Phil Ochs,”I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More”

In August of 1968, the Yippies and other assorted counter-culture groups held a “Festival of Life” protest in Lincoln Park, Chicago, a counterpoint to “the Convention of Death” (otherwise known as the Democratic Party National Convention). Phil Ochs was a Yippie, and centrally involved in organising the protest. The massive police security around the Convention had intimidated a great many political artists into staying away, so besides Ochs, only the Motor City 5 and Country Joe and the Fish turned up to perform.

Phil Ochs played this song for the crowd, and as his fellow Yippie Tom Hayden wrote later, the performance inspired a “pandemonium of emotion, of collective power.” Hundreds of young men in the crowd were inspired to burn their draft cards. Ochs later referred to this performance as the highlight of his career.

“I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More” became a Phil Ochs signature song, one he performed repeatedly, sometimes for the mainstream media. When he sang it on the courthouse steps outside the trial of the Chicago Seven (the court prevented him from singing it to the jury), Walter Cronkite broadcast it on CBS, much to his amusement.

This is not a topical song, in the sense that it reports a particular event or presents a biography. The narrator is an archetype rather than an individual, a war weary American soldier who has “been” at every US war since 1812. The lyrics testify to a collective historical experience of American imperial adventures, and reject further collaboration in the war machine. It is a fine example of a narrative technique used by political songwriters to this day.*

About Phil Ochs

Phil Ochs was born into a nice apolitical middle class family in Texas. It was at college that he discovered the nature of the American beast, and devoted his classically trained musical talent, sardonic wit, and poetic sense to changing it.

He learned to play guitar, dropped out, and joined the New York folk scene, devoting himself to ending the Vietnam War and opposing the draft. He joined the Yippies and helped to organize the Festival of Life outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. (Tasks included several hours of searching the outer suburbs of Chicago with Jerry Rubin for a pig to run as a presidential candidate).

1968 was a bad year for radicals in the United States. The politically optimistic anti-war/civil rights movement was dealt several shattering blows, and Phil Ochs felt them all deeply. The assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, the police riot in Chicago, and the election of Richard Nixon left Ochs feeling disillusioned and depressed. In particular, the vicious state reaction to the Lincoln Park protests, and the utter venality of the convention itself, broke his heart.

“I’m really beginning to question the basic sanity of the American public,” he remarked in an interview later that year.

I think more and more politicians are really becoming pathological liars… I think the Daily News, Tribune poisoning that comes out is literally creating – and television, all the media are creating a really mentally ill, unbalanced public…. I’ve always felt a contact with political reality from 1960 to 1968. But after Chicago I’m totally disoriented. I’m disoriented because the time has come for guns, and I’m not personally ready for guns. America’s such a violent country. The American revolution is going to be ridiculously bloody.”

Ochs’ 1969 album Rehearsals for Retirement has a tombstone on the cover, inscribed with the words “Phil Ochs… Died Chicago Illinois 1968.”
Despite several more albums and an active touring career, Ochs continued to decline over the late 60s and early 70s.

One biographer puts it this way:

By Phil’s thinking, he had died a long time ago: he had died politically in Chicago in 1968 in the violence of the Democratic National Convention; he had died professionally in Africa a few years later, when he had been strangled and felt that he could no longer sing; he had died spiritually when Chile had been overthrown and his friend Victor Jara had been brutally murdered; and, finally, he had died psychologically at the hands of John Train.

[Note: John Butler Train was an alternative personality that subsumed Ochs identity for several months in 1975, one of the manifestations of an increasingly severe bipolar disorder].

On April 9th, 1976, Phil Ochs took his own life. He was 35 years of age.


*David Rovics, “Glory and Fame” uses this same technique to narrate the history of the industrial worker, and Cosmo, “The Butcher’s Apron“, for the sailors and soldiers of the British Empire.

4 responses to “Phil Ochs,”I Ain’t Marchin’ Any More”

  1. I remember Phil. He turned my mind on with his “Pleasures of the Harbor” album. At the time, I was looking for another Dylan to come along–I used to listen to “Masters of War” in a Marine Corps squad bay in North Carolina. “Pleasures…” came along at a good time because Dylan was about to shut the door on politics and to begin his foray into the realm of religion. I sure wasn’t marching anymore after ’67. I kind of told that story in Wobbly times number 51.

    After joining the IWW in Frisco, I discovered a letter written by Phil to the GST from back in the day, I think it was around the time of the ’68 Dem Convention. It was in a glass case on display at GHQ. GHQ was in Frisco back in the early ’90s. The GST of the time told me that Phil had taken out a Red Card. Well maybe. Kind of like Chomsky and Ginsberg had done, for show mostly–kind of like moral support more than actually doing anything to organise more workers as a class.

    I don’t think Hayden was ever in the Yippies. He was in SDS. SDS was on the brink of the big split back in ’68 and one must admit that the Yippies saw promise in Weatherman. Hayden was on the other side of that political fence. He went on to join the Democratic Party and become a state senator in California.

    As for Phil, last time I heard him was in East Lansing in the 70s. He was totally drunk and singing at a small venue there. Someday, we’ll have to have a conversation over ales and tokes about FW Ochs.

  2. Pingback: Song, Struggle and Sorrow: Phil Ochs and Victor Jara | Occupied With Song

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