My Only Christmas Song

Phil Ochs

I find the idea of posting endless Christmas novelty tracks around this time of year to be both tedious and lazy. When I think about the best things that Christmas means to me, it is warmth and family time and the chance to just relax and spend time with the people I love the most. It is not sleigh bells and fucking mistletoe. Consequently, when I think about Christmas music it most certainly does not include some indie group either rattling off an ironic version of some shitty festive song, nor does it include some ‘twist’ on the genre either, where misery and unhappiness are overplayed to try and subvert the overweening saccharine of the genre as a whole.

What Christmas music tends to include for me is music that makes me feel warm and cosy inside. Intimate, emotional songs that are warm and sincere and have a wonderfully enveloping atmosphere, to go with the crackling fire. This pretty much excludes everything that anyone could describe as a Christmas song, but that is, in a musical sense anyway, how I see Christmas.

This song, on the other hand, is a song about Christmas that is in no way a Christmas song. There is nothing about this track that you would ever want to play as you munched on mince pies with a slosh of expensive brandy lurching dangerously about your glass as you sway precariously back and forth in mid-conversation with some elderly aunt you never speak to at all for the other three-hundred and sixty-four days of the year.

Phil Ochs is a genuine genius. He wrote some of the most directly political, the angriest and the most conscientious music in history. If you are one of those who looks at the hideous gargoyle that modern America has become, with its total disregard for its own poor, its warped, impotent rage manifesting itself as foreign policy, and the vain, selfish avarice that the charred ashes of the American dream have become, and feels nothing but disgust, it is people like Phil Ochs that should temper your views.

For the same society that produces such bloated parasites as Bush and Falwell, such vicious scorpions as Rumsfeld and Cheney, the kind of self-regarding insecurity that condones the genocide of anyone other than themselves as long as it ameliorates their own contemptuous sense of self-righteous indignation, and the sort of business practises that define what others do as immorally anti-competitive and what one does oneself as enshrined in the imaginary declaration of the rights of the greedy, the grasping and the aspirational, must also produce its antitheses. Any country that produces this kind of rottenness must, almost by definition, produce the people who fight against it the most directly and with the most courage.

In other words, if you think it takes courage to sit on this side of the Atlantic and snipe about stripping Americans of their civil liberties, destroying the rule of law in order to give the government unchecked power to do as it pleases, suppressing internal dissent and calling all who question this madness traitors, imagine what it takes to deal with it face to face. Phil Ochs was just that man. He was far from just a political singer, he was also a brave activist. He never flinched from anything, and spoke with his heart and conscience and he acted on his beliefs with the courage barely a single caustic commentator today could come within a mile of equalling.

Eventually, disillusioned by the brutal police attacks on an anti-Vietnam war protest, amongst other things, and emotionally devastated by an attack in South Africa that left his voice permanently damaged, he took his own life in April 1976. For a better history, try reading this, from which I have lifted the following quote.

His nephew David found him hanging from his own belt in his sister’s bathroom. He was thirty-five years old. I can make no case for martyrdom here. There is nothing noble about suicide, regardless of how that suicide may have been the result of social forces or diminished expectations. Had he lived, I doubt Phil would have made any new songs, and if he had, they probably would not have compared favorably with his best work. But it remains a fact that whenever I read about some ludicrous injustice or monumental hypocrisy, I wonder what Ochs would have said about it, how he would have summed up the situation with an acerbic line or two. And I wonder who the next dead hero will be.

He reminds me of Bill Hicks a little in that sense. In fact, I have Bill’s commentary on the last war in Iraq, and its just frightening how applicable it is to this one. So for those who berate America, of whom I am definitely one, think on this: those of us who so smugly criticise, where is our Bill Hicks, and where is our Phil Ochs?

Phil Ochs – No Christmas in Kentucky
Phil Ochs – The Ballad of William Worthy
Phil Ochs – Here’s to the State of Mississippi
Bill Hicks – Hello Oxford (Best bits towards the end)
Bill Hicks – Polls (Excerpt)

Buy some Phil Ochs here. You’ll be a better person for it.
Also, visit The Waiting Room and have a listen.  If it hadn’t been for DC I might never have found No Christmas in Kentucky.  Thanks mate!

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