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Each weekday over the course of a week, a member of the NCR staff offers a commentary on one or more topics in the news.  It's our way of introducing you to some of the people carrying out the NCR mission of faith and justice based journalism.

October 15, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 131




Joe Feuerherd 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
These days you don't really need it, thanks to reality shows
Can't wait to date a supermodel, can't wait to sue my dad
Can't wait to wreck a Ferrari, on my way to rehab

I'll get to cry to Barbara Walters, when things don't go my way
And I'll get community service, no matter which law I break
I'll make the supermarket tabloids, they'll write some awful stuff
But the more they run my name down the more my price goes up

Funny stuff.

In "It's Five O'clock Somewhere" Alan Jackson tackles labor relations:

The sun is hot and that old clock is moving slow
And so am I
The work day passes like molasses in wintertime
But it's July
Getting paid by the hour
And older by the minute
My boss just pushed me over the limit
Like to call him something
Think I'll just call it a day

Pour me something tall and strong
Make it a Hurricane before I go insane
It's only half past 12, but I don't care
It's 5 o'clock somewhere

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
A man had to answer for the wicked things he'd done
Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree
Round up all them bad boys, hang 'em high in the street
For all the people to see

Justice is one thing you should always find
You gotta saddle up your boys you gotta draw a hard line
When the gun smoke settles we'll sing a victory tune
And we'll all meet back at the local saloon
We'll raise up or glasses against evil forces singing
Whiskey for my men beer for my horses

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
And I always carry a purse
I got eyes like a bat, my feet are flat
And my asthma's getting worse
O think of my career, my sweetheart dear
And my poor old invalid aunt
Besides, I ain't no fool, I'm a goin' to school
And I'm working in a defense plant

I've got a dislocated disc and a racked up back
I'm allergic to flowers and bugs
And when the bombshell hits, I get epileptic fits
And I'm addicted to a thousand drugs
I got the weakness woes, I can't touch my toes
I can hardly reach my knees
And if the enemy came close to me
I'd probably start to sneeze

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

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