Pete Seeger was a man who’d seen it all, and done most of it. He beat accusations of being “un-American”, he beat being blacklisted from the mainstream media, he even beat old age to the point where he was still performing into his 90s, but that’s not really what this article is about. There’s already been lots – lot’s and lots – written about Pete, both celebrating his life and mourning his death, and there’s not a lot I can add.
One thing that did get reported, and is worth commenting on, however, is the piece that appeared in the NYTimes. The piece talked about how Pete met Phil a few weeks before Phil killed himself, and how the burden of believing that he could have done more to help Phil weighed heavily on Pete’s shoulders for the remainder of his own life.
The very fact that this made the news at all, let alone in one of the biggest-selling newspapers on earth is quite remarkable.
Often – always, in fact – when the 60s are recounted in the media, the same faces appear. Any casual viewer could be forgiven that Bob Dylan was the only musician worth even considering during a decade in which the impact of many others far outweighed what Dylan had to offer. They may not have sold the same number of records, or made as many TV appearances, but their commitment to the actual 60s issues of civil rights, Vietnam and a changing awareness of the role of the professional politician was far more important than making money.
Any time I see any feature on 60s music, Greenwich Village, folk music etc. in the TV schedules, I make a point of watching. Not once have I seen Phil Ochs or even heard his name mentioned. Despite being one of the most important figures of the entire decade, Phil has been all but written out of history. Long after (and even long before) Dylan faked his motorbike accident, it was Phil who literally led the line, going into battle wherever his voice was needed.
Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against Dylan. On the contrary, I’m a big fan of the music. I just wish that his perceived legacy was a little more accurate. It’s true that he awakened something in the white American sub-conscious that had been buried deep enough that almost nobody knew it existed. The problem I have is that, once he’d awakened it enough to be rich, he walked away claiming he never wanted to lead any kind of revolution.
Despite this, many Americans still seem to think that Bob Dylan was responsible for bringing the country out of its self-induced ignorance by singing a couple of songs about catching up or being left behind forever.
Occasionally, Woody Guthrie, Joan Baez and Pete Seeger get a mention. Very occasionally, Dave Van Ronk and Jack Elliott get a mention. The rest are simply ignored to the point that it’s almost like the blacklist still exists.
Phil Ochs earned his place in history, as did lots of others. It’s about time someone other than a handful of enthusiast recognised it.