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Folk Singer Documentary Captures a Generation

A new film documents the life and times of folk singer Phil Ochs.

A line of patrons waiting to see a screening of “Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune” snaked from the around A Street yesterday evening.

The film, introduced by Ochs’s daughter, Meegan Lee Ochs and its director Kenneth Bowser, follows Phil Ochs, a politically active folk singer from the 1960’s. It documents Ochs’s story and shows the essence of the times he was living in, which subsequently inspired his sardonic and plentiful ballads.

Ochs was an icon for the left during protests about civil rights and the Vietnam War. His songs addressed unionizing miners, racial killings in the South and similar subjects. The tragedies of the times, like the Kennedy assassinations and the Kent State shooting, profoundly affected the singer.

Meegan reached out to Bowser about making the film seven years ago. “I didn’t want my father viewed through rose-tinted glasses,” she explained to the audience, “and I knew Ken would honor that.”

Bowser, known for television documentaries about Saturday Night Live and Hollywood glamour, originally asked Meegan if he could make a documentary about her father twenty years back. At that time, the project didn’t reach fruition.

When it came to making the movie, Bowser told the audience that the first half of the musician’s work was similar to a biography of the country, and the latter half was more of an autobiography.

“I was trying to combine the two books,” he said.

Bowser illuminated the singer’s relentless pursuit of mainstream acclaim, partially motivated by the success of his peer and somewhat rival, Bob Dylan. Dylan, conspicuously absent from the talking heads that appear throughout the film, was approached by Meegan, but she noted, “he couldn’t really win” by agreeing to be in the documentary.

Ed Sanders, member of the band The Pugs, states in the film, “one hammer blow after another, and Phil was enough of an ego maniac to take it all personally.” Ochs took his own life three months after the Vietnam War ended.

The film is both a bittersweet love letter to the 1960’s and a loving chronicle of one of its important figures. Many audience members were wiping away tears when the lights came up on the house, and several people choose not to ask a question and instead to share with Meegan their love for her father. She responded by reflecting on the emphasis her father placed on his craft.

“He wore suits. His hair wasn’t long, but it definitely wasn’t short. He cultivated an image for himself where you had to dismiss him on his lyrics,” she said, “and you couldn’t.”

 

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