Song, Struggle and Sorrow: Phil Ochs and Victor Jara

On May 9th, 1974, Phil Ochs organised a concert at Madison Square Garden. “An Evening with Salvador Allende” was a tribute to Chile’s peacefully elected socialist president, and a protest against the brutal military coup that had instituted a dictatorship the previous September.

Ochs had a personal reason for organising this concert. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, soldiers poured through Santiago, imprisoning thousands of Chileans in the local boxing stadium. They turned that stadium into a death camp. One of the people they arrested was the folksinger and activist Victor Jara, already a legend in Chile and a consistent supporter of the socialist government.

“Victor Jara was a friend of mine,” Phil Ochs told Harry Hampstead after Jara’s death. Jara had introduced himself to Ochs when the latter visited Chile in August of 1971. “Why don’t you come with me and sing to the workers up in the copper mines?,” he asked Ochs, and a friendship was born. (No doubt Ochs sang “Hazard, Kentucky“, one of the songs he wrote for striking coal miners back home).
Ochs described Jara as “the Pete Seeger of Chile,” which is precise.

There are several versions of  the details of Victor Jara’s last days. The decades long attempt to find and charge the guards who tortured and murdered him has also provided new testimony.

It remains clear though that Jara was deliberately singled out by the officers guarding the stadium. He was not hard to spot, since he continued to do what he always did, circulating amongst the prisoners who had been arrested and taken to the boxing stadium, singing with them, encouraging them, helping out where he could.

When found, Jara’s body showed that he had been brutally beaten, his hands smashed, and that he had been shot to pieces.

Phil Ochs: “They threw his body with the other corpses. Just another dead body. His wife found him a week later. When that happened, I said, ‘All right, that’s the end of Phil Ochs.'”

As I wrote here, Jara’s death contributed noticeably to Ochs’ decline. Yet he struggled on, paying tribute to his friend as best he could, organising the concert and persuading Bob Dylan to join the lineup in order to boost ticket sales.

It was at this concert that the ballad “Victor Jara” was born. Just beforehand, Arlo Guthrie composed a tune for the poem written by Adrian Mitchell, and performed it during his set. The version below is sung by the inestimable Irish singer Christy Moore.

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