There But For Fortune: An American Folk Revival Essay

In the January of 1963, George Wallace became Governor of Alabama, proclaiming in his inaugural speech ‘segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever!’. This was only the beginning of what the country and generation would have to endeavour; humanity was spiralling as quick as the democratic and republican platforms. Many were beginning to share their commentary on such movement events, such as Betty Friedan’s The feminine mystique concerning feminism, Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham jail, and Malcom X’s Message to the grass roots speech.  One folk singer was also part of such commentary.

America had been through the sleepwalk of the Eisenhower era, and it was time to wake up. Being American was represented by kinds of rituals and traditions, campaigning liberty and justice for all, yet many questioned their country’s liberty and justice in a time of lynching and war. Elvis Presley had changed the world culturally when singing his songs, but now the generation was looking for ways to change the world politically, and so Ochs wrote There but for fortune.

Many of Ochs songs were ripped straight from the daily news, and Ochs firmly believed that his songs could change the world for the better. His goal was to become the leading songwriter in the folk movement, against Bob Dylan, however Ochs became second.


Phil Ochs

Ochs wrote the song in 1963, following a series of assassination and terrorism in Jackson and Birmingham. The song consists only of four verses, but covers multiple characters; a prisoner, a hobo, a drunk, and a bombed country. Of all the song that Ochs wrote, there but for fortune is believed to be incomparable to his previous works showing his views on humanity.  Ochs released the song one year later, however it was Joan Baez that made the song hit the charts. For Baez, Ochs had shown the way that folk ballads and politics could come together.

The song follows the journey of society’s decay into war and the death of a country, and it also reflective of how Ochs would turn to be. Political struggles weighed heavily on the singer, who took many of the issues personally. The 1968 democratic national convention in Chicago, which led to a police riot, had a profound effect on Ochs’s state of mind; and the folk singer slid into alcoholism and depression, committing suicide at the home of his sister in 1976.

While Ochs produced the most current political songs of the time; reaching members of the public at every possible benefit concert and rally, but his life also explored an artist’s role in politics, not of if it is an artist’s place to discuss such topics, but if it is something that an artist can undertake.

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