After Sonny Ochs lost her brother, she worried his music would be lost, too.
Phil Ochs was 35 when he committed suicide in 1976. A mainstay in the folk music scene, in his short life, he wrote more than 100 songs and recorded eight albums.
Some of his songs are absolutely stunning, Sonny said recently from her home in Middleburgh.
Not wanting to see those songs fall silent, Sonny embraced the idea a friend of Phil’s pitched to have a Phil Ochs Song Night. In 1983, the first song night was held in Greenwich Village. It was a testament to Ochs’ popularity that when Sonny left around midnight, there was still a line of musicians waiting for a chance to perform one of Ochs’ songs.
Encouraged by the overwhelming response, Sonny and others decided to turn Phil Ochs Song Night into an annual event. For the past few years, it’s been held at The Linda, WAMC’s performing arts studio on Central Avenue in Albany. This year’s Phil Ochs Song Night is Saturday, May 9, at 8 p.m. at the Linda.
Although Sonny and others share some stories about Phil during the event, she stressed that it’s not really meant as a memorial or tribute to her brother. The focus, she said, is on the music.
`He died too soon,` she said. `I don’t want to see the music die, too.`
There are a core group of musicians who have helped Sonny with that goal since Phil Ochs Song Night was launched. Regular participants include Reggie and Kim Harris, fellow Middleburgh residents who told Sonny years ago that they’d love to take part in a song night.
She asked them which Phil song they’d want to perform.
`They said, ‘We don’t know any,’` she said with a laugh. `They grew up on Motown.`
The Harrises found a whole new world of music in folk, which Sonny calls `the most community-oriented form of music.` Folk music actually stems from community news stories that were told through song, she said.
Her brother, incidentally, once harbored aspirations to be a journalist. When the student paper at Ohio State University rejected some of his stories, deeming them too radical, he started his own underground paper, The World. Eventually, he took on a new kind of writing where he could indulge his strong political views: songwriting.
He dropped out of Ohio State and moved to New York City, where he immersed himself in the Greenwich Village folk music scene. He also organized and took part in a number of protests and demonstrations; when the Vietnam War ended, he staged a `War is Over` rally in Central Park. Pete Seeger was among the performers, and Ochs and Joan Baez sang a duet of `There but for the Fortune.`
Ochs made fans with his principles as well as his music. Magpie, the husband-and-wife team of Greg Artzner and Terry Leonino, are regular performers at Phil Ochs night who are `worshippers of his music and what he stood for,` Sonny said.
Similarly, the Harrises were soon intimately familiar with Ochs’ work. They not only recorded Ochs’ `In the Heat of the Summer,` they made it the title track of their first CD.
Several other artists have recorded Ochs’ songs over the years, too, including John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot and Judy Collins. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland had a tribute to Ochs in 2000, and earlier this year, Sonny accepted The Elaine Weissman Lifetime Achievement Award in the Legacy Artist category given by the International Folk Alliance of Music and Dance on Phil’s behalf.
The award, she said, makes this year’s song night a little extra special.
At the song nights, performers used to just get up and perform an Ochs song. But Sonny found the format was growing old — she has toured the country putting on Phil Ochs Song Nights, and she thought it might be fun to hear a little more variety. So, in recent years, performers have sung one Ochs song and one original piece. Sonny sees it as a nice way to ensure that not only her brother’s music stays alive, but folk music itself.
`It’s always a treat to hear the new songs,` she said.
In the early years, it was common for the audience to be mostly made up of `gray-haired, old lefties,` she said. But nowadays, there are often some younger faces in the crowd. Sonny remembers attending a show in Toronto not long ago and seeing some high-school age kids watching intently.
`They were hanging on every word,` she said.
And that, Sonny said, is the whole purpose behind Phil Ochs Song Night — to keep exposing people to Phil’s work.
`I’m doing this to see kids like that,` she said. `My job is to make sure the music doesn’t die. I know he’d love that.`
Tickets for Phil Ochs Song Night at the Linda are $18. They can be purchased at www.wamcarts.org or by calling 465-5233, ext. 4. “