Labor Day: Phil Ochs sings about IWW activist and songwriter Joe Hill

By on September 7, 2015

Since today is Labor Day, a national holiday set aside on first Monday in September to pay tribute to the economic and social contributions of workers, we thought we’d feature this film clip of folk singer-songwriter, Phil Ochs, appearing on Swedish TV in July 1968 and singing “The Ballad of Joe Hill.”

The song uses the same melody found in Woody Guthrie’s song “Tom Joad,” which in turn was based on an even-earlier traditional melody found in the folk song “John Hardy.” Ochs’s song concludes with Hill’s own words: “This is my last and final will; Good luck to all of you, Joe Hill, Good luck to all of you.”

Songwriter and labor activist Hill — born Joel Emmanuel Hägglund in Sweden on October 7, 1879 — immigrated to the United States with one of his brothers in 1902, changing his name to Joseph Hillstrom and then, eventually and more simply, to Joe Hill. He lived and worked (and searched for work) all over the United States and, and eventually became a union activist as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (nicknamed the Wobblies), a labor union open to all workers and dedicated to ultimately abolishing the wage system.

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They  IWW began in Chicago, in June of 1905, after Big Bill Haywood, of the Western Federation of Miners, and others who were dissatisfied with the lack of progress of the little old craft unions under Sam Gompers’ American Federation of Labor.

They formed the Wobblies as a more defiantly radical group, made up of frequently anarchist-types who felt that all workers should unite in “one big union” to improve their conditions, and eventually call a general strike to decide who was going to run the world — the workers or the bosses.

The IWW was the “singingest union America ever had,” according to Pete Seeger (The Incompleat Folksinger, 1972, pp. 74-75).  They did a lot of their proselytizing through songs, and even had their own little red songbook, which carried the motto “To Fan the Flames of Discontent” on its cover. The book contained about fifty songs, many of them parodies sung to the tunes of well-known popular songs of their day, or older tunes that had been sung by workers in the past but had long been forgotten until the Wobblies re-configured them for their purposes.

The Wobblies sang these songs at their meetings, on picket lines, at protest marches, in jails (where IWW workers frequently found themselves), on freight trains that carried them from town to town, and pretty much anywhere else you can imagine brothers banding together to fight injustice.

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In addition to being a mouthpiece for the IWW, Joe Hill wrote labor songs that are still being sung by activists today.

His life story is really the story of peak European immigration, the story of how a immigrant worker-turned-union organizer got caught in a power struggle with big business and politics, the story of the conflict surrounding the early organization of rank-and-file workers.

“The Ballad of Joe Hill” or sometimes just “Joe Hill,” is about these things, but it’s also the true life story of what ultimately happened to Joe Hill.

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In January, 1914, Hill was arrested on suspicion of committing murder in Salt Lake City, Utah. Twenty-two months later, despite nationwide and international protests and a controversial trial, he was executed by a firing squad, on November 19, 1915. His last word was yelling out “Fire!” just before the rifle triggers were pulled that killed him instantly.

“The Ballad of Joe Hill” is just one of the many mostly folk songs that memorialize him, songs that turned him into an instant martyr, someone to help further the cause of the working class struggle for social justice.

Bob Dylan claims that Hill’s story was one of his inspirations to begin writing his own songs and that his song “I Dreamed I Saw St. Augustine” is loosely based around Hill’s life story.

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Phil Ochs is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential political folk singer-songwriters, but he preferred to refer to himself as a “topical” singer, a singing journalist making his own wry commentaries about about a whole range of issues and concerns to the general populace at large (he’s reported to have said he built his songs from stories he read in Newsweek).

He sometimes used anger, and sometimes he used humor, but he always tried to find his own singular voice, which actually did reveal many of the qualities that set him apart from many of his contemporaries: he had a sharp wit, sardonic humor, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and haunting voice.

Today, however, Ochs is probably remembered today mostly for his live performances — at political events, including anti-Vietnam War and civil rights rallies, student events, and organized labor events, as well as impressive venues New York City’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall, too — moreso than his studio recordings.

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Phil Ochs indeed wrote about the rise of the Trade Union movement and how it represented the working people and brought fairness and prosperity. He wrote of how it betrayed the black people by failing to join with the civil rights movement, but it wasn’t the only topic that interested him.

In addition to songs about the labor movement (including 1965’s “Links On the Chain,” which warned union workers they were losing their moral foundation by resisting equal opportunity for blacks and minorities), he also wrote songs about racism and the murders of civil rights workers (“Too Many Martyrs,” “Talking Birmingham Jam,” “Here’s to the State of Mississippi”), urban riots (“The Heat of the Summer”), the deaths of President John F. Kennedy (“That Was the President”) and Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory”), the plight of migrant farm workers (“Bracero”), the Free Speech Movement at the University of California, Berkeley (“I’m Going to Say It Now”) and the Vietnam War and American foreign policy (“I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Cops of the World,” “Is There Anybody Here?”).

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In 1962, Ochs — born December 19, 1940 — dropped out of Ohio State University during his last semester (he was bitterly disappointed at not being appointed editor-in-chief of the college newspaper) and he left school, without graduating, lighting out for New York.

He arrived when Greenwich Village folk music scene was in full flower, a scene that included Dave Van Ronk, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul and Mary, and, of course, Bob Dylan, with whom Ochs had what is sometimes described as a tumultuous relationship, but probably more accurately could be described as a friendly rivalry.

Ochs often found himself as one of Dylan’s infrequent targets, but it can also be said that Dylan only singled out those who he felt was worth talking about to the press because they actually did have something to offer (if Dylan didn’t speak about you, kindly or otherwise, it was generally considered that you weren’t yet worth talking about, not yet).

Joan Baez, meanwhile, managed to turn one of his best songs, “There But For Fortune,” into a minor hit of her own.

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Ochs never really was able to step out from the shadow cast by Dylan (and others who were more successful) during his life. Popular acclaim and wide success eluded him for most of his career, despite writing hundreds of songs in the 1960s and releasing eight albums in his lifetime.

However, he always seemed to be out-of-sync with what his peers were doing — like them, he used his music to both chronicle and help mobilize the labor rights, civil rights and antiwar movements of the ’60s, but by his third studio album, he found himself transitioning out of folk and avoiding folk-rock — where much of the folk musicians had gone once they’d turned in their acoustics for electric guitars — altogether.

Instead, on his new recordings, Och’s brittle tenor was soon being accompanied by the use of full orchestration, which might include a string quartet, or honky-tonk piano, or woodwinds.

In 1967, with the Village folk scene crumbling in the face of the rock music explosion and the continuing emergence of the counterculture, Ochs moved to Los Angeles and signed with A&M Records.

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Politically, Ochs described himself as a “left social democrat” who became an “early revolutionary” after the protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago led to a police riot, which had a profound effect on his state of mind, as did the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, and the Kent State shootings.

He’d started off as a biographical objective singer about other people, but eventually, as his career went on, his songs became more autobiographical, personal, and fractured. His main problem in life, however, was dealing with manic depression, and rampant alcoholism, which further incapacitated his career, and towards the end his life went into a tailspin that he was never fully able to pull out of.

In the early 70s, he’d decided to see what the rest of the world had to offer him, and so, for long periods of time, he left America and traveled abroad, to various places where he found things weren’t much better for the poor people of those countries.

In August 1971, he went to Chile, where he he became friends with Chilean protest singer Victor Jara (Víctor Lidio Jara Martínez) a supporter of Marxist president Salvador Allende, who had been democratically elected in the 1970 election.

Ochs continued to travel in South America, to Argentina, and to Uruguay, where he and his American traveling companion David Ifshin were arrested and detained overnight.

After they were released from jail, they both went back to Argentina, where they were arrested again. They were then both sent to Bolivia, where authorities were expected to detain them; they flew by commercial Braniff airlines, but after they landed in that country, the American captain of the aircraft allowed Ochs and Ifshin to both stay onboard, and Bolivian authorities were barred from entering. They then flew to Peru, where they were not detained, but Ochs decided he’d had enough by then and he returned to the United States a few days later.

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Towards the end of 1971, Ochs was personally invited by John Lennon to sing at a large benefit, the John Sinclair Freedom Rally — along with Stevie Wonder, Allen Ginsberg, David Peel, Abbie Hoffman and many others — to be held at the University of Michigan., on behalf of John Sinclair, an activist poet who had been arrested on minor drug charges and given a severe sentence. Ochs performed at the rally, held in December, which culminated with Lennon and Yoko Ono, who were making their first public performance in the United States since the breakup of The Beatles.

In mid 1972, he was ready to travel again. This time, he went to Australia and New Zealand, and he also traveled to Africa in 1973, where he visited Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, and South Africa.

One night, in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Ochs was attacked and strangled by robbers on the beach. His vocal chords were damaged, causing a loss of the top three notes in his vocal range. The attack also exacerbated his growing mental problems, and he became increasingly paranoid. Ochs believed the attack may have been arranged by government agents—perhaps the CIA.

Still, he continued his trip, even recording a single in Kenya, “Bwatue.”

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On September 11, 1973, the Allende government of Chile was overthrown in a coup d’état. Allende died during the bombing of the presidential palace, ushering in a 17-year repressive dictatorship led by General Augusto Pinochet.

Ochs’s friend, Victor Jara, was publicly tortured and then shot to death as he defiantly sang to the 5,000 Chileans who had been rounded up as political dissidents and packed into a stadium that had been turned into a detention and torture center.

Ochs decided to organize a benefit concert to bring to public attention the situation in Chile and raise funds for the people of Chile. The concert, “An Evening with Salvador Allende”, included films of Allende; singers such as Pete Seeger, Arlo Guthrie, and Bob Dylan, who had agreed to perform at the last minute when he heard that the concert had sold so few tickets that it was in danger of being canceled. Once his participation was announced, the event quickly sold out. Ochs and Dylan also discussed the possibility of a joint concert tour, playing small nightclubs. Nothing came of these  plans, but the idea eventually evolved into Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue.

(A few years ago, Jara’s accused killer, Pedro Barrientos, was sued under federal laws that allow U.S. courts to hear about human rights abuses committed abroad. Chilean prosecutors also charged Barrientos and another officer with Jara’s murder, naming six others as accomplices. On April 15, 2015 a US judge ordered Barrientos to stand trial in Florida.)

By now, the mid-70s, Phil Ochs was becoming increasingly more despondent and erratic, his mental stability sliding up and down precariously due to bipolar disorder and continuing problems with alcoholism. In January 1976, Ochs moved to Far Rockaway, New York, to live with his sister Sonny. He was seeing a psychiatrist by then, and told his sister that he was taking his prescribed medication but he may not have been — he was lethargic, and spent most of his time watching TV and sleeping.

Then, on a cool day in early spring, on April 9, 1976 — less than a year after organizing a massive concert in New York’s Central Park to mark the end of the Vietnam War — Ochs committed suicide in his sister’s hosue by hanging himself. He was just 35 years old.

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Today, Labor Day weekend is traditionally regarded as not much more than a three-day weekend near the end of summer before working Americans have to settle down again and get back to their classes in school or start focusing on their jobs again. It’s usually an enjoyable day set aside for BBQs and parties, the last blowout of the summer, and typically Labor Day is treated as a more low-key affair than International Workers’ Day, celebrated on May 1st, which is why it’s called “May Day” (May Day is also the day Night Flight launched online).

However, Labor Day also seems like a good day to remember both Phil Ochs and Joe Hill, for their contributions to their culture and for the work they’ve both done, and it’s of course a good day to remember all of the sacrifices made by the Wobblies too — they were the folks that brought us the “weekend,” after all, and the eight-hour work day too, so they deserve a bit of your respect too, doncha think? We think so.

By the way, Phil Ochs’s brother is Michael Ochs, the photographic archivist best known for The Michael Ochs Archive, an extensive collection of pictures related to rock music dating back to the 1950s and 1960s. He also happens to be running the Archives Alive imprint, under the Rock Beat company umbrella, who put out the Swan Silvertones’s gospel collection – Amen, Amen, Amen: The Essential Collection — which we told you about here.

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Phil Ochs, circa 1970; photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.
  • Celebrating Phil Ochs

    Great to see an article on Phil Ochs.