When we think of the 1960s and 1970s, a few common things rise up in our memory. Music, drugs, assassinations, but one thing rises up like driftwood in the rivers of time… The Vietnam ‘War’. One of our first military defeats and an event that affected America in countless ways, including set the tone for the remainder of the era. One way that it affected Phil Ochs, folk singer however was a transition in his music from antiwar to that of almost dirges, filled with heartache and sorrow for the lives lost. No more was it the near jubilant and almost bouncy rhythms of ‘Talking Vietnam’ but instead – The slow, meticulous, beats that are comparable to a funeral march.
Staring in 1964, America was happy to chase the ‘Red Menace’ out of South Vietnam. This can been seen with the line from the 1964 song Talking Vietnam
“Yes we burned out the jungles far and wide
Made sure those red apes had no place left to hide”.
We were ready for war. Despite Phil Ochs not being particularly pro war – He did encapsulate the idea that surrounded it. Phil Ochs was able to show why people were going overseas, even if he disagreed with it such as from the song Draft Dodger Rag. Phil understood, even if jesting it at it with satire, that some people did want to go overseas and bravely fight for their country.
Phil Ochs even mentioned the fact that despite Vietnam clearly being a war, America got around it with using terms in Talking Vietnam like:
“Well training is the word we use
Nice word to have in case we lose”
But the war began to drag on and on and on…The numbers, of both causalities and horrors of war, began to take matter and what was once a small conflict began to escalate to a war and soon a tragedy. And that lives were ending because of our urge to control. This can viewed with Phil Och’s Song Cops of the World in 1966 which describes America and the strength it has in regards to the destruction of people in foreign countries:
“We’ve got too much money We’re Looking for Toys
And Guns will be Guns and Boys will be Boys
But we’ll gladly pay for all we destroy
’cause we’re the Cops of the World, boys”
Cops of the World also has the consequence of showing America in the light of maybe not always going to war, or as a police action, for positive reasons.
“Better watch what you say
We’ve rammed in your harbor and tied to your port
And our pistols are hungry and our tempers are short
So bring your daughters around to the port
‘Cause we’re the cops of the world, boys”
Phil Ochs displayed almost mourning for those gone overseas to fight but never returned as more and more of his music began turning away from protest, to more of heartbreak. For a logistics moment, when the Vietnam war ended on April 30, 1975 a total 58, 220 Americans died and an estimated 3.1 million (both Vietnamese civilians and soldiers).
As Phil Ochs was someone who cared for people in his own way, this massive sum of fatalities probably wasn’t the greatest for someone experiencing depression. He didn’t care if you were born under the American or Argentinian or Cuban flag – He cared about the pain. In a way, it’s not too terribly surprising that almost a year exactly from the last soldiers departed form Vietnam Phil Ochs killed himself.
The Sixties, in general, were a very split era as an article by Stanley Kurtz for the Hoover Institution here points out. With the front half coming off one of the most affluent eras of America and the introduction of Civil Rights for numerous minorities, the end of the 1960s were more dark and desolate. The hope that once flowed was now gone…Gone and replaced by grim reminders of mortality as entire towns and cities were emptied. Gone with best friends, boyfriends, husbands who never came home. Gone was the love, and in came the sorrow. I think Phil Ochs described the consensus with a the song A Toast to Those Who Are Gone that was recorded around the mid 1960s, but released in 1986:
“Many’s the hour I’ve lain by my window
And though of the people who carried the burden
Who Marched in the strange fields in search of an answers
And ended their journey a unwilling hero.”
“Here’s a song to those who are gone with never a reason why
And a toast of the wine at the end of the line
And a toll of the bell for the next one to die”
Vietnam was a huge split, a divider even from the ‘rocking’ era that was the 1960s. But everything ends. Some vastly too soon, and others not soon enough. Phil Ochs was one of those who was slightly the product of the era that surrounded him. And what once was once Draft Dodger Rag became a One Way Ticket Home, and soon A Toast to Those Who Are Gone. So despite truancy, I want to give praise and accolades to an unlikely hero who never intended to become one. Using a quote from the song the mid 1960s I’m Tired:
“Sometimes I stop and ask to myself
Oh why should I be so alone”