When I was a little boy, folk music was the only kind of pop I knew. My father had an enormous LP collection, but it was comprised almost entirely of classical fare. At the far end of the bottom cabinet, partially blocked by a side table, was the only evidence I could find that my dad had ever been part of youth culture: A half-dozen or so LPs by The Kingston Trio and Judy Collins. Until I caught David Bowie on the Serious Moonlight tour in 1983, the only non-classical artists I’d seen perform live were Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie.
Naturally, as I grew older and carved out my own identity, I had to push back against my parents’ likes. As a result, anything that even remotely smacked of folk music was highly suspect and hopelessly square. Eventually, 80’s upstarts like Billy Bragg and Phranc would force me to modify my position, albeit very gradually. To this day, what I don’t know about Bob Dylan could fill volumes, but at least I could whistle a few of his hits by the time I graduated high school.
Phil Ochs never even made it that far. Until last week, I’d simply lumped him in with any number of self-destructive white male singer-songwriters from the last half-century. This put Ochs in excellent company, alongside many of my favorite musicians — Elliott Smith, Harry Nilsson, Nick Drake, Tim Buckley — but didn’t exactly encourage me to investigate his back catalog. Did I really need another grumpy, dead white guy on my iPod?
Yes. And thanks to Kenneth Bowser’s recent documentary, Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune, I’ve finally woken up to this glaring oversight. Better late than never. Featuring talking heads including Joan Baez, Van Dyke Parks, Peter Yarrow, Sean Penn, the aforementioned Messrs. Bragg and Seeger, and my beloved Judy Henske, plus lots of great live clips and TV footage, this concise 98-minute film quickly converted me to fandom. Not only did Ochs — who took his own life in 1976, at the age of 35 — have a keen ear for melody, a biting sense of humor, and a vocal style that always carried a hint of incredulity, he was also just as likely to go after targets on the left as the right. He wasn’t a soft-focus “folkie” like the artists at the far end of my dad’s record collection, but a full-on protest singer, playing everywhere from miners’ strikes and civil rights marches to the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. He also recorded with musicians in Africa thirteen years before Paul Simon won accolades for Graceland and was deeply affected by the political turmoil in Chile circa the early 1970s.
I won’t pretend that watching There But For Fortune has turned me into a Phil Ochs expert overnight. Hell, I’m only just beginning to digest his 1967 album, Pleasures of the Harbor, and the 1976 double-LP best-of, Chords of Fame, both of which I snapped up a couple days after watching Bowser’s film. But I’d be a cad if I didn’t recommend this superlative documentary to anyone else previously ignorant of Ochs’ life and music. In Seattle, it plays Northwest Film Forum on March 11 through 13 (for other cities, check here). In the meantime, you can view the official trailer below. I don’t imagine it will wind up in my dad’s Netflix queue any time soon, but it has certainly reminded me not to be so quick to discredit an artist simply because of where his records are filed.
DJ El Toro hosts the variety mix show on Wednesday nights from 9 PM to 1 AM on KEXP 90.3 FM Seattle and kexp.org. His weekly rant, Weird At My School, appears infrequently on the KEXP Blog. Please follow DJ El Toro (aka Kurt B. Reighley) on Twitter and/or Tumblr!