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TV Review: Phil Ochs – There But for Fortune

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I remember Phil Ochs well, but not many people who are not of my generation do. Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune on PBS’ American Masters January 23rd will give those who remember the 60’s and 70’s a chance to recall this often underrated folk singer. For those who do not, the episode offers a real glimpse into not only Ochs’ life but what it was like to live in those turbulent times, especially the late 60’s and very beginning of the 70’s, when the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King and the long, ugly fighting of the Vietnam War caused many an earnest and dedicated fighter for peace and justice to drop out in despair.

Phil Ochs wanted to be famous. He wanted to be Bob Dylan, and if he couldn’t be Dylan, he wanted to be Elvis. The problem was that he also wanted to change the world, and he wanted his songs to make a difference. He was never willing to compromise. Also, while some of his songs, like “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” did become anthems of the anti-war movement and deservedly so, his songwriting — like his life — was uneven.

In addition, Ochs was Bi-Polar (referred to in the documentary as “manic-depressive.”) Bi-Polar Disorder is unfortunately common among musicians and other creative people and causes wild mood swings which, if not controlled, can lead to enormous highs and tremendous lows. Without proper medication and treatment, people who suffer from this disorder often turn to drugs and alcohol. In Ochs’ case, alcohol was especially destructive.

Through the words of friends, family, and record company associates, this documentary tells of Ochs’ rise and fall in the folk community, and his gradual decline into drunkenness and desolation, leading to his suicide in 1975.  This is not a happy story, but it is an important one — with a lot to tell us about America at a major crossroads in its history as well as about a musician who deserves to be remembered much more than he is.

My main problem with this documentary is that some of the interviews are obviously old, and with people who are no longer living. For instance, there is commentary from Abbie Hoffman, who died in 1989, and Jerry Rubin, who died in 1994. Yet there is no distinction made between these interviews and those with people like Pete Seeger and Ed Sanders, who are still alive. Since the documentary is copyrighted 2010, I found this very disturbing.

Aside from that, however, this was a very interesting and authentic look at a man and his time and a chance to remember some great and meaningful music as well.

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About Rhetta Akamatsu

I am an author of non-fiction books and an online journalist. My books include Haunted Marietta, The Irish Slaves, T'ain't Nobody's Business If I Do: Blues Women Past and Present, and Sex Sells: Women in Photography and Film.
  • scott

    The old interviews are from a 1984 movie called Chords of Fame. You should look at them as ypu would look at any of the other archival footage in the film, i.e, Phil is gone, but footage of him performing remains.

  • http://www.rhettaakamatsu.com Rhetta

    Thank you for telling me about Chords of Fame. I am not saying that the footage was not useful; I would just have liked to know more about the historical context of the footage, especially for younger viewers who may not recognize people like Hoffman and Rubin.