Northside SF  

Phil Ochs, the 'singing journalist' of the protest era, remembered in new documentary
By Bruce Bellingham

Phil Ochs during a Vietnam moratorium demostration
outside U.N. Building (New York City, 1967)
photo: Michael Ochs
A few years ago, I ran into the famously laconic Sean Penn and got his attention by bringing up the name of Phil Ochs, one of the major folk singers of the turbulent 1960s. Ochs made his name for writing some stinging anti-Vietnam War songs.

Penn spun around at the mention of Ochs’s name.

“Yes,” Penn said, “I got the rights to Phil’s story, and I’d like to make a picture about his life.”

Years after Ochs died, his daughter, Meegan, worked for Sean Penn as a personal assistant.

I don’t know what happened to Penn’s feature film project, but Penn does appear in a new documentary about Ochs, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, named for one of Ochs’s most celebrated ballads. It opens at the Balboa Theatre on March 11. Ken Bowser, who has made films about movie directors Frank Capra and Preston Sturges, directed the film.

Ochs’s songs were topical, straight from the newspapers. One of his albums was named, All the News That’s Fit to Sing.

During an argument with Bob Dylan one night, Dylan threw Ochs out of a limo, shouting, “You’re not a songwriter! You’re a journalist!” A true insult from Dylan.

Still, Ochs’s songs remain enduring, such as “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and “The War is Over.” Joan Baez’s version of “There But for Fortune” is a classic performance.

Unlike Dylan, Ochs was active in political events. He worked with the rowdy protesters, the Yippies, and testified at the Chicago 7 trial in Chicago. He accompanied John Lennon to the now-legendary benefit to free John Sinclair, who received a long prison sentence on a minor drug charge. During the early 1960s, Ochs performed at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall in New York. On his Greatest Hits album, Ochs parodied one of his heroes, Elvis. When The King promoted the fact that he had 50 million fans, Ochs subtitled his own album 50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong.

Beset by depression and trouble with alcohol, Ochs’s self-lacerating humor revealed much. He continually agonized over his lack of commercial success. He hanged himself in 1976.

But Ochs leaves a large repertory of songs that capture the era and the internal affairs of a sensitive, gifted songwriter who made being a “singing journalist” laudable.

Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune: Balboa Theater, 3630 Balboa Street (between 37th & 38th), opens March 11, 415-221-8184,


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