Then Is Now

A new film about '60s folk singer Phil Ochs poses questions for today.

Phil Ochs: pretty cute for a rabblerrouser, huh?
Phil Ochs: pretty cute for a rabblerrouser, huh?

Were the 1960s much different than today? That decade had Vietnam; we have Iraq and Afghanistan. The ’60s had segregation; the ’00s have a fear of Middle Easterners. Americans in the ’60s had anxiety over the new Catholic president; we have Barack Hussein Obama.

But in the ’60s, there was a culture of dissent and rebellion in art, literature and music. You get a snapshot of that in There but for Fortune, a new documentary about Phil Ochs, a mostly-forgotten folk singer from that time.

Ochs was just a normal kid from a good family. He played clarinet in the school band. He loved John Wayne movies. But during college at Ohio State University, where he honed his musical talents, he began to tap into the greater feeling of dissatisfaction with America. He became a folk singer, and as a journalism student he got material for his songs by scouring newspapers. He wrote ballads about labor unions, fires and murder victims. Some called Ochs’s work protest music — but he preferred to be called it “topical.”

Ochs became serious about his music when he moved to New York, where he entrenched himself in the Greenwich Village folk scene. It was there he met Bob Dylan, becoming a friend, collaborator and occasional rival. Dylan once said he couldn’t keep up with Ochs. It’s said that later, during a car ride, when Ochs critiqued one of Dylan’s songs, Dylan threw him out of his car, saying he was just a journalist and hardly a folk singer.

But Ochs’s approach made a mark, and not just on American music. He became a political rabble-rouser at the forefront of the yippie movement. Ochs planned “theater” rallies around the country in which he would simply declare the war was over, as a way of expressing anger over Vietnam.

And though his music remains overshadowed by folk singers like Dylan, and his political legacy dwarved by Yippie organizers like Abbie Hoffman, Ochs was the definition of counterculture. He was a dissenter in a time of war and rebellion, unrest and fear.

That decade, like now, was a time of change — one we now define by its dissenting opinions. But you’ll find yourself asking, as you watch There but for Fortune, is there a Phil Ochs among us today?

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune • Sun, March 13, at 2 pm • $10 • Bing Crosby Theater • 901 W. Sprague • • 838-7870

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...