August 24, 2012



Phil Ochs, folkie, counter-culture icon, whinnying witty crooner and occasional madcap drunkard, penned a prodigious amount of songs — many of them alliterative — during the 1960s and early 70s. For years he performed everywhere from Carnegie Hall to labor movement events. His activism flamed during the 1968 Democratic Convention, after which he identified himself as a left-of-center democrat and revolutionary. His influences are predictably admirable: Woody Guthrie, Merle Haggard, Pete Seeger, Elvis Presley.

Despite his success and strong beliefs, Ochs wavered and eventually struggled with bipolar disorder and alcoholism. In the latter half of the 70s he grew isolated, paranoid, and adopted an alternative persona; he committed suicide in 1976.

Ochs’ debut record, All the News That’s Fit to Sing, captured the spirit of the era succinctly by containing songs inspired by articles published in Newsweek Magazine. These included songs about Medgar Evers, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Vietnam. Also included was “The Bells”, a song whose lyrics were written by Edgar Allan Poe, which Ochs set to music.

Under Ochs’ spell, “The Bells” is a sprinting, guitar-driven ballad that is at once sweetly gentle and prescient in its hints at madness and exuberance.

The first stanza:

Hear the sledges with the bells –
Silver bells!
What a world of merriment their melody foretells!
How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,
In the icy air of night!
While the stars that oversprinkle
All the heavens seem to twinkle
With a crystalline delight;
Keeping time, time, time,
In a sort of Runic rhyme,
To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells
From the bells, bells, bells, bells,
Bells, bells, bells –
From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.

And here’s a video (there’s not much action, but the audio is good) of Ochs’ studio performance …

From Edgar Allan Poe to Phil Ochs to Breece D’J Pancake — influence is a wonderfully deep rabbit hole.

Pancake called Ochs one of his heroes, and was determined to compose short fiction that resonated with readers as strongly and clearly as Ochs’ songs did with him. James Alan McPherson’s foreward to The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake goes into some more detail:

This determination to improve himself dictated that Breece should be a wanderer and an adventurer. He had attended several small colleges in West Virginia, had traveled around the country. He had lived for a while on an Indian reservation in the West. He had taught himself German. He taught for a while at a military academy in Staunton, Virginia, the same one attended by his hero, Phil Ochs. He had great admiration for this songwriter, and encouraged me to listen closely to the lyrics of what he considered Ochs’s best song, “Jim Dean of Indiana.” Breece took his own writing just as seriously, placing all his hopes on its success. He seemed to be under self-imposed pressures to “make it” as a writer. He told me once: “All I have to sell is my experience. If things get really bad, they’ll put you and me in the same ditch. They’ll pay me a little more, but I’ll still be in the ditch.” He liked to impress people with tall tales he had made up, and he liked to impress them in self-destructive ways. He would get into fights in lower-class bars on the outskirts of Charlottesville, then return to the city to show off his scars. “These are stories,” he would say.

Like Ochs before him, Pancake died young and by his own hand. Not, however, before securing his place, just as Ochs did, in the annals of American culture.

Pancake’s “Trilobites” was one of many stories published by The Atlantic.

It begins:

I open the truck’s door, step onto the brick side street. I look at Company Hill again, all sort of worn down and round. A long time ago it was real craggy and stood like an island in the Teays River. It took over a million years to make that smooth little hill, and I’ve looked all over it for trilobites. I think how it has always been there and always will be, at least for as long as it matters. The air is smoky with summertime. A bunch of starlings swim over me. I was born in this country and I have never very much wanted to leave. I remember Pop’s dead eyes looking at me. They were real dry, and that took something out of me. I shut the door, head for the café.

I see a concrete patch in the street. It’s shaped like Florida, and I recollect what I wrote in Ginny’s yearbook: “We will live on mangoes and love.” And she up and left without me—two years she’s been down there without me. She sends me postcards with alligator wrestlers and flamingos on the front. She never asks me any questions. I feel like a real fool for what I wrote, and go into the café.


Kevin Murphy is the digital media marketing manager of Melville House.