Phil Ochs, “The War is Over.”

In 1966, Beat poet Allen Ginsberg published a poem that contained the lines, “I here declare the end of the War!… this Act done by my own voice.” The concept of declaring an end to the Vietnam War “from the bottom up” appealed to Phil Ochs’ Yippie sensibilities, and he composed this song:

In early 1967, he wrote for the LA Free Press:

“A protest demonstration does not satisfy the demands of modern mass communications; it is somehow out of tune with the electric age. A protest rally is an act of negation against an act of negation, canceling each other out. The times demand a positive approach to demonstrations, a pro-life, joyful, energized, magnificently absurd demonstration against the sucking vacuum of war.
The trick is not to go against the establishment, but not to believe them. Come on, now—do you really believe that a war is being fought in this day and age—certainly, not a war that has anything to do with us. Why, that would be absurd—don’t you think?
On June 23, there is going to be a celebration of the end of the war. This celebration could be a love-in, a be-in, a to-be or not to be-in, a happening, a rally, a demonstration, an earthquake, a premature solstice, living theatre, living movies, a huge Hollywood production, a statement of numbers that you can attend without insulting your aesthetic.
Johnson will be speaking at a $500 a plate dinner inside the Century Plaza Hotel, so we can have a penny a plate dinner outside at the celebration. How ironic to have this bit actor give a speech demanding that people support a demented war while outside thousands are celebrating the end of the war!”

June 23rd rolled around, and there was a protest in LA outside the hotel, but it didn’t turn out the way Ochs envisioned it. It started as a conventional peaceful protest, and included a significant number of people attending their first protest rally ever. By the end of the march, they were abruptly introduced to the war on the domestic front.

“On the night of June 23, 1967, the meaning of ‘police brutality’ took on an electrifying reality for thousands of respectable middle-class residents of Los Angeles who participated in a peaceful anti-Vietnam demonstration,” wrote one of those respectable residents a few days later. He was a college professor, and his family was with him. The quote comes from an article written by this eyewitness’s son many years later, who continued:

“Forty-six years ago today, Los Angeles was rocked by a violent police response to a peaceful demonstration against the Vietnam War. I don’t know if it’s taught in schools, or if anyone besides the people who were there remember it.
But it was an important moment in the life of the city, and its reverberations were felt across the rest of the country.
The city permit called for marchers to keep moving — past the hotel, to Santa Monica Boulevard and back toward the park. But when the marchers approached the hotel, a group of demonstrators sat down in the street, stopping forward movement. Primed for a confrontation, and determined not to be embarrassed in front of the president and his supporters, who dined on filet mignon forestiere as the Supremes entertained, the police ordered the crowd to disperse.
The people who had sat down in protest stayed put. Few of the thousands of marchers behind them heard the dispersal orders; even if they had, they were trapped by the crowds and had trouble moving.
Watching from the comfort of a high floor in the hotel, Los Angeles Police Chief Tom Reddin ordered his men to break up the demonstration by force.”

It was incidents like these that broke the back of Ochs political optimism over the next year and a half. This story does end on an up, though- sort of. He played this song at a concert that actually did celebrate the end of the war- eight years later.

The War Is Over
By Phil Ochs

Silent Soldiers on a silver screen
Framed in fantasies and dragged in dream
Unpaid actors of the mystery
The mad director knows that freedom will not make you free
And what’s this got to do with me

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

Drums are drizzling on a grain of sand
Fading rhythms of a fading land
Prove your courage in the proud parade
Trust your leaders where mistakes are almost never made
And they’re afraid that I’m afraid

I’m afraid the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

Angry artists painting angry signs
Use their vision just to blind the blind
Poisoned players of a grizzly game
One is guilty and the other gets the point to blame
Pardon me if I refrain

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

So do your duty, boys, and join with pride
Serve your country in her suicide
Find the flags so you can wave goodbye
But just before the end even treason might be worth a try
This country is to young to die

I declare the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

One-legged veterans will greet the dawn
And they’re whistling marches as they mow the lawn
And the gargoyles only sit and grieve
The gypsy fortune teller told me that we’d been deceived
You only are what you believe

I believe the war is over
It’s over, it’s over

(Ochs changed the verses for the recorded version; below are the other verses originally written:)

Cardboard cowboys of a new frontier
drowning indians in vats of beer
the troops are leaving on the trojan train
the sun in their eyes, but i am hiding from the rain
now one of us must be insane

All the children play with gatling guns
tattoord moithers with their tattooed sons
the strong will wonder if they’re really strong
but surely we’ve been gone to long

But at least we’re working building tanks and planesC#m
and a raise is coming so we can’t complain
the master of the march has lost his mind
perhaps, some other war, this fabled farce would all be fine
but now we’re running out of time

Black 47,”Touched by Fire”

In the mid-1990s, my social life revolved around Irish music. It’s been a long time since I joined a Whiplash mosh pit or did the weekend rounds of Melbourne’s many Irish pubs, but the music that I loved and lived in my twenties stays with me.

Irish folk-punk, to me, was something that was live and local. I owned albums by The Pogues of course (doesn’t everybody?), but that was geographic necessity. So it makes sense that I missed Black 47, even though they were signed to The Pogues label in 1990 and toured with them back then. I am making up for that now, though…

About Black 47

I have written before on this blog about the peculiar international nature of Irish nationalism, and the way that comes up in music. Wherever the Irish migrate in numbers (pretty much everywhere in the industrialised world) their (very republican) culture and music intertwines with that of the local working class. That’s the story I immersed myself in all those years ago in my home town, and New York has a similar history, only more so.

Hence Black 47. Mostly they write about Irish republican history and the American working-class experience. Their audience was a strange mixture of left and right-wing punks for just that reason, which must have made for an interesting dynamic at live shows.

“Touched by Fire” belongs to the first topic. It is a biographic song about one of the most fascinating (and historically neglected) leaders of the Irish nationalist movement; the Countess Constance Markievicz. If anyone deserves a song, this woman does, so I’m very pleased to point you in this direction. It includes not just her story, but her voice, a first person story. It’s not simply a tribute; it’s also history in song. There’s also a great horn section.*

About Constance Markievicz

Constance Markievicz (born Constance Gore-Booth), was raised on her father’s Irish estate in Sligo.

Sir Henry Gore-Booth stands in history as an enlightened land baron… His children mingled among the local Irish, learning Irish songs and stories, as did Yeats. The father’s example – he was an Arctic explorer–may have led to Con’s risk-taking disposition and her advocacy of causes on behalf of the powerless. The Countess’s last days were in a ward in St. Patrick Dunn’s, a charity hospital in Dublin. There a woman left a bottle of Lourdes water for Madame, saying, “She’s given up everything for us and she thinks what is good for us is good enough for her.” (John Walsh)

Constance trained in France as a painter, and there she married a Polish count and artist (hence the title and Slavic surname). She joined the Dublin artist community in founding the United Arts Club. Ostensibly dedicated to preserving Irish language and culture, the Club included members of the Gaelic League, and so the Countess was introduced directly to Irish nationalist politics. In 1908 she joined Sinn Fein and the Daughters of Ireland. She became a suffragette, performed in plays at the Abbey Theatre, and inevitably started getting arrested and jailed for political activity. The first instance was 1911, when she spoke at a protest against George V’s visit to Dublin.

During the Dublin lockout of 1913, she joined James Connolly’s Irish Citizen Army, and ran a soup kitchen at her own expense while helping Jim Larkin lead the struggle wherever possible. (They became friends and comrades in 1913; they got along famously. Peas in a pod, Jim and Constance).

She participated, very competently, in the Easter Rising of 1916. In the lead-up to the Irish Spring, she not only equipped her militia at her own expense, she took responsibility for their training. She poured all of her resources into the cause, and died virtually penniless, in fact. She must have been an awesome (and scary) drill sergeant. She commanded a position during the uprising that held out longer than any other. Of the 70 women jailed after the uprising, she was the only one subjected to solitary confinement. It didn’t noticeably reduce her effectiveness.

In 1918, she was the first woman ever elected to the British House of Commons, running in Dublin on the Sinn Fein ticket. (Like all of the Sinn Fein MPs, she refused to take her seat, and became Minister for Labour in the republican parliament at home). She was re-elected while “imprisoned by the foreign enemy”, as Sinn Fein described it, in 1921, and resigned from the party the following year in protest against the Anglo-Irish treaty.

The Countess made a great speech, was very direct and well-organized, and clearly didn’t hold with people dithering or mucking about. Her whole life, she did what needed to be done. Hers was, as Larry Kirwan writes, a life touched by fire. It was a life that was sadly cut short in 1927, when she died of complications from an appendicitis attack.

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*The lyrics to this were written by Black 47 front man Larry Kirwan. Kirwan writes novels as well as punk rock lyrics; he actually organized a tour called “Rock and Read”, which is such an awesomely nerd-punk thing that I just had to mention it.