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|October 15, 2003||
Vol. 1, No. 131
Fifty Phil Ochs fans can't be wrong
By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent
Bob Dylan once said of his early 1960s Greenwich Village pal, the anti-war troubadour Phil Ochs, that he was not a folk singer but a journalist. Dylan meant it as a putdown.
And not a totally unjustified one, given that Ochs' first album was titled "All the News That's Fit to Sing."
Ochs could be biting (test your ideology against "Love Me I'm a Liberal" and you'll know what I mean) or sweet (the love song "Changes" has been recorded by nearly 40 artists.) He could be sarcastic ("Cops of the World" and "Small Circle of Friends") or brooding ("Pleasures of the Harbor" and "Crucifixion").
What he always was, however, was relevant. He wrote topical songs that rhymed where they were supposed to, told a story, and had a message.
Sound familiar? It's today's country music at its best. Here's Brad Paisley on America's cult of celebrity:
Someday I'm gonna be famous, do I have talent, well no
In "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" Alan Jackson tackles labor relations:
The sun is hot and that old clock is moving slow
Even at its most jingoistic (and it can certainly be that), the music is honest -- sometimes brutally so. Want to know what George W. Bush's America thinks? Listen to Toby Keith:
Grandpappy told my pappy back in my day son
Toward the end of his life Ochs argued that America could only be transformed through its popular culture; pop tunes were more important than politics. He was looking for a means to meld the popularity of Elvis Presley with the message of Che Guevara. He never found it.
But Ochs proved that even topical songs, like "Draft Dodger Rag," can be timeless. Remember these words when the call-ups begin:
I'm only eighteen, I got a ruptured spleen
America needs another Phil Ochs, a clever left-winger who knew the power of a song. Until one comes along, I'm happy making do with today's country music.
Joe Feuerherd's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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