The Newport Folk Festival of 1964 formed an important milestone in the resurgence of topical music. It brought many of the younger performers into first contact with large segments of the folk music world; it proved that topical music, when delivered with artistry and sincerity, can be heartily appreciated by a wide and diverse audience; it outlined many of the goals toward which the various writers must strive.--Paul Wolfe
But the Festival’s most significant achievement was specific and twofold: it marked the emergence of Phil Ochs as the most important voice in the movement, simultaneous with the renunciation of topical music by its major prophet, Bob Dylan. It was the latter event that proved most surprising.
Dylan’s “defection” into higher forms of art was predicted. His preference for free-verse, uninhibited poetry over topical songs has been apparent for quite a while; his dissatisfaction with concert tours and adulating fans is also no secret. But his new songs, as performed at Newport, surprised everyone, leaving the majority of the audience annoyed, some even disgusted, and, in general, scratching its collective head in disbelief. The art that had, in the past, produced towering works of power and importance, had, seemingly, degenerated into confusion and innocuousness. “Your new songs seem to be all inner-directed, inner-probing, and self-conscious,” wrote Irwin Silber, editor of SING OUT!, in an open letter to Dylan. “You seem to be relating to a handful of cronies behind the scenes rather than to the rest of us out front.”
And this disappointment in his new songs was heightened by their juxtaposition, on the stage of Newport, with the eloquent musical force of Phil Ochs. While Dylan was telling his perennial, anonymous girl friend, “All I really wanna do is, baby, be friends with you,” Ochs was informing the leaders of the government, “I ain’t marchin’ anymore!” While Dylan sang "It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and, in the guise of rejecting a persistent female, told his thousands of worshippers to look elsewhere for someone to walk on water, Ochs took the time to denounce the labor unions for their betrayal of the civil rights movement; in “Links On The Chain"—Ochs’ supreme artistic achievement—and perhaps the most important topical song of the year—he calls upon the “ranks of labor” to ponder their own “struggles of before” and tell, ironically, which side they now are on in the Negro struggle for equality.
There, the difference between the two performers became manifest; meaning vs. innocuousness, sincerity vs. utter disregard for the tastes of the audience, idealistic principle vs. self-conscious egotism. And even in his attempts at seriousness Dylan was bewildering. “Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man,” while underlain by a beautiful poetic idea, must be termed a failure; somehow, a forced monotony of rhymes seemed much more effective in “Only A Pawn In Their Game.” And in his other song, “Chimes of Freedom,” the bewilderment is raised to the highest degree. In this incredible jumble of confused, obscure images piled atop one another, Dylan traces the pursuit for higher forms of freedom, spanning a human lifetime, encompassing all of human life. This probing journey through anguish begins “far between sundown’s finish and midnight’s broken toe” and ends, some eight grueling minutes later, with the chimes of freedom flashing “for every hung-up person in the whole wide universe.” The fallacy inherent in the concept of chimes flashing is annoyingly obvious. It is also obvious that Dylan was too enmeshed in his own ego and seeming adoration of words (no matter how meaningless his combinations of these words renders them) to consider the absurdity of treating a subject of such scope in a song. As Irwin Silber said, the Dylan we once knew, the author of “With God On Our Side” and “Hattie Carroll,” “never wasted our precious time.” “Chimes of Freedom” brings to mind once again the fable of the Emperor’s new clothes; and a short story entitled “Face In The Crowd” by Budd Schulberg (it was made into a noted movie). The protagonist of that story is a hillbilly singer who, through publicity, slick management and an overpowering ego, rises to such heights of stardom and popularity he thinks he can get away with anything on the public. The tragedy is that he cannot, and, in the end, is ruined.
Does Bob himself give a concrete reason for the emergence of the “new” Dylan? One might be found in the song “My Back Pages” in his latest album Another Side of Bob Dylan. It is an intensely honest, revealing self-portrait, indeed a brutal denunciation of the “old” Dylan. It characterizes the latter as a deceived, impotent “musketeer” whose main stimuli to action were confusion and immaturity, rather than a fiery poetic spirit reacting to the injustice he saw all around him. Thus a seeming disillusionment with both himself and the ideals he fought for looms as a factor.
Other forces shaping his new posture include his own artistic drives and capabilities (which are indeed considerable) running headlong into the limitations of the musical form. As Phil Ochs said in the 1964 Newport brochure: “I think he’s slowly drifting away from song-writing because he feels limited by the form. More and more of his work will probably come out in poetry and free verse, and I would not be surprised if he stopped singing altogether, considering the over-adulation of his fans and the lack of understanding of audiences that identify with him.” Indeed there are reports not only that he is working on a book of his own poetry but that he plans to start up a poetry magazine (further Dylan artistic endeavors include a motion picture, which Dylan has written, is directing, and stars in himself). These varied artistic projects imply his abandonment of topical song writing; an artist must express himself through the most effective mediums at his command. But they do not explain his new songs; nor, if he is discontented with singing, why he continues to give concerts; or why he is still cutting records. Contradictions have followed Bob Dylan from the time his folk-singing career began. Now, seemingly at the end of it, they have yet to be dissipated.
The paths of Bob Dylan bear extreme relevance to the course of today’s topical songwriting. For instance, take Phil Ochs. His career is still evolving and expanding, but considering what has happened to Bob, an inevitable question arises concerning Phil: will he follow in the footsteps of his predecessor? Will Phil too eventually be disillusioned, or in some way become discontented, with his personal messages of protest, and abandon them? Only time—of course—can tell. But an analysis of the facts renders this unlikely. The difference between Ochs and Dylan, both as artists and personalities, are striking. Ochs is much more deeply committed to the broadside tradition. To news and politically-oriented songs, most of which are focused on specific events and do not range into the wide scope of human events and variegated problems that characterize so many of Dylan’s most famous works. In addition, Dylan has undergone repeated metamorphis as a performer; each of his four albums differs radically from the others. This has not been so with Ochs, whose second L-P (by Elektra) plainly will be a continuation of the work foundationed by his first (Ochs’ 2nd L-P is scheduled for release in January 1965). Quite to the contrary, Phil’s basic melody and lyric patterns have remained constant from the very beginning; indeed many of his first songs, notably “William Worthy” and his talking analysis of Cuba and Viet Nam, occupy important positions in his current repertoire. Thus, the constant change of character and outlook, the reluctance to stay in one “bag” of song-writing for an extended period of time, that have engendered Dylan’s renunciation of topical music, are not evidenced in Ochs. Nevertheless, the influences of Dylan have found their way into several of Ochs’ new songs. In “In The Heat Of The Summer” and “The Hills of West Virginia,” Ochs has attempted to subtlety and poetry where before he used power and irony. Thus, those two songs differ artistically from all his previous ones; indeed in the first song, dealing with the recent riots in various Negro ghettos, he goes so far as to abandon rhyme scheme altogether. It is a novel artistic experiment; but, unfortunately, this first attempt at poetry-in-song is unsuccessful. “In The Heat Of The Summer” emerges as little more than an exercise. But in “The Hills Of West Virginia,” some reflections during an automobile trip, Phil’s simple, unpretentious, easy-flowing imagery, encased in what could be his most beautiful melody, weave a sharp and colorful tapestry of observation. It is certainly one of his best songs and proves Ochs doesn’t have to protest to be good. It also proves that one can absorb the good influences of Dylan without being affected by the non-artistic sides of the latter’s enigmatic career.
Many talented people today are writing topical songs. But, to me, Phil Ochs stands virtually alone in his field; very few writers are very close to him in quality and productivity. This is a happy fact for topical music. However, the cash registers are ringing in his ears more and more; legions of adulating fans and his identity as a “celebrity” grow larger as time goes by. Thus, one final question must be posed in connection with the path of Phil Ochs, hence the path of topical music. Can he overcome the pressures, the lures, the rewards and the egotism attached to being a celebrity? Can he maintain a sincerity of principle despite material prosperity? It is evident that he will continue writing protest songs; the question now is whether he will continue meaning them. For Phil Ochs, on whom the future of topical music rides, “these are the days of decision.”
(Broadside magazine--issue 53/1964)