Music

The Other Greatest Jewish Songwriter?

Phil Ochs finally gets treated like a Master. Read More

By / January 19, 2012
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If asked, who’s the greatest Jewish American musician of all time, journalists, historians and fans alike are likely to name Bob Dylan in an instant, but a new documentary that focuses on another great American Jewish musician makes a strong case for another contender. PBS’s American Masters series recently made a major splash with its 2-part documentary on Woody Allen, but this coming Monday, the series continues with a documentary focused a man considered by many to be the unsung hero of the folk movement and one of the great American songwriters of all time.  Phil Ochs was a talented, prolific and outspoken American musician, and now according to PBS, a master of his craft, but while most are quickly to associate Bob Dylan with his Jewish upbringing, fewer are aware that Phil Ochs was also Jewish.

Watch Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune on PBS. See more from American Masters.

The film introduces Ochs a kid who grew up on John Wayne movies and transferred that by-any-means-necessary cowboy impetus to saving the country from the war in Vietnam, the forces that killed JFK, and eventually even the liberal left.  Early in the film Ochs’ brother, Michael Ochs, appears on screen commenting about the Ochs’ family’s religious standing.

“We went to the local school and I believe we were the only two Jews in the school so we learned what it meant to be Jewish.  Oh you’re Jewish? Pow! So we learned how to fight.”

Ochs is seen throughout the film via archived footage playing everything from Carnegie Hall to the 1968 Chicago DNC riots to the tinniest most esoteric protest rallies on makeshift stages.

The relationship between Ochs and Bob Dylan is a touched upon in some degree of depth in the documentary.  Early in the film it’s said that Ochs moved to New York City to become greatest songwriter in the world, and then he met Dylan and decided to become the second greatest.  Depending to who is speaking, two separate pictures of the relationship between the two is illustrated.  Some see Ochs and Dylan as close friends, confidants who fed on each other’s talent.  While others see Ochs as having always looked up to Dylan, constantly vying for his approval and Dylan as constantly toying with Ochs, never giving him the approval he so desperately desired.

“Dylan despises what I write.  I’ve talked to him at length about this.  He can’t accept what I’m doing because it’s political and to his mind it’s therefore bullshit because I’m not writing about myself and my deepest emotions, he feels.  He thinks I could be much more honest with myself. ” –Phil Ochs

Recounted in the film is the famous falling out between Ochs and Dylan where Dylan riding in a limo with Ochs plays “Can You Please Crawl Out the Window” for Ochs for the first time.  When Ochs tells him, “It’s shit.” Dylan demands that the driver stop tells Ochs to get out, leaving him there stranded.  According to one voice from the film, the relationship between Dylan and Ochs was a big part of Ochs’ pathology.

“There was a difference between people who liked Bob Dylan… anyone could like Bob Dylan, everybody did, and people who even knew about Phil Ochs.” – Christopher Hitchens.

The film which features Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Jello Biafra and Billy Bragg among others, goes on to document Ochs troubled yet withstanding career up until his tragic downfall which begins with the crushing of his vocal chords during a mugging in Chile and ends with his tragic suicide at the age of 35.  Whether or not the film makes the case that Ochs is one of the greatest American Jewish musicians of our time, it’s a successful and incredibly moving portrait of this artist, who if forgotten by the zeitgeist would be a tragedy all its own.  Ochs’ strong velvety voice, thoughtful song lyrics and gorgeous punim are likely to win you over by the film [Film’s End}, and, and more likely than not, his catalog will find it’s way to your iPod soon after.