Ghost of Folkpunk: Phil Ochs. by Leah-Marie Feld

Folk music comes with thousands of philosophies, sound profiles, talents, and above all maintains a liquid culture. To give a full history of folk within a zine would cause me to take pages from dozens of talented independent artists, and truly I don’t believe my words to be any more valuable than theirs. Instead the focus of this piece is creating a love letter angled towards the folk revival of the 1960s. I’d like to highlight the ideological rainbow the scene created, as well as the brightest star
that rose out of the wonderfully crowded mess.

Cocaine, flowers, genocide, Elvis, voting, unions, mud, suicide, Mississippi, robbery, hobos: conducive to a breakdown of discombobulated thoughts, and beyond any normal conception of cohesive, the Folk revival relished within it’s own cultural diversity to accompany it’s unifying ideas. Swirling around the scene boasted a message of ideological solidarity, highlighted in retellings of simpler tunes like “Solidarity Forever” or the creation of new anthems to criticize any lapse in this mantra such as “Links on the chain”. Within this environment, it allowed the snappy bite of protest singer Tom Paxton to tear across the political aisle and demand confrontation to open for a reflective harrowing ballad, emblematic of native struggle from Buffy Sainte-Marie, culminating with plucky folk tunes inherent to a simpler yet personal direct message performed by Pete Seeger. Profoundly different in their styles of songwriting, singing, and simply subject matter, while wrapped together they can be seen as coordinated to compliment each other’s quirks and presentations.

No other songwriter is more emblematic of this coordination than Phil Ochs. Nearly omnipresent in the Greenwich Village scene of NY folk, Phil knew every single icon one would typically associate with this era of music; Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, Judy Collins, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez. His place as a songwriter’s songwriter in Music is a given perusing his discography. Blazing calls to political arms in defiance of the ruling class such as “I’m Gonna Say What I Have to Say”, A lovesong to the beauty of the country with a patriotic criticism directed towards the state in “Power and Glory”, Cynical takedowns of complacent hypocrisy in American society in “Outside of a small circle of friends”, Grand metaphorical ballads depicting revolutionary politics shaking the Idle rich from their perches in “Ringing of revolution”, Phil’s artistic diversity and ability to embrace styles he had absorbed while simultaneously being an integral organizational building block to this era resulted in a dense colorful discography. Beyond this, Phil was a true revolutionary at heart. Not an Ochs show could occur without his left wing slant being emboldened to the crowd, his soul was connected to the world. Bob Dylan lambasted him for not being a writer, rather a journalist, as his topical songs made up dense portions of his tracklists. Organizing and assisting with dozens of benefit concerts, marches, and campaigns, he kept rebellion close to his heart until death. Phil is representative of the protest singer in every facet, refusing to keep the “Protest” in the title as a secondary: this should be looked upon by the wider scene of folkpunk to at least be explored; along with the Folk Revival as a whole.

Folkpunk is a two faceted genre, and as it grows and evolves I see a lean towards punk as a default; in no way is this a negative, nor should anybody be upset by this. Purity and genre snobbiness has never brought art to where it performs at it’s highest levels. Art evolves and shifts at it’s best. Rather, I’d only like to bring up “Purer” Folkpunk as an ode to the Protest Singer, the creative individual. The civil rights movement occurred simultaneously with the folk scene, music was an important aspect of protest. It could highlight the deeply emotional aspects of fighting for your life against a totalitarian state hell bent on snuffing your leaders out with their guns. It could characterize your opponents to onlookers, create sympathetic stories to dramatically recreate reality, and access moral boosting not simply possible through normal speech. Music may not be essential, but I do believe it to be important; and so I present a call to arms for unfamiliar folkpunk fans: Give the folk revival your ears.

~Leah-Marie Feld

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