Phil Ochs and I met when he was playing The Third Step around the corner from The Gaslight. He was flat-picking his guitar with a loud strum and singing his most recent broadside. The buzz about him had already begun and the small bunch of us who went to check him out that night became instant supporters. I’ve forgotten what songs he sang that night but I haven’t forgotten the intensity of his delivery. From Day One he was Phil Ochs.
A good-looking, intense guy who was playing a sun-burst Gibson like it needed a talking-to, he sang in a hard, clear tenor. The immediate impression was of his absolute conviction that the song deserved to be heard––that it was important. The Village audiences took to him right away, and so did all his fellow performers.
Phil came back with us to The Gaslight to meet the other guys: Dave Van Ronk, Bob Dylan, Patrick Sky, Noel Stookey, et al. He was an instant addition to the club and sang at The Gaslight innumerable times. His wars with Sam Hood, son of owner Clarence Hood over performance fees, were always fun. Once, Sam needed a replacement for a singer who hadn’t come in to work; Phil quoted him a price for the night which had all of us laughing and Sam sputtering. Phil stood firm, grinning. “Catch you on the way down, Phil,” said Sam, finally. Phil went whistling back up the stairs to The Kettle Of Fish, our watering hole next door, where we had a semi-permanent folksingers’ table. Sam found somebody else for the night and of course hired Phil time and time again.
Phil was edgy, opinionated and unabashedly ambitious. He was locked in an impossible competition with Bob Dylan, whom he admired enormously and envied just as greatly. It all served to keep him writing at a terrific pace and he came up with enough great songs to fuel his growing reputation on the street. He churned out topical/ political songs night and day and published many of them in Broadside, the underground song magazine published by Gordon Friesen and Sis Cunningham, which became his principle platform. His first LP for Elektra contained mostly political songs and––of all things––his setting of The Bells, by Edgar Allan Poe. The Bells interested me then, and still does; it was a complete change-of-pace from Phil’s usual radical ballads (after all, he once told us all with a straight face that his ambition was to become a cross between Che Guevera and Elvis Presley). It was highly romantic and this hopeless romantic from Oklahoma loved it. Equally striking to me was his setting of Alfred Noyes’ The Highwayman. Dave Van Ronk, our chief philosopher, guru and theoretician, astutely identified Bob Gibson as Phil’s chief influence in his composition. I agreed with Dave; Phil co-wrote some songs with Bob, who was almost entirely unpolitical and the complete showman, and, to my ears, it was Phil’s marriage of Gibson-like melodies to his only-from-Phil lyrics that gave his songs a lot of their power.
Phil was torn by Dylan’s enormous success. Although he idolized Bob he envied Bob’s meteoric rise––but, then, who of us didn’t? Bob didn’t make it any easier, either. Around a table in The Kettle Of Fish the banter could get pointed and Bob was expert at pushing Phil’s buttons. It often took Van Ronk’s slightly-more-mature persona (and great size) to keep it all in check.
Phil’s own success in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s was far greater than mine and I recall being more than a little envious of him. His grasp of the zeitgeist was better than mine and he effortlessly tapped into the rebelliousness of the students and other young people. There was still a draft, after all, and he spoke directly to the fear and rage we all felt against being sent to ‘Nam to fight and possibly die.
But we got along, Phil and I. Once in ’65 or so, we were both doing a benefit concert in Baltimore for the striking miners in Hazard, Kentucky. I came into the dressing room and said, “Hey, Phil. We’re being picketed by the Birchers.”
His eyes lit up. “No shit? Lemme see.” He went from window to window in the hall until he got a view of the picket line on the front plaza. “Let’s go down,” he said. Down we went, out the door and up to the circling line of pickets. What we wanted to do was talk to them. Fat chance.
“Why are you here?” one of us asked them. Stone faces. Zero response. “We’re Americans, too,” we said. “Don’t you want the best for the miners? They’ve got the rottenest deal in labor.” They never made eye contact. We may have been evil incarnate to them, but they weren’t going to say “boo” to us. I guess we were too real––not enough like the ideological straw men they preferred to fight. We finally gave up and went back in to do the concert. We laughed about it later; the great negotiators, Phil and Tom.
Phil was tireless. I don’t think he ever said ‘no’ to a political rally or protest concert. I know that every time I appeared at a rally or a teach-in, Phil would also be there. He knew what the occasion needed and when he sang I Ain’t Marching Any More, the roof would come off.
Everyone knows of Phil’s terribly sad last years and of his suicide in 1976. He suffered from a condition which nowadays is rather easily medicated, but was more difficult to treat then. I remember my shock at reading of his death in the New York Times. What I’d rather focus on, though, was his beaming face on the occasion of the celebration of the end of the war. We all gathered on the Sheep Meadow of Central Park for speeches and songs. Phil was backstage with a huge cigar and a grin that would not quit. The war was over at last; peace had come and no one had done more than he had done to bring it about. Peace, Phil; peace at last.
One night in 1961 or 62, somebody (John Herald? Patrick Sky?) rushed into The Gaslight in Greenwich Village and said, “Doc Watson is gonna sing up on Sullivan Street.” This was a little like saying that Elvis would be dropping by a neighborhood bar in Memphis around 1955. We knew Doc from his recordings on Folkways and we knew that Ralph Rinzler from The Greenbriar Boys had discovered him playing in a bar down in North Carolina. That was all we needed to know, really. We were up on the street and over to a tiny Italian neighborhood coffeehouse on Sullivan Street. We squeezed ourselves in and waited with real excitement. Hearing Doc Watson was hearing the real thing – authenticity. Ralph Rinzler led Doc in and introduced him. Doc was neatly dressed in pressed wash pants and a crisp long-sleeved sport shirt. When he was comfortable, he began to play and sing.
Those who hear Doc Watson for the first time find it difficult to describe their amazement. No one we knew of could play so fast and so cleanly. You could hear the space between the notes, no matter how amazingly fast they came. He had this wonderful untrained baritone that carried the lyrics unfailingly. He was jaw- dropping great.
And then, amazingly, he was playing with us at The Gaslight. Just as we were to hear Mississippi John Hurt a year or so later, now we heard Doc three or four times in an evening. In between shows he sat just backstage and operated a reel-to-reel tape recorder, taping the rest of us. That has to be how in a year or so I began hearing his recordings of several of my songs. Was I pleased? Hey, is John Edwards 99% honest?
It was at The Filene Center at Wolf Trap, outside Washington, DC, that I heard Doc in the next dressing room, singing my song, Leaving London. I went and sat with him and sang a little harmony on the next chorus. When he finished, he said, “Tommy, I love that song. I heard it when I was in London and it made me so lonesome I wrote a verse of my own for it. Hope you don’t mind.” “Doc,” I said, “you could start with the oldest song I have and write verses for every song I’ve ever written and I wouldn’t mind at all.” And I wouldn’t, either.
I’ve treasured every chance I’ve had to play with and chat with this true gentleman from the mountains of west North Carolina. Go to his home page and hear this master for yourselves. http://www.docsguitar.com/
I first saw Pete Seeger at Carnegie Hall in 1960. He was doing a series of hootenannies for Sing Out! Magazine and I was a new kid in New York, come to see the man who, for me and for my generation, was the driving force behind the rapidly growing folk music movement. Even in my seat in the far reaches of the upper balcony, his energy and spirit overwhelmed me.
On another occasion I was going from club to coffeehouse down in the Village, from The Gaslight to The Bitter End and small “basket houses” in between, greedy for every note of every folk song I could hear. Up on Bleecker Street stood The Village Gate, several rungs higher up the prestige ladder than any of the folk clubs where I occasionally got the chance to sing a song or two. The Village Gate played nationally known acts like Leon Bibb, Miriam Makeba, Woody Allen and, on this rare occasion, Pete Seeger. Whatever the admission price was, I didn’t have it, so I lurked in the lobby and caught a glimpse now and then through the curtain of Pete singing for a packed house. It was as thrilling for me as Carnegie Hall had been.
I finally met Pete in 1963. Everyone knew he had been blacklisted for years and was never on TV or commercial radio. When the Hootenanny show went on the TV (ironic that Pete had been largely responsible for coining the word) it was obvious to many that he belonged on it if anyone did. The producer, Fred Weintraub (who owned The Bitter End) claimed that there was no blacklist; no, no, Pete hadn’t been invited on to the show because they didn’t think he could hold an audience. Hello? Had they ever seen this man turn a crowd of thousands into an instant choir?
Several of us Village folksingers––Phil Ochs, Pat Sky, Dave Van Ronk, Eric Andersen, John Phillips and I, among others––decided to organize a boycott of Hootenanny. We had a few small meetings at our Morton Street apartment and then a large session one afternoon at The Village Gate. We must have had 50 or 60 performers there and our surprise visitor was Pete himself. Predictably, Pete argued that whatever its wrongs to him personally, the show, for him, had more to recommend it. He felt it could spread folk music to a far greater audience and that fact, for him, was persuasive. We talked it over and found we still felt that he was being unfairly treated and so the boycott went on.
After the meeting I got up my courage and approached Pete. I took off my figurative activist/organizer hat and stood revealed as a young songwriter looking for a breakl I asked Pete if I could sing him a song I’d just written. He never says no to a request like that and I was able to sing Ramblin’ Boy for him. To my great joy, he liked it and recorded it at Carnegie Hall I (I couldn’t believe it) in a reunion concert with The Weavers (How great was that?). Because he had just learned it he got the chorus slightly wrong, singing, “Fare thee well, my Ramblin’ Boy,” instead of “Here’s to you.” Not a big deal at all to someone as thrilled as I was.
Pete and his family took off on a year’s trip around the world and when the album came out, complete with Pete’s mistake, I received a post card from India, containing Pete’s signature drawing of a banjo and a message reading, “Dear Tom, Oops! Pete.”
When I wrote How Beautiful Upon The Mountain last summer and recorded it forComedians & Angels, Pete was prominent among those who inspired the song.
Mississippi John Hurt’s first appearance in the north occurred at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. His legend had preceded him and folk fans were thrilled. Nothing had been heard from him in decades and his last recordings had been made in 1928. Most of us knew Mississippi John Hurt through a couple of tracks on the Harry Smith Collection of very old folk recordings. I wandered by great good luck into the afternoon blues workshop and heard John do a couple of songs that were just the real thing. The audience loved him immediately, and later that night the workshop audience joined 18,000 others to watch this little guy with a felt hat sit on a kitchen chair on the main stage and utterly enchant them all. A few weeks later, to the amazement of my fellow performers and me at The Gaslight in Greenwich Village, John joined us for a run of a couple of weeks. Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk, Patrick Sky and Phil Ochs, to name just a few, got to hear him three or four times a night and we all just soaked up that music by osmosis.
Midge and I screwed up our courage and invited John and his tour manager, Dick Waterman, over to our tiny apartment for dinner one night. I forget what we served them but how I wish we had photos!
It was during that short run at The Gaslight that John met Doc Watson and the two of them became instant buddies. To see this little black man from the Delta and a blind white man from the mountains of western North Carolina chatting and chuckling was really something for those days.
The tune for my song Bottle Of Wine was clearly inspired by my love of John’s music and ten years or so after his death another song inspired by his guitar playing showed up in my head. This time the song was about him.
DID YOU HEAR JOHN HURT?
By Tom Paxton
It was a frosty night; `
It was beginning to snow,
And down the city streets
The wind began to blow.
We all came to the cellar;
We all emptied the bar,
To hear a little old fella
Play a shiny guitar.
Did you hear John Hurt
Play the Creole Belle?
The Spanish Fandango
That he loved so well.
Did you love John Hurt?
Did you shake his hand?
Did you hear him,
Sing his Candy Man?
On a straight-back chair,
With his felt hat on,
He tickled our fancies
With his Avalon.
And everybody passing
Down Macdougal Street,
Cocked their heads and listened
To the tapping feet. (To Chorus)
Repeat first verse and chorus
©1976 Pax Music, ASCAP