In 1971, Yale was in the midst of a bitter strike. The administration refused to bargain with Local 35. Students, with their memories still fresh of the previous year’s May Day, with National Guardsmen in the street and tear gas in the courtyards, reacted harshly, dumping food on the front lawn of the President’s house and leaving a mess in Commons for managers to clean.
It was the sort of environment that Phil Ochs loved. He flew in from California one weekend to sing a benefit concert for the rapidly diminishing strike fund and to urge students not to falter in their support of workers.
How I would have loved to be in the audience of that concert. “I’ve read of other countries where the students take a stand/ They’ve even helped to overthrow the leaders of the land,” he probably sang. “Now I wouldn’t go so far to say we’re also learning how/ But when I’ve got something to say, sir, I’m going to say it now.”
Ochs was among the most important protest singers of the 1960s, turning out his best work during that time. He has been largely forgotten, except by a famously obsessive, albeit small, fan base, but in his time he was at the center. He was in Greenwich Village as the folk scene there heated up in the early and mid-’60s. He was the most prolific contributor to Broadside, an influential magazine of protest music. His FBI file ran more than 400 pages. He bought the pig that the Yippies nominated for president outside the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
Phil loved action. He was energized by politics. Even as he slid further and further into depression, he surfaced for long enough to organize a benefit concert after Augusto Pinochet’s coup against Salvador Allende in Chile and to celebrate the end of the Vietnam War.
But Saigon and Allende weren’t enough. On April 6, 1976, after struggling with a cycle of alcoholism, depression and paranoia for almost a decade, Phil hanged himself in his sister’s house.
“And I won’t be laughing at the lies when I’m gone/ And I can’t question how or when or why when I’m gone/ Can’t live proud enough to die when I’m gone/ So I guess I’ll have to do it while I’m here.”
Exactly 25 years later, his sister Sonny will come to New Haven with a group of over 10 performers to put on one of her Phil Ochs Song Nights. On April 6 the United Church on the Green will host an impassioned memorial concert for Phil, a return of his music to New Haven after 30 years. Sonny and the singers will reaffirm Phil’s aphorism: “Ah, but in such an ugly time, the true protest is beauty.”
I think Phil would be energized at a time like now. Yale students and other New Haven residents are organizing busses to take protesters to Quebec City in April to rally against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a sort of NAFTA-on-steroids that threatens labor and environmental standards across the entire hemisphere. “We own half the world, oh say can you see/ And the name for our profits is democracy.”
Workers at Yale-New Haven hospital are enmeshed in a struggle, demanding their rights to organize a union without harassment. “For the wages were low and the hours were long/ And the labor was all I could bear — And you tell me it’s not mine to share.” Graduate teachers and researchers are similarly demanding neutrality as they organize their union.
There would have been so much for Phil to sing about.
There’s much to take from the life and work of Phil Ochs. Take his disdain for liberals who “love Puerto Ricans and Negros, just as long as they don’t move next door.” Take his commitment to helping: “I’m gonna give all I’ve got to give, cross my heart, and I hope to live.” Take from his life a lesson about watching out for your friends, making sure they don’t end in the same sort of self-destructive cycle that Phil did.
But make sure to take something. “Time takes her toll, and the memory fades/ But his glory is growing in the magic that he made.” Take that magic and learn from him.
Jacob Remes is a junior in Saybrook College. His columns appear on alternate Thursdays.