Of all the artists to emerge from the counterculture of New York’s Greenwich Village in the 1960s, the most politically significant was not the now Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan, whose songs Blowin’ In The Wind and The Times They Are A Changin’ continue to convey some of that radical age, but Phil Ochs. Born in Texas in 1940 to a New Yorker father and a Scottish mother, Ochs emerged as a protest singer in the early 1960s after a period studying journalism at Ohio State. Whilst at OSU, Ochs immersed himself in the folk music of the 1930s, the songs of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, and the Almanac Singers. Politically charged, and encouraged by the New Deal’s sponsorship of popularly accessible music and literature, which gave renewed purpose to Aaron Copland, Paul Robeson and John Steinbeck, this interwar folk music was incontrovertibly connected with the Communist Party and left radicalism. Its revival in the 1960s encouraged by the seemingly New Deal-esque liberalism of the Kennedy administration – Lyndon Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president, as was then widely known, and often forgotten today, had been a New Deal administrator in Texas.
If you search for Ochs’s songs on YouTube, one thing becomes immediately apparent: the relationship that the singer had with Scandinavia, particularly, though not exclusively, Sweden. (The SVT logo is hard to ignore on some of the videos.) Readers familiar with Scandinavian history and with sixties Sweden won’t find this overly surprising, since this was the period when Nordic social democracy gained both its global credence and its most charismatic proponent – Olof Palme. For readers less familiar, this period offers fascinating parallels with our own times: since American counterculture, Nordic social democracy, and the turbulent history of the transatlantic left are themes which have regained their immediacy. It is to this immediacy that today’s blog turns its focus.
Until the mid-1960s, Phil Ochs was largely unknown in Scandinavia. The first time one of his songs was played on the radio in Norway, for instance, was in August 1965 when Joan Baez’s cover of There But For Fortune appeared on Vidar Lønn-Arnesen’s radio programme, Sikksakk. The song was repeated a year later on Og ellers har De det bra, but it was not until 1967 that Ochs really broke into the Norwegian music scene, becoming a staple until the mid-1970s. This really followed his first visit to Oslo in December 1966: as the Arbeiderbladet put it, Ochs was still little known in Norway at the time of his trip. He came to Oslo to attend an international rally against the war in Vietnam at the Folkets Hus alongside Isaac Deutscher, who headlined, together with the Norwegian activist Ragnar Kalheim, and the American anti-nuclear campaigner Ralph Schoenmann (who was for a period also Bertrand Russell’s secretary). The rally was reported widely in the Nordic press – even as far away as Iceland – and in the United States, and Ochs played a second gig at the historic Folk Lorry in Frederiksberg, Copenhagen a few days later.
What Norwegian listeners heard on the radio were the staples of Ochs’s musical contribution and confirmed his status as one of the leading protest singers – in English – of the period. Some of the songs were, in actual fact, covers of the American folk tradition, such as Pete Seeger’s Lou Marsh, but others were his own major works such as Changes. Indeed, it must have been quite a thing to wake, on a mid-November morning, to lyrics such as:
Sit by my side, come as close as the air,
Share in a memory of gray;
Wander in my words, dream about the pictures
That I play of changes.
A significant milestone was NRK’s memorial broadcast to Woody Guthrie on Thursday 18 November, 1967. Guthrie had died about a month earlier on 3 October, and the special broadcast brought together Guthrie’s own recordings with covers by Bob Dylan and Phil Ochs. Ochs sang his Bound For Glory, which had been written in 1963, and told Guthrie’s life – the song title is a direct echo of Guthrie’s autobiography. The following year, NRK secured a 25-minute interview with Ochs conducted by Helge Rønning, although it was not Ochs’s voice that was heard but that of the actor Svein Erik Brodal who read a translation. Interspersed the interview were a selection of Ochs’s war-protest songs, and this was probably the first occasion that his The War Is Over was heard on Norwegian state radio. Such was Ochs’s reputation and renown in Norway by the summer of 1968, newspapers could publish lengthy interviews with him without worrying readers with a direct introduction. In one such piece he was introduced simply as the ‘McCarthy Kid’ – Eugene McCarthy, that is.
The summer of 1968 found Ochs on a tour of Norway and Sweden, he was there a few days after the assassination of Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles on 6 June. Ochs had played a concert at Lund University in Sweden that day. Little wonder, therefore, that so much of Ochs’s commentary that summer had an urgency about it, and the television appearances and radio broadcasts such political fire. One review of the Lund concert, published in Malmö, reflected that Ochs represented det andra Amerika – the other America. Ochs was in Oslo on 9 June and performed at the legendary Club 7 (1963-1985), the city’s mecca for counterculture – a kind of self-contained Greenwich Village in the centre of the Norwegian capital. From Oslo, Ochs travelled to Stockholm where he performed at the Konserthuset, on to Uppsala where he played at the university, and after a week or so in Germany and Czechoslovakia, returned to Sweden for a gig in Gothenburg on 19 June before ending his Scandinavian part of the tour in Copenhagen at the Tivoli Gardens on June 21st. (Ochs also played at the Folkets Hus in the Danish capital on 20 June 1968.) He returned to Scandinavia the following year, with concerts in Denmark and Sweden and a further round of television appearances.
The Stockholm concert in June 1968 was a benefit for charitable work amongst Americans who sought to evade the draft, or who deserted from the army, and who fled to Sweden – the war resisters. Organised by the peace organisation TUFF and the student peace movement, the concert was held in the smaller hall at the Konserthus and was packed out. Ochs sang for free, so all proceeds went straight to the charitable funds used to support war resisters and deserters. Thousands fled America to avoid the draft, most ended up in Canada (an estimated 125,000) but nearly 1,000 made their way to Sweden. Most of those had deserted their units. An article in the New York Times published in the mid-1980s reflected on the challenges faced by the young Americans, particularly the more than 100 African Americans who attempted to settle in Malmö. This group of ex-soldiers certainly found Malmö to be a somewhat hostile city – in contrast to the white Americans who settled in Stockholm, for instance, who had a better time of it. But then, perhaps we should not be too surprised, because the southern port city remains on the front lines of Sweden’s battle against racism and the far right and it is here that the Sweden Democrats have established an electoral powerbase.
The underlying tensions of racism and xenophobia, which settled alongside (but normally disguised by) the broader perceptions of Sweden’s social democracy in the 1960s and early 1970s, served as a stark reminder that not everything was comfortable in the Nordic world. This was, after all, the same period that Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö were writing their Martin Beck series which exposed the dark underbelly of late-1960s and early-1970s Sweden. With their themes of rape, molestation, murder, kidnap, paedophilia, mass shooting, and terrorism, this was hardly the paradise that many believed Sweden offered. Sjöwall and Wahlöö, both Marxists, were active in the Swedish New Left and their work exemplified New Left critiques. This was, after all, a generation activated by the Vietnam War and the ostensible support for the peace movement and anti-imperialism shown by leading government ministers (and ultimately Prime Minister) such as Olof Palme. Sweden’s international role and international reputation overshadowed certain realities at home. And this has long been the case: by Palme’s death in February 1986, as the auto-fictional writing of Jonas Gardell and historical inquiry of Jens Rydström has shown in recent times, the tensions around race revealed by African American ex-soldiers in Malmö in the 1960s were no less apparent when AIDS focused public attention on gays and lesbians. If nothing else, readers familiar with Henning Mankell’s work, which first appeared in the 1980s, will recognise a Sweden lacking in utopia.
Phil Ochs represented, spoke to and for, a generation who hoped for a different world and were willing to stand up and call for it. Det andra Amerika, like the other Europe, was one in which activists spoke about class, about feminism and sexuality, about race and combatting xenophobia, and about peace and tolerance. On his tours to Scandinavia at the end of the 1960s, Ochs may have played in trade union and countercultural venues, on university campuses, and in a theme park, but such was his immediate audience – he reached much further through newspapers, radio, and television. A key lesson for political movements today, no doubt. This was all fifty years ago, of course, but the themes are starkly appropriate to our own times. And they serve to remind us that to achieve change, it is necessary to fight for it – and by that I don’t mean take up arms rather to take up the pen, the guitar, the paintbrush, and the keyboard, and create an alternative world that is meaningful in other ways. Had Ochs lived, it may well have been him, not Bob Dylan, who received the Nobel Prize for Literature. At least, I’d like to think so.
I’ll end with these thoughts: in the last few years large protest movements have tended to respond to internal events rather than big international ones, often in order to secure a major change in domestic law. We need only think of the Human Rights Campaign in the United States which pressed for Equal Marriage or the equivalent movement in Ireland which sought a Yes vote in the Equal Marriage referendum. The lingering pro-European campaign in Britain will have this flavour too. But we are undoubtedly entering a period when international solidarity is needed to oppose the populist and nationalist turn, on the left and on the right. And that movement will need to find a universal message that speaks as well in the United States as it does in France or the Netherlands or Germany or, dare we say it, the United Kingdom. This is not without precedent, but it behoves historians and commentators to recover those precedents and to make sure that they are more widely known about. And if not Phil Ochs, we can think back to President Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, when Pete Seeger joined Bruce Springsteen to sing all of the verses of Woody Guthrie’s This Land Is Your Land, directly linking that most recent moment of possibility to the New Deal of the 1930s. It’s even more tantalising a connection when we remember what was painted onto Guthrie’s guitar…
THIS MACHINE KILLS FASCISTS