstances. Those circumstances are familiar ones for me, but they look so different in the current context that they’re a little harder to recognize.
When social movements taper down and come to some kind of conclusion — whether because they won, lost, imploded, or whatever else — this is not generally announced. The birth of a social movement is often easier to identify, or at least it seems to be, when something dramatic happens and the fires lighting up the skies above the police station in Minneapolis are headline news everywhere. When it dies, it does so quietly.
I saw this happen before, though it was hard to identify exactly what was going on at the time. Social movements often overlap and intersect, as was the case with the global justice movement that hit the world stage in Seattle in 1999, the Palestine solidarity movement that rose up after the massacre at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in September, 2000, and the global antiwar movement that came together in the wake of 9/11.
By the end of 2005, little remained of any of these three once-thriving, once-ubiquitous social movements in the US. These social movements in which I lived my life during those years, touring constantly, playing at protests and doing gigs related to them night after night, year after year, for so many years.
In those years following 2005, for me, the focus largely moved to other countries. Social movements and music scenes are very national in nature, as with so many other things. A lot of what is going on in a given country is specific to that country, in case that’s not obvious. A lot of trends are global or transnational, and a lot of others are not.
But still, I was thinking a lot about Phil at that time, more than usual. No one announced these movements would end. There was another protest with hundreds of thousands of people in the fall of 2005 in DC, protesting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and then there were no more big protests like that, and the local peace groups began to vanish, along with the peace and justice centers, infoshops, indymedia collectives, and so on.
In retrospect, what probably caused this antiwar movement to implode in 2005 was perhaps much the same thing that had led to the implosion of the movement three decades earlier. George W Bush may not have won the popular vote, but a whole lot of the American electorate had just voted for this man again. After he brought the US into two major foreign occupations, after all the lies that led to those wars, after all the civilians and soldiers killed, tens of millions of people had voted to elect this guy for a second term, just like they did with Nixon in 1972. (Not that the opposition party was running an antiwar candidate against Bush.)
In those years after the end of the antiwar movement of the early 2000’s, I found plenty to do with a guitar, but there were two years during which I barely wrote a single topical song about social movement activities or current events, during Bush’s second term. It was just a largely depressing time in the US, in terms of any kind of sustained social movement activity. I wrote essays and children’s songs, but little else, for quite a while there. While the number of musicians whose lives were tied up in these movements may have been too small for much of a survey, I know I’m not alone in my reactions to what was effectively the end of these movements.
Regardless of how things went down in the 1970’s or in the 2000’s, though, the same sort of phenomenon seems to be happening now. Whatever we call the movement in question, whether it was ultimately finished off mostly because of police brutality or mostly because of all the back-stabbing or for any number of other reasons isn’t the point here. What’s shared in common is the rapid fading of what was for a time a large and thriving social movement. Part of what makes it all a bit different to make sense of compared to previous movements involves the circumstances of the pandemic.
While I and many other musicians produced a lot of music in 2020, we were mostly doing it at home, and releasing music online in various forms. Many of us were doing a lot of livestreaming, and connecting with the public — with our friends, fans, and with social movements happening on the streets as well — but to a huge extent, these connections were happening online.
While there was not live music going on at a lot of the protests in 2020 or 2021, because of the pandemic or for other reasons, there was a lot of music. For me — taking my example as one of many — this took the form of regularly hearing from people who were listening to my songs, often songs I just wrote and recorded in my living room, and they were playing them through speakers at protests in downtown Portland, or while attending to the barricades around the Red House in north Portland, or at a rally in Berlin. There was, in short, a constant back-and-forth between me and the people and events I was writing about, even if I was not traveling and singing at protests, like I would have been doing under more normal circumstances, when any of that sort of thing is going on in the wider world, such as music venues being open, etc.
For me — and for Phil and others — writing songs is largely a function of being part of a movement that is in one way or another calling for such songs to be written, and using them. It’s a profoundly interactive process, even when it’s largely happening online, during a global pandemic. When that stops happening so much, the songwriting slows down a lot, too.
People who aren’t movement musicians often assume that bad politicians make for good songwriting. They assume that what we thrive on is political corruption, wars, poverty, and other outrages. I don’t think that’s generally the case. We thrive on writing songs that seem like they might be able to play a part in a social movement, that might nudge things along in the right direction somehow, that might communicate ideas that need to be communicated within the movement, that might inspire participants to keep going. Most of us are not just commenting on things for the sake of writing this week’s column, though if we were, that would be admirable. For most of us, the times produce the art, which is then being created in order to act as a mirror, because that kind of communication is powerful — a mirror that more resembles a hammer, under the right circumstances, to paraphrase Brecht.
As I’m identifying what I think is the source of my currently uninspired state in terms of songwriting, I thought it worth sharing, because I know I’m not alone in this, and because I know that having been through it before, perhaps my insights on this subject might be helpful for others who are having this experience for the first time. I can’t predict the future, but if you stick around, it’s quite likely there will be more social movements — maybe even ones we can sing for in public on a regular basis.
If my thoughts might possibly play the slightest part in helping another movement-oriented artist come to terms with the current state of reality without giving in to despair, then they were worth sharing.