The Phil Ochs Project is a musical popular education project. The idea is simple: a live reproduction of a Phil Ochs concert from beginning to end, as it took place one night circa 1971 in Houston, Texas.
Click “play” and that’s me singing a Phil Ochs song (“When I’m Gone”), to give you a little taste… But the idea with the Phil Ochs Project is to do a whole concert, word for word, note for note, live. The point for me is not to meticulously imitate all of Phil’s mannerisms or his often slightly out-of-tune guitar. But otherwise the idea is to faithfully reproduce the concert, and provide audiences with a little vertical slice of history — what transpired one night in one venue in the early Seventies.
The actual recording of the concert that exists today is poor quality, but it was a brilliant show. In his rambling way, in between bouts of attempting to tune his guitar, Phil gave his audience a little lesson about the very recent history of the decade that was already becoming known in the corporate press as “the Swinging Sixties.” The decade had only just ended, but it seems Phil was singing for a mostly younger audience — folks who might have been ten years old when Phil went to Mississippi in 1963.
The history lesson occurs by way of introductions to songs Phil wrote that spanned the decade of the Sixties, including some material he had updated for the present moment.
Why this project to cover another artist? Why Phil Ochs? Why this particular concert?
As a politically-oriented singer/songwriter profoundly influenced by Phil Ochs, among others, I have a lot to say about current events and history myself. So why do a whole concert of another artist?
As a history-oriented songwriter I find that telling stories about history can be one of the most useful tools for addressing and understanding the present moment. Doing an entire concert from 1971 to audiences in 2018 is just a different way to use history to address the present — except that instead of telling a story from history, I’m bringing us to an evening that took place almost half a century ago.
It was another time and place, but a time and place that I think will feel so familiar to so many people today. Which is why this particular concert in this particular year by this particular artist seems so relevant to me right now. I mean I’m a fan of Phil Ochs regardless, but I’m a fan of lots of other artists, too. What I find so compelling about this particular combination of factors — the artist, the concert, and time, the place — is that it altogether seems to evoke the very essence of what so many people at that time were feeling about the decade that was now coming to a close. And the foreboding felt by so many about what might be now on the horizon, with the recent election of Richard Nixon to the White House, has many echoes today.
The concert Phil gave is approximately an hour in length, so in some of my own renderings of it I may just treat it as a first set, and do another set of original material second, depending on the type of gig. In any case, I rejected the idea some of my friends had, that I should consider just doing a few Phil Ochs songs in a set composed otherwise of originals, rather than a whole long set of Phil. There is a particular power in doing the whole thing — it’s altogether a more enveloping way to transport an audience back to 1971.
How do we book a show?
Just drop me a line anytime. If you’re in North America or Europe and you’re willing to put in some time and effort to organize a concert, then I’ll hopefully be seeing you soon.
Thanks to Kalindi Jackson for another great poster, and to Torry Mercer for historical research help.
P.S. A general note on Phil Ochs, and what this project is and isn’t about. Just to get this out of the way, I need to be very straightforward about this. Phil Ochs killed himself the day before my birthday in 1976. I think that this was an unspeakably tragic event, and many people, including me, wish it hadn’t happened. Just because of the ideas people have out there about suffering artists and a lot of other things, I want to make it very clear that the fact that Phil Ochs killed himself has nothing to do with why I’m doing this project. If anything, it is a deterrent. While I think it’s a good thing to be open about how we feel about the present historical moment, whether that be 1971 or 2018, and there was and is a lot to be depressed and even suicidal about, I do not in any way advocate suicide as a solution or as a good or romantic thing at all. Furthermore, I am one of the happiest and most emotionally stable people I know, and not at all like Phil in that way. I don’t drink, I’m not depressed — yes, I’m frequently moved by world events to write depressing songs, but that’s not the same thing. Writing the songs is therapy for me. Phil had a perfectly rational fear of being assassinated. I have that fear as well. Even more than that fear, I want to be open here in public about this, I have a fear of being assassinated in such a way that it looks like it was a suicide or a drug overdose. We will never know how many “suicides” were faked by the CIA and other organizations who have, according to the Congressional record, all kinds of methods for doing this, and have frequently used them (see the Church Committee hearings for more information). So for the record, for my own peace of mind, let it be known that I don’t do any hard drugs ever, I don’t do any prescription drugs, I’m in great health, I love life and I would never even think about ending mine. If anyone ever says I did, they will be lying — unequivocally, beyond any conceivable doubt.