Ochs, Phillip David (1940–1976)

By: Bradley Shreve

Type: Biography

Published: December 5, 2006

Updated: January 6, 2021

Phillip David Ochs, singer and songwriter, was born on December 19, 1940, in El Paso. He was the son of Jacob "Jack" Ochs and Gertrude Ochs. Like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, Ochs was one of the most successful singer–songwriters to arise on the New York City folk-music scene in the 1960s. Plagued with depression throughout his short life, he wrote politically-charged songs that became protest anthems of that decade. He strongly opposed the war in Vietnam and supported the civil rights movement—two themes that dominated much of his music.

His father was of Polish–Jewish descent and served as a medical officer in the United States Army. Phil's mother, a native of Scotland, had met Jacob Ochs while he was attending medical school at the University of Edinburgh. Like many military families, the Ochses moved often. After living in San Antonio and Austin, they moved to Far Rockaway, New York, where Phil began his music education on the clarinet. He considered taking up the drums, but the confines of the family's four-room apartment led his parents and the neighbors to encourage him to stick with the clarinet.

After the family moved to Columbus, Ohio, Ochs refined his musical skills at the Capital University Conservatory of Music. Although he was only sixteen, he was one of the primary soloists for the conservatory. He continued his education at Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he played in the school's marching band. In the evenings he would sit in his dorm room and listen to the local radio station, which introduced him to country music performers such as Faron Young, Ernest Tubb, and Lefty Frizzell. He also became enamored of rock-and-roll, particularly the music of Elvis Presley.

After finishing his time at Staunton, Ochs headed back to Columbus and enrolled at Ohio State University. He studied journalism and landed a job writing for the student paper, The Lantern—an experience that sparked his interest in politics. He also developed a liking for the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and the legendary Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World, or "Wobblies," as they were called. Inspired by this music, Ochs learned the guitar and, along with his best friend, Jim Glover, formed a duo called the Sundowners.

Ochs left Ohio State without graduating, after which he worked in a club in Cleveland. There he opened for the Smothers Brothers and the Greenbriar Boys, among other feature acts. He then headed to New York City, where folk music was becoming increasingly popular. He began by playing at "hootenannies," the folkies' version of an open talent night. His reputation grew, and in 1963 he performed at the Newport Folk Festival. Shortly thereafter, his song "The Ballad of William Worthy" was featured on a folk-music album entitled The Broadside Ballads, Volume 1. He had married Alice Skinner in 1962; they had one daughter, Meegan, but the couple separated in 1965.

Through his music Ochs expressed his political and moral convictions; during the Christmas of 1963, for example, he headed to Kentucky to play for striking coal miners. The following year he joined the Mississippi Caravan of Music and traveled through the state, playing at black voter-registration drives. When the Caravan arrived in Mississippi shortly after the murder of three civil rights workers, they faced hostile White opposition. This experience led Ochs to write the song "Here's to the State of Mississippi"—an indictment of bigotry and racism. Ochs's songs hit a nerve with a growing politically-minded youth, and the Elektra Record Company signed him to a contract. His first album, All the News That's Fit to Sing, had only moderate success, but his second effort, I Ain't Marching Anymore, was hailed as a "folk classic."

Despite his newfound fame, Ochs still managed to write journalistic pieces for such publications as Sing Out! and Boston Broadside. Like his music, his writing expressed his political convictions. Because of his outspokenness, the Federal Bureau of Investigation opened a file on him, classifying him as a "security matter." As United States military involvement in Vietnam grew, Ochs became more critical. His songs "White Boots Marching in a Yellow Land" and "Cops of the World" displayed his increasing disillusionment with America. He frequently played at anti-war demonstrations and was instrumental in the formation of the Yippie party. In 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he performed at a Yippie-sponsored rally in Lincoln Park. The violence that followed the rally pushed Ochs, who suffered from bipolar disorder, into a deep depression. He contemplated quitting music, but instead responded by releasing the album Rehearsals for Retirement. A grim statement on war and peace, the album featured a backing band and orchestration—a departure from the pure "folk" of his earlier recordings.

In the 1970s Ochs's music became more eclectic, his lyrics less focused. In 1970 he released the album Greatest Hits, which, despite the title, contained only new material. He also traveled extensively, making treks through both South America and Africa. While staying in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, he was attacked and strangled. This attack, which Ochs believed was politically motivated, left his vocal chords permanently damaged. With his music career now essentially over, he became more actively involved in politics. In 1973, following Augusto Pinochet's coup d'etat in Chile, he organized a benefit concert for the country's refugees. The successful event featured Bob Dylan, Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and others.

In 1974 Ochs again became severely depressed. He continued to write on occasion, but was frustrated that his vocal chords never completely healed. He began to drink heavily, and his behavior became more and more erratic. He died by suicide in Far Rockaway, New York, on April 9, 1976. In the aftermath of his death, a number of compilations and live recordings have been released, most notably the three-CD compilation Farewells & Fantasies in 1997. The North American Folk Music and Dance Alliance honored Ochs with its Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, and the documentary Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune premiered at the Woodstock Film Festival in Woodstock, New York, in 2010. Ochs’s archives were donated by his daughter to the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 2014 .

Marc Eliot, Death of a Rebel (New York: Franklin Watts, 1989). Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: Muze, 1998). New York Times, December 22, 2010. Michael Schumacher, There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs (New York: Hyperion, 1996). Neal Walters and Brian Mansfield, eds., Music Hound Folk: The Essential Guide (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1998).

  • Journalism
  • Music
  • Genres (Folk)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Bradley Shreve, “Ochs, Phillip David,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 08, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/ochs-phillip-david.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

December 5, 2006
January 6, 2021

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