William Curtis


My Association With Phil Ochs


Although I met Phil Ochs only once, I feel that he has been a friend of mine for over forty years. This affiliation may be the longest anyone has been connected to Phil outside his immediate family. I admired his ability to express in rhyme and verse that which I had difficulty expressing in plain English regarding issues and feelings we shared in common. I admired the causes for which he supported and the fact that he was not afraid to express his feelings or compromise his beliefs.

I grew up in a small town called Tumwater located a few miles south of Olympia, Washington. In 1962 I was a senior in high school. I was the student body president, captain of the football, basketball, and baseball teams, and was a member of the National Honor Society. I had earned my Eagle Scout and God and Country Awards and was preparing to go to college to pursue a degree in Classical Studies.

One of the graduation requirements of the senior year in high school was that each student had to take a course in Current World Problems which we affectionately called CWP. One of the class requirements was that each week each student had to give to the class an oral report based on some local, state, or national event. I usually tried to find something unique or unusual to report to the class hoping that my presentation would not be boring. I would usually find a topic like “the death of the last surviving Civil War veteran” or something of that nature. One particular week that spring I couldn’t find a topic that fell within the range of my interests. As my report drew nearer I was forced to choose a topic from the front pages of the newspaper. This topic was about a national government official who got caught in a price fixing scandal by issuing government contracts to his own private trucking company in Texas to haul fertilizer to government projects. The official’s name was Billie Sol Estes. It was one of the major news topics of the day. That is why I thought my report would be boring because most everyone had already been exposed to the scandal through the media.

One thing about this class was that each student could earn extra credit in the following weeks if the student brought to the class any follow-up information to any report that the student had presented previously. As luck would have it, I heard a song that week on the radio about the price fixing scandal that I had reported on. The name of the song was “The Ballad of Billie Sol”. I was amazed that someone could write so quickly a catchy song about a current event. I wrote down some of the verses and later read them to the class. The teacher was impressed enough to give me the extra credit, and he asked me who the singer was. I told him the singer was not one of the well known rock and roll singers of the day but a new singer by the name of Phil Ox.

Four years later I was a senior at the University of Washington completing my degree in Latin. By now my music of preference was folk music. I had out grown my taste for Rock and Roll, and I didn’t care for the music of the British invasion. I liked the folk ballads and the songs of historical significance or topical songs. I was also at this time deeply involved with the national issues of the day. I seemed to sense that something was wrong with me because I tended to not accept what the majority of the people in our country seemed to be accepting at the time. I couldn’t understand why there wasn’t more of a national effort to help the poor, the homeless, and the hungry of our nation. I didn’t understand why constitutionally stated rights for all citizens were denied to certain individuals because of their skin color. I also didn’t understand why women who worked the same number of hours as men and did equal quality of work were denied equal pay as men. I continued to question the validity of our nation’s involvement in Viet Nam. At the University I met two students who admirably left school for a quarter to go to Mississippi to help the African-Americans register to vote. Upon their return they told me their shocking experiences like the one where they encountered one precinct where African-Americans had to guess correctly the exact number of jelly beans in a large jar in order to register. Another precinct required a reading test of African-Americans so they gave each prospective registrant a copy of a book in Chinese and asked them to read it. Why were these conditions allowed to exist? There were questionable situations all over the country. In New York City that summer a woman by the name of Kitty Genovese was murdered despite constant yells for help and pleas for her life which were ignored by several people passing by. Something seemed very wrong with our society. Shortly after that murder I heard on the radio a new topical song called “Outside A Small Circle of Friends” which was inspired by the Genovese murder. The song blew me away! I also recognized the singer’s voice. I had heard it four years earlier. It was Phil, but now they were pronouncing his name “Oaks”.

Later that summer I heard that “Outside A Small Circle Of Friends” was going to come out on an LP. As a college student I didn’t have much money, but I scrimped and saved and bought the album for $4.98. I quickly learned every word to every song on that album, and that album remains one of my favorite possessions to this day.

Now I was really getting into Phil as a singer and writer. I purchased his earlier albums and memorized all his songs. When “Gunfight At Carnegie Hall” came out, I decided at the time that I could not afford the $4.98. I decided to purchase the album at a later time when I was more affluent. It took me over thirty years before I even found another copy. By then it cost me a lot more than $4.98 to purchase it.

In 1966 I graduated from the University of Washington and received a federal fellowship to work for my Master’s Degree at Indiana University. The spring of 1968 found me working for the Eugene McCarthy for president campaign. Mr. McCarthy came to our campaign headquarters. He was very congenial. We were fortunate to be able to have on campus a support rally to which came performers Peter, Paul and Mary, Tom Lehrer, and Phil Ochs. All three were favorites of mine. Phil sang “Outside A Small Circle Of Friends”, “Power and Glory”, and “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”. Phil’s performance lacked the luster of the concerts he was noted to give. He looked tired and perhaps a bit disinterested. After the concert Phil met several of us at the campaign headquarters. He shook my hand, but when I tried to ask him some questions, he passed me off as he did to others. He seemed like he just didn’t want to be there. I always remembered this incident and thought it strange until thirty years later I read in Michael Schumacher’s biography of Phil that during the McCarthy campaign Phil came to the realization that Mr. McCarthy was not winnable and that Robert Kennedy was the better choice, but Phil could not get out of his tour contract. This was perhaps the attitude I had witnessed. I too was beginning to think that Robert Kennedy was the better choice. Interestingly, a few weeks later Eugene McCarthy dropped out of the presidential race, and Robert Kennedy jumped in.

In late May Robert Kennedy came to Indiana University to give a speech that was carried live on national radio. A few hours before his talk I walked down to Memorial Auditorium where he was to speak. Shortly after my arrival ropes were set up to establish a walkway for Mr. Kennedy. Soon his limousine arrived. The secret service opened his door. Robert stepped out, smiled to the crowd, and began shaking hands as he approached the building entrance. I was standing by the ropes as he walked by. I extended my hand. He grasped it. Just as he did so, I quickly mentioned a name of a mutual friend, Dee Molenaar, a mountaineer who guided Robert to the top of Mt. Kennedy in Canada. As I mentioned Dee’s name, Robert turned to me. He looked shocked that someone in Indiana would know who Mr. Molenaar was. Then he stopped and smiled and asked me how Mr. Molenaar was. We began a brief conversation when the secret service whisked him away towards the entrance, but Robert turned to me, waved, and asked me to say hello to Dee the next time I saw him. A few weeks later Robert Kennedy was dead.

After graduating from Indiana University in 1968 I signed a contract to begin my teaching career in Central Illinois. I was very interested in attending the National Democratic Convention in Chicago that August. However, my wife convinced me that our summer would be better spent in the Pacific Northwest where we had not seen our families in over two years. When the convention took place, I remained glued to the proceedings every day. Sometimes I wished I was there. Other times I was glad I was not .

The next several years I remained busy establishing a career, starting a family, making moves that took me to Western Illinois University and to the University of Colorado before returning back to the Northwest in 1973. I continued my interest in folk music, but I really didn’t have the time to keep up on the genre which happened to be waning anyway.

About a year after returning to my home town I began to teach Latin and coach at a new high school that opened in Olympia. In the fall of 1976 we moved from a duplex into a house rental. The house needed a lot of work. I worked out a deal with our landlord that our rent would be reduced if I painted the interior rooms of the house. Since I was teaching full time, I devoted my weekends to painting. One Saturday in October after painting all day I hooked up our old black and white TV set. I was really tired and wanted to relax that evening by watching a movie, a game or something on TV. I started looking through the TV guide of the newspaper. I noticed that PBS was showing that very evening a “Phil Ochs Memorial Concert”. I got very excited. Other than watching a poor performance of Phil singing “Chords of Fame” on Midnight Special I hadn’t kept in touch with Phil’s activities in years. His name brought back all the old memories of college days. I quickly ate dinner, took a shower, made a bowl of popcorn. When the concert started, I saw Odetta, Melanie, and Bob Gibson singing Phil Ochs songs. This was nice, but where was Phil? It took about fifteen minutes or so to realize that something was wrong. Why was the concert called a “Memorial” concert? That term is used only when a person has died. I had not heard that Phil had died. I was standing when the full realization hit me. I then collapsed onto the couch and started crying like a baby. My wife rushed in to see what was the matter. I think it was the first time she had ever seen me cry. The next day I went to the library to find information about Phil’s death. I discovered an article “Phil Ochs Ain’t Marching Anymore” by John Berendt in Esquire 86 volume 4. This article affected me as if I was reading an obituary of a member of my own family.

With Mr. Berendt’s article about Phil I began to collect anything and everything I found about Phil Ochs. I kept folders and divided them into a variety of topics like “reviews”, “covers”, “articles about”, “articles by”, etc.. My collection at first was sparse but steadily grew over the years. Occasionally I would hear or read about a song Phil had written but did not record commercially. This would pique my interest and kept my searching pursuits alive. By the 1990s I thought I knew everything there was to know about Phil Ochs, and that I was some sort of an expert on his life and music. I was also becoming aware that a new generation of youth had never heard of him. The fact that Phil’s music might be disappearing greatly concerned me.

In the spring of 1992 our high school was one of the first in our area to get connected to the internet. I was becoming jealous of my students who knew more than I did about computers and were using terms like “booting up”, “downloading”, “clicking on links”, etc. I had no idea what they were talking about., but I wanted to learn.

A passed district levy brought to our school building enough money to establish the first computer lab in the area. Once the computers were set up and connected, a paid workshop was offered to the faculty to learn how to use the computers. I certainly took advantage of this opportunity to about computers, and I sure could use the extra money.

The instructor’s name was Jeff Waddington who heads the video technology department. I later learned that his father knew Phil too. Mr. Waddington taught us how to turn on the computer. This was exciting to a novice! He then showed us how access the internet and how to do email. We had to create a computer screen name and a password. I was picking this stuff up pretty fast. About half way through the workshop Mr. Waddington told us that he was going to give us about twenty minutes on-hands experience to explore the internet on our own. He told us we could find sites on just about any subject we were interested in. I thought that was a pretty bold statement and decided to prove him wrong. I went to the search engine, and I typed PHILOCHS. Within seconds I downloaded a newly formed home page web site on Phil created by Trent Fisher. I almost fell off my chair! I studied closely the links on the home page. Many of these sites related to the subject areas that I had been collecting information. I became even more fascinated that the site offered a subscription system whereby subscribers could send information, ask and answer questions to other subscribers. This seemed so interesting that I signed up then and there for the free subscription service. I don’t remember what happened the rest of the workshop.I do remember that when email subscriber connection was set up, I asked some question about Phil just to see if the system worked. Within fifteen minutes I received two answers. One was from a lady in Columbus, Ohio (Phil’s hometown), and another from a lady in New York whose name was Sonny. I thought this was really an odd coincidence, because I knew that Phil had a sister named Sonny. I also thought it odd that this lady’s last name was Ochs, the same as Phil’s. It took me about ten minutes to realize that WAS Phil’s sister. I once again almost fell off my chair.

Checking my email on the computer became a daily routine. I looked forward to receiving email from the other subscribers. There were only about seven or eight subscribers at the time. It was fun to share stories, ask and answer questions, and to exchange information about Phil. I, who thought that I knew everything about Phil, began to realize how little I knew about him. The subscribers formed what I felt was a rather close email camaraderie. Eventually, as the number of subscribers increased, the purpose of the list lost its original intent, and most of the original listers removed themselves from the list. The subscription list does continue to exist. I may remain as the only original lister.

Getting to know Sonny was a real joy. Not only was she willing to answer questions about Phil, but she gave me many personal insights to his life and music. My research on Phil at this time began to grow. I discovered a complete collection of Broadside Magazine in the archives of the music library at the University of Washington. Over a two year period I copied every song, article, and reference to Phil. I began to hunt for and collect bootleg copies of Phil’s unreleased material as well as continue to collect articles, reviews, covers, concerts, and even videos.

On Phil’s home page I started a survey on which anyone acquainted with Phil’s music could send me that person’s five favorite Phil Ochs songs. This has proved to be a very interesting project over the past few years. Over 430 people have have contributed their favorite songs to the survey from almost every state in the union and from over twenty foreign nations. I still find it interesting that no one from Mississippi has responded to the survey! This project has developed many friendships. I have met several of these subscribers all over the country in my travels, and I have been invited to stay overnight with some families I met on this list. I met a fellow in Northern Italy who plays in a band that features American folk music and is very familiar with Phil Ochs. In 1998 I spent the summer in Italy as a recipient of my second Fulbight Fellowship. This fellow drove down from Mantua to Rome to meet me. I also got to meet Luigi Scotolati in Rome. He is the only person to have written a doctoral thesis on Phil Ochs. He gave me a copy of part of his thesis.

The survey on the home page allowed me to meet many interesting people. I was contacted on the survey by a Russian scientist who was working on a ship in Antarctica. I was contacted by a lad who lives in the outback in Australia. A fellow in Romania wrote to me to tell me that folk music was not allowed in the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell, this person went to Ireland, the homeland of his mother. He returned with her record collection that included LPs by Phil Ochs. He believes he has the only Phil Ochs albums in Romania today.

Early in 1996 Sonny Ochs contacted several of us on the subscription list and asked us to form a committee to help provide a name for a new biography on Phil Ochs which was to be written by a Michael Schumacher. I was thrilled to have been asked. The committee came up with many suggestions, some serious, some silly, but eventually one of the suggestions, There But For Fortune, was selected.

At the time I did not know who Michael Schumacher was. I learned that he had already written a couple of biographies. While I awaited Phil’s biography to be released, I decided to check out one of Mr. Schumacher’s earlier works. In Port Townsend, Washington I found a copy of “Dharma Lion” about the life of Allen Ginsberg. I am not a fond fan of Mr. Ginsberg or his poetry, but I knew he was an acquaintance of Phil and had performed with Phil in Vancouver, British Columbia. I bought the book and gasped at the 686 pages. However, this biography turned out to be very fascinating to read. Now I could hardly wait to read Phil’s biography. Today my library contains all of Mr. Schumacher’s biographies, and I look forward to acquiring a copy of his current project.

In 1998 I was invited to attend the National Tribute to Phil Ochs Day symposium at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I hesitated to accept as I considered the distance, my financial situation, and missed time from work. However, this was one of those “once in a life time opportunities”. Almost all the long time subscribers on the list were going to attend. It would be fun to finally meet those with whom I had corresponded with for so many years. I decided to go.

Pam Raver, the subscription list “mother hen”, met me at the Red Roof Inn in Cleveland. She drove me into city and to the Hall of Fame early so that we might meet some of the other listers, as we called ourselves. We met Sonny Ochs in the lobby. In the symposium room I met and sat with Pam, David Cohen, Jim Flynn, and Susie Davidson. It was fun to finally put faces to each other after many years. Soon I began to recognize sitting amongst us others who knew Phil professionally or otherwise. I recognized Tom Paxton. Eric Anderson, Michael Schumacher, Ron Cohen, Bob Fass, Dave Marsh, Gene Shay, John Sinclair, Izzy Young, and Deni Frand. There were many others whose names I had read about in articles written by or about Phil that I had collected.

It was especially interesting to have met David Cohen who is an archivist at the University of Pennsylvania. We had corresponded on the list or by email for a number of years. We discovered we were collecting the same materials regarding Phil. I learned that his collection was more extensive than mine, so at the symposium I arranged to give him what materials I had that he didn’t have as well as a copy of Luigi Scotolati’s thesis on Phil and missing copies of Broadside Magazine of Phil’s works. I also sent David a number of covers of Phil’s works that he did not have. Later David compiled all his statistical information and wrote a biography of Phil in a book that he published called “Phil Ochs: A Bio-Bibliography”. I was honored that he included materials that I had given to him.

I suppose out of appreciation for providing these materials David, who was one of the featured speakers, invited Pam Raver and I to have lunch with him and the rest of the dais. We descended to the catacombs of the Hall of Fame to a lunch room where a luncheon had been prepared. I sat down with my lunch at a table and soon realized that sitting next to me on my right was Tom Paxton. Sitting across from me was Judy Collins and next to her was Janis Ian. Down the table was Alex Hassilev of the Limeliters and members of Sonny’s Song Night troupe. My heart started pounding as loud as I had ever heard it pound! I wanted to converse with Tom Paxton, but I was afraid of saying something dumb like when Chris Farley asked John Lennon in an interview “Do you remember when you were a part of the Beatles?” The only song I ever learned how to play on a guitar was “I Can’t Help But Wonder Where I’m Bound”. I never dreamed that one day I would be talking with the composer.

Tom Paxton was actually very easy to talk to. He grew up in Oklahoma. I told him that my father was was born in Okema, Oklahoma. Tom told me that he played football in high school against Okema. Okema is also the birth place of Woody Guthrie where an annual folk festival is held every summer. Tom has performed there many times.

The evening following the symposium we all drove to the Cuyahoga Community College Auditorium to attend a special performance of Sonny Ochs’ Song Nights. Here gifted folk artists sang one of Phil’s songs as a tribute and then sang one of their own songs. The program included special appearances of Judy Collins, Carolyn Hester, Dick Gaughan from Scotland (whom I saw two weeks later in Olympia, Washington), Judy Henske, The Limeliters, Eric Anderson, as well as Sonny’s troupe of performers of Magpie, Kim and Reggie Harris, Pat Humphies, Greg Greenway, and Tom Prasada-Rao. We listers sat together. The performance was enthralling. Tears came to our eyes as various performers sang Phil’s songs. One could have heard a pin drop in that vast auditorium as everyone was so attentive. Particularly moving was Greg Greenway’s version of “Crucifixion”. There was hardly a dry eye in the house.

After the concert we got to meet the performers in the lobby. I got to finally meet Michael Schumacher. He autographed my biography copy that I had brought with me from Washington State.

A week after the symposium in Cleveland I was asked to speak about Phil at the Northwest Folklife Festival in Seattle where I got to meet many of the local subscription listers for the first time including Trent Fisher, the creator of the web site on Phil Ochs.

Today I continue to collect materials about Phil as well as continue to do the survey on the web site homepage. Around my school and community I am known as “that Phil Ochs guy”. When Jeff Waddington at school learned that I was into Phil, he told me that his father was a professor at Eastern Washington University, and he had invited Phil to sing at a student anti-war rally back in the late sixties. Jeff remembers going to the airport in Spokane with his father to pick up Phil. Jeff was thirteen a the time and sat in the back seat with Phil. Phil let Jeff hold his guitar. Jeff recently told me that his father said that the rally was not well attended. Therefore, Phil returned the honorarium that had been given to him back to the student group that had invited him.

I use Phil’s music in the classroom. When I used to teach literature, the class read “The Bells” and “The Highwayman”. After reading these poems in class I would bring in Phil’s versions to play for the class. In American History I include a history of music. I play songs that were sung during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. We study the new types of music that began to appear in the twentieth century. I teach about topical songs and try to explain what we can learn form our nation’s history through songs such as Woody Guthrie’s ballads of the 1930s. I also include a unit on Rock and Roll. When we study Viet Nam, I invite veterans to class to speak of their experiences and allow the students the opportunity to ask them questions. The following day I take an anti-war stance and try to explain why so many people were opposed to that war. I bring to class a number of protest songs which includes “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”, “Draft Dodger Rag”, and “Song of a Soldier”. I also try to explain that topical songs give us an opportunity to look back and ask what was the significance of such people as Emmitt Till, Medgar Evers, William Worthy, Joe hill, Davey Moore, Billie Sol Estes, William Moore, Christine Keeler, Lou Marsh, Alferd Packer, or a Paul Crump, or events like the Cuban Invasion, the Scorpion, the Thresher, Freedom Riders, Fifty Mile Hike, summer riots of 1968, political scandals, policies on Viet Nam, miner strikes in the coal mines, airplane crashes, etc., etc.

Recently I have been trying to make contact with people who knew Phil personally. thus far I have been successful in contacting Stew Albert, Lee Housekeeper, and Sammy Walker. I am still trying to locate Andy Wickham.

I have been fortunate to have received two Fulbright Fellowships which allowed me to spend two summers to study and travel in Italy. I have led seven student tours of Rome and vicinity. In April 2003 while leading my group of students from the Spanish Steps to the Via Veneto, we passed through the Piazza Barberini where there was a huge demonstration protesting the American involvement in Iraq. There was over 100,000 demonstrators with signs, placards, “pace” banners, floats, speakers, etc.. There was a large flat bed truck slowly making its way through the crowd from which speakers were haranguing the crowd with their anti-war speeches. I was trying to make our way along the edge of the crowd when I saw a fellow climb aboard the flat bed truck with a guitar. I walked several steps when all of a sudden I heard that unmistakable licks that open “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”. I stopped. As the fellow sang the song in Italian, I sang it in English. When the song ended, I turned and moved along as if it was normal to sing a protest song in such a large crowd.

Phil Ochs was not only a great writer of songs, but he was also a great American. He did not believe in or accept the silly notion “America - love it or leave it”. His philosophy was more “America - love it and improve it”. For this he was considered by some a Communist, scathed by others, and placed under surveillance for the rest of his life for writing an innocuous line in one of his songs “Pretty Smart On My Part”, which was a song on paranoia, for heaven’s sake!

Phil’s music is just as pertinent today as it was in the 1960s. It is my hope that his music will continue to remain alive. I am glad that a new generation of young people is discovering his music, continue to write about Phil, and that new artists continue to cover his songs. I have personally seen and spoken with topical singers/writers such as Dan Bern, David Rovics, Casey Neill, Ani DeFranco, and Dar Williams. Each one told me that their careers were influenced by Phil Ochs.

As I approach or begin to rehearse my retirement, I think about what I would like to do when my teaching days are over. If I could, I would like to be an archivist at a folk museum or the Phil Ochs library if there were such a thing. I am grateful to have met so many wonderful interesting people over the years who have been connected with Phil’s life and music. I am also grateful to have shared a time and a world as Phil saw it. How little did I imagine that a brief report in 1962 would lead to all that I have experienced since.

If only Phil were here to deal with all the various topics of today! He would have had a field day! I think he would have viewed George W. Bush in the same light as he did Richard Nixon. “My life was once a joy to me.......”