Tuesday, 20 March 2012

On Joan Baez and Phill Ochs

This past month the PBS series "American Masters" featured specials on folk singers Joan Baez and Phil Ochs (they also had ones on Cab Calloway, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye, but that's another subject). While watching them I was reminded of something.

I was never a particular fan of their purist brand of folk; too pristine and stately for my liking, and not a lot of fun, I prefer my folk either rough and rootsy or the elaborate garage-folk rock of The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield. However one has to have nothing but admiration for their true commitment to the ideals of the original folk movement, often at great personal cost and risk.


Both of them, especially Baez, not only supported the great battles for civil rights and peace with the usual public relations but also by putting themselves on the line literally. In the early sixties when concerts in the deep south were segregated as a matter of law, she insisted on contracts that specified integrated audiences, or risk cancelling the whole tour. When black students attempting to integrate schools in the south were threatened by stone throwing mobs, Baez came down to personally escort them to school. The sullen mobs backed off. A committed Quaker pacifist, she insisted on repeatedly advising draftees on how to resist the draft. Which got her arrested repeatedly. Every time she got out she went right back to the draft offices and resumed counselling draft resisters. As did her husband who got a longer stretch. She went to Vietnam while Hanoi was under constant bombardment by US B52's. She went to Cambodian refugee camps under the reach of shell fire. She went to Chile to stand with the Mothers of The Disappeared. She went to Sarajevo while it was under bombardment, going to a market that was a known target of Serbian shells, and sang "Amazing Grace".


All the while Baez never once lost her temper or raised her voice. She remained the very embodiment of her friend Martin Luther King's ideals. And she never seemed to be in it for the publicity. In fact by her political activities, her insistence on placing activism ahead of touring and her refusal to compromise her musical style she gave up the kind of mainstream success she would surely have had. It's hard to remember now that she actually started her career off by getting on the cover of Time Magazine and her firsts two albums were million sellers. She was a very big star, and an earthy/angelic sex symbol to boot. Most artists would sell their very souls for that kind of attention, she put it to work for public justice while keeping her artistic vision intact. I still have little interest in most of her music, aside from her Nashville album with the classic version of "The night they drove Old Dixie down", but it's hard to see how anyone could have have set higher standards for any "political" artist.


Phil Ochs did not have the strength or discipline of Baez. Probably bipolar and a hard drinker as well, Ochs flirted with stardom and the attention it promised. But he always came back to the ideals of the original sixties folks scene. He worked himself to exhaustion for all the right causes and ruined his health. He organized rallies, events and demos but didn't hog all the glory. He passed up plenty of chances to promote his career to promote peace. He lost good friends in the Chile coup. By the time the Vietnam war ended and Watergate brought down Nixon Ochs was a broken-down wreck, sick, tired, depressed, often drunk and confused and overweight from overeating and meds that did not seem to work. He killed himself in 1976. The musical output of Ochs was more varied than Baez but he was no less insistent on following his muse wherever it led. "I ain't marching", When I'm gone", "Another age" and "James Dean of Indiana" are his best songs. Today Billy Bragg and Bruce Springsteen sing both his praises and his songs.


There have been no shortage of singers, actors and writers who will attach themselves to causes. Some, if not most, are no doubt sincere. Some are opportunists and poseurs. Some are both. Even the sincere one have a pretty easy time of it these days. In fact I would say the same about plenty of full time "activist" types. It is easy to get cynical. Sometimes it is good to remember the real thing. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Harry McClintock were it. So were Joan Baez and Phil Ochs.



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