I’ve been passionate about many kinds of music in my life, but the first time I fell in love, it was with political folksongs. I was a pre-pubescent mutineer piano student, but a rabid popular music devotee, when I decided to take guitar lessons from Sonia “Sonny” Ochs, older sister of Phil, the 1960s’ topical singer/songwriter and Bob Dylan rival, who took his own life in 1976 after struggling with addiction, depression, near-fatal injury to his vocal cords, and the departure of his muse.
Sonny taught group lessons at the Hartman YM-YWHA (that’s Hebrew association) in Far Rockaway, New York, and I took them for about a year before she provided the entertainment at my Bat Mitzvah, playing folk and political songs, and leading singalongs with those of the 75 kids attending who were willing to join in.
In 1969, she sang again at my Sweet Sixteen party for a more select crowd, and then it was my turn to teach guitar at the Hartman Y. Years later, when the drive from Upstate New York to East Orange, New Jersey to broadcast her weekly folk music show on freeform radio WFMU (91.1 FM in the New York radio market and online everywhere else at wfmu.org) became too wearing, she handed it off to me to DJ by the seat of my pants – just another opportunity to follow in Sonny’s footsteps.
After babysitting her kids, helping her run a folk music club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, putting on a workshop for musicians in her brother Phil’s name, running a local folk festival, and generally just catting around with her to clubs and bars and concerts, and volunteering at conferences and festivals, we’ve ended up as good old friends who get to share stories, meals and music al fresco and in convention centers, in a variety of mostly northeast American and Canadian cities.
Back in my student days, Sonny taught me that most songs could be played with just three chords, and besides the doo-wop and rock and roll of the 1950s, and the folk songs I’d already learned to play on my school-issued submarine-shaped plastic recorder – the tonette – she proved it by teaching me some of brother Phil’s slyest antiwar and anti-politician songs.
Those songs opened my eyes to the underlying causes of current events, taught me to be suspicious of self-serving candidates and office holders on all sides of the government and political spectrum, and validated my teenage experiences with the bitter sweetness of love. Those songs still resound today, although, unfortunately, most of his social commentaries are as timely now as they were in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Over time, I moved on to songs all the kids were singing, eventually falling for punk, country, and opera (!) and left my first musical love behind. But in all these years since I was 12, on the occasions that I would hear new or well-worn topical songs, I’d find myself reaching for my checkbook, or tuning in to a progressive social movement’s website, momentarily feeling the way that I usually did when the soundtrack to my life was made up of heartfelt, sharp and poignant topical songs. My work life included more time volunteering and participating in progressive social action movements than it did in remunerative activities.
Well, all my life’s a circle, as the late great writer Harry Chapin sang to close out every one of his concerts. In the last few months, I moved in with the man I love whose musical tastes and social justice and politics histories match my own, on Long Island, no less. He’s better read and smarter than I am and more in touch with the outrages of the day, so I rely on him to keep me aware and updated, and to recommend where we lend our support.
Last week, I was able to give him a break and reward him for his diligence in keeping us politically alert by introducing him to Sonny at a Phil Ochs Song Night. It was a great evening of performances of Phil’s songs by some of the fine topical songwriters and progressive artists playing rallies, meetings, coffeehouses and concerts around our country, whose work follows in Phil’s footsteps.
Phil Ochs Song Nights have been touring the United States and Canada since 1983, when Sonny decided that to keep her brother’s works alive, and to teach them to new generations, she needed young singers and musicians who’d never met Phil to reinterpret and perform his songs that struck personal chords.
By now, dozens of artists have traveled with Sonny, playing and harmonizing on some of Phil’s best-known and more obscure songs, and singing some complementary numbers written by the performers. I’ve seen this show numerous times over the years, sometimes with Sonny’s storytelling between the music turns. This Song Night, there were brief introductions of the artists and the music, giving more room for chords to ring out and for songs to breathe and linger on the air.
The evening featured eight performers – one solo (John Flynn), two duos (emmas revolution featuring Pat Humphries and Sandy O, and Magpie featuring Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), and a trio (Brother Sun, including Greg Greenway, Joe Jencks and Pat Wictor) – singing and playing individually and in almost every imaginable combination of voices and instruments.
They opened as a group with Phil’s anthem for America, “Power and Glory,” a truly patriotic paean (with the chorus “Here is a land full of power and glory / beauty that words cannot recall / oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom / her glory shall rest on us all”), closed as a group once again with “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” that reminds us “It’s always the old / to lead us to the war / it’s always the young to fall,” and as an encore, sang Phil’s “When I’m Gone,” a moving litany that reminded me I only get one chance to do the things I find meaningful – while I’m here.