A Season of Songs, Day 44: Bound for Glory

A Season of Songs is a type of Fun-A-Day project that I plan to do throughout this spring.  I’ll hit shuffle on the ol’ iPod and see what comes up.  I’ll then write a bit about that song, the band, the record, whatever.  Enjoy!

Today we have “Bound for Glory” by Phil Ochs off his 1964 debut album “All The News That’s Fit to Sing”.  I have the song as part of the 3-disc “Farewells & Fantasies” boxset.

And its pastures of plenty wrote the dust bowl balladeer
And this land is your land, he wanted us to hear
And the risin’ of the unions will be sung about again
Deportees live on through the power of his pen

And now he’s bound for a glory all his own
And now he is bound for glory

Now they sing out his praises on every distant shore
But so few remember what he was fightin’ for
Oh, why sing the songs and forget about the aim?
He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same

Phil Ochs was one of the performers whose name I knew for many years before I knew his music.  Then on the suggestion of a friend I picked up and read the biography “There But For Fortune”. The book is a compelling read.  It follows Ochs as a young man looking for some direction who finds music, struggles to find his place, experiences some success and then struggles with that success – both maintaining it and dealing with it.  At the same time that he was getting involved in the New York folk scene, he was getting involved in liberal politics and the anti-Vietnam War movement.  1968 would weigh heavily on Ochs with the Democratic Convention riots in Chicago, MLK and RFK assassinations and the election of Nixon contributing to a feeling of disillusionment that would haunt Ochs for the next decade until his death.

The most notable change after 1968 was that Ochs became convinced that people weren’t interested in the simple folk music he was performing anymore, so he tried to make a shift in his presentation.  He had a gold lamé suit that he wore when he performed and was backed by a full rock band and performing songs by Elvis and other popular artists.  Overall this backfired and people just weren’t sure what was going on.  So in addition to his political disillusionment, he experienced an ever greater disconnect between himself and his fans.

The 70’s would be full of a lot of drugs, alcohol and mental health issues for Ochs.  He had his ups and downs, still writing some great songs and doing some noteworthy shows, such as the “The War Is Over” rally in Central Park in 1975 after the Vietnam War officially ended.  But overall it became too much for him and in April 1976, Ochs committed suicide.

Och’s story is both a truly inspiring story of what you can accomplish and a cautionary tale of not letting your hopes consume you.  As biographies of musician’s go, “There But For Fortune” is on par with “Woody Guthrie: A Life” by Joel Klein for a book that will leave you a sobbing mess at the end.  Both wrote some powerful music that inspired many and both had unfortunate endings to their lives.  And so this brings us back around to today’s song.

“Bound for Glory” was Och’s tribute to Guthrie.  It is clear that Ochs was heavily influenced by Guthrie (it would probably be hard to argue that any 60’s folk singer wasn’t heavily influenced by Guthrie, but clearly there was a true admiration there.)  The song is written in very much in the spirit of a Guthrie tune; you can imagine Woody himself singing it.  It’s four verses of Ochs giving Guthrie credit for the work he did supporting workers and unions and writing the songs that inspired thousands and then Ochs has one final verse reminding us to not forget why Guthrie wrote these songs and worked so tirelessly.

Over the years Guthrie’s work would be co-opted and watered down.  I remember learning “This Land is Your Land” in music class growing up. We only ever learned the first few verses that praise America for its beauty, but we never learned the later verses that point out America’s hypocrisy — “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people / By the relief office I seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”  In his song, Ochs reminds people that “He wrote them for a reason, why not sing them for the same”.  

Ochs’ output over the years was of varying quality, but I definitely think its worth digging through to find the gems. “Too Many Martyrs”, “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”, “When I’m Gone”, “Ringing of Revolution”, “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and others are worth a listen.

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