December 20th, 2011
Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune
About the Documentary

American Masters opens its 26th season with the revealing biography of a conflicted, truth-seeking troubadour who, with guitar in hand, stood up for what he believed in and challenged us all to do the same. Three-time Emmy®-nominated filmmaker Kenneth Bowser examines one of American history’s most iconic folk music heroes and political agitators in Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune, premiering nationally Monday, January 23 at 10 pm (ET) on PBS (check local listings).

Watch a preview:

As the United States continues to engage in foreign wars, Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is a timely tribute to an unlikely American hero whose music is as relevant today as it was in the 1960s. Phil Ochs was moved by the conviction that he and his music would change the world. Unyielding in his political principals and unbending in his artistic vision, Ochs tirelessly fought the good fight for peace and justice, in both song and action, throughout his short life (12/19/1940 – 4/9/1976). The tragedies of 1968, including the deaths of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy and the violent events at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, changed the country and changed Ochs, who sank deep into depression and alcoholism. This, and a familial tendency to bipolar disorder, led to his suicide at the age of 35.

“His music was always so insightful and clever, so timely and slightly haunting. Humming ‘There But for Fortune’ after Phil Ochs’s death was a bittersweet experience back in the 60s,” says Susan Lacy, series creator and executive producer of American Masters, an eight-time winner of the Emmy® Award for Outstanding Primetime Non-Fiction Series. The series is a production of THIRTEEN for WNET, the parent company of THIRTEEN and WLIW21, New York’s public television stations, and operator of NJTV. For nearly 50 years, WNET has been producing and broadcasting national and local documentaries and other programs to the New York community.

Inspired by Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Elvis Presley and John Wayne, Ochs rose to fame in the early 60s during the height of the folk-and-protest song movement, wielding only a battered guitar, a clear voice and the quiver of his razor-sharp songs. As prolific as he was passionate, he released seven albums and wrote hundreds of songs, the best known of which include “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” “Changes,” “Crucifixion,” “Draft Dodger Rag,” “Love Me, I’m a Liberal,” “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends,” “Power and the Glory,” “The War is Over,” and “There But for Fortune,” famously covered by Joan Baez. American Masters Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune is buoyed by these anti-war movement anthems and melodies, which play the role of film narrator, giving contextual depth to the unfolding saga of Ochs’s politics and personal life.

In the film, Joan Baez, Tom Hayden, Pete Seeger, Sean Penn, Peter Yarrow, Christopher Hitchens, Ed Sanders, and others who knew or were inspired by Ochs tell stories of political passions that were equal parts idealism, conviction and fantasy – mixed together with a big ego and often wild disorganization. These interviews together with photos, film clips and historic live performances reveal that Ochs’s lasting legacy in both music and politics ultimately mirrored the complexities and contradictions of the country he loved – and his life, sadly, reflects the arc of the turbulent times in which he lived.

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune is a production of S2BN Entertainment in association with Barking Dog Productions, Inc. and THIRTEEN’s American Masters for WNET. Kenneth Bowser is writer and director. Michael Cohl, Kenneth Bowser and Michael Ochs are producers. Pamela Scott Arnold is editor, with additional editing by Ian B. Wile. Lizzy McGlynn and Brian MacDonald are co-producers. Katie Ehrman, Zev Greenfield and Riva Marker are associate producers. Music is by Phil Ochs. Susan Lacy is the series creator and executive producer of American Masters.

American Masters is made possible by the support of the National Endowment for the Arts and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Additional funding for American Masters is provided by Rosalind P. Walter, The Blanche & Irving Laurie Foundation, Rolf and Elizabeth Rosenthal, Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Jack Rudin, Vital Projects Fund, The André and Elizabeth Kertész Foundation, Michael & Helen Schaffer Foundation, and public television viewers.

  • Bill

    I still have his first 2 LPs. I used to perform his “Lou Marsh” –a song about a senseless urban killing–the type we now see on the morning news virtually every day. Sadly, what was noteworthy in the early ’60s is so common, that we forget the name of last nights’ victim with the announcement of the next one.

    You omitted what I think is his most biting song: “Here’s To The State of Mississippi” on his 2d album, the last track.

  • David Feldmann

    After you watch this documentary, mark your calendars! There will be a Phil Ochs tribute show here in St. Louis at Off Broadway on March 2nd at 8:00PM. Tell your friends and family!!/events/238461716227488/

  • Daniel Caudy

    Went to Staunton Military Academy with Phil. He graduated in 1958, Will be interested to see if there is any mention of this piece of his education Music was an interest back then, but he was a terrible sax player.

  • Ted

    Phil had the wonderful ability to laugh at himself. I remember seeing him in 1971 at Hunter College on NYC. During his performance of “Love Me I’m a Liberal” he sang: “I attend all the Phil Ochs concerts. I sure wish he’d write some new songs!”.

  • Rob Schultz

    “Is There Anybody Here” is another great Phil Ochs song –one that should be enough to cure anyone of their mindless flag-waving.

  • Jon Cooper

    Recently rediscovered Phil Ochs while transferring my music to mp3…what an insightful man! His music and words are still true today…we could use him today. I wish he ad Hunter Thompson were around to comment on our current events/situation….I must see this documentary…Thanks to the persons responsible.

  • Joseph Norris

    One of the first albums I ever bought was Phil Ochs’ Rehearsals for Retirement. To this day it remains one of my favorite records by anyone. I loved Phil’s incredible lyrical ability and his songs were awesome. Glad to see PBS giving this man his due, which is overdue!

  • Beth

    Thank you, Mr. Bowser for creating this documentary on Phi Ochs. Since the 1960s, I too have been a devout fan of Mr. Ochs’ music and the man himself. Given his contribution to the 60s movement and his glorious music, I found it troubling, even baffling that he would be largely forgotten or generally ignored. I hope this spreads the word, spawns renewed interest so his music can live on through future generations.
    Many, many thanks. Beth

  • Jonathan Takiff

    Phil was one of the first talents to play at the Main Point coffee house/showcase club outside of Philadelphia – where the likes of James Taylor, Jackson Browne and Bruce Springsteen would also break out. . Backstage (actually in the basement) he signed little me’s copy of his first album (just out) with the inscription “Fight the Blacklist.” This was in a time when Pete Seeger couldn’t get on TV. At college, I sang his songs (like “Love Me, I’m a Liberal” ) and used his “Small Circle of Friends” as the exit music for performances by our satirical comedy group. Nobody else told the truth quite like Phil. So glad he’s being honored with this revealing documentary.

  • Bruce Chodosh, MD

    Besides collecting his recordings, my wife and I saw him in concert at Carnegie Hall in or around 1971. Freshly back from a stint in the medical corps in Vietnam, I foundvhis open views on our countrys handling of the war and it’s duplicity, arrogance and intolerance of freedom of expression so poignant and obvious in his genuine lyrics! And in the middle of then concernt some intolerant idiot had the stupid notion, while Ochs was playing, to shout out “What have you written lately?” no wonder such a sensitives human being wvas driven to suiciden! That and the senseless assassinations which followed were about as much that the trubador could take before lapsing into alcoholism, depression and ending in suicide. God, I wish he were alive now! Many thanks for remembering him and reminding us of him.

  • charlie k

    The first artist I had multiple albums of. Got the songbook and learned his songs on the guitar, probably the only songs I can still play. Saw him in Baltimore near the end,maybe ‘74 or ‘75. So sorry he died that way. It hurt me bad.

  • Robert Holman

    He brought a deep truth to my naive and unknowing reasons for protesting the war in Vietnam. I always thought in the beginning those words can’t be true, unfortunately they ring true today.

  • Bill Lange

    My Heroes: Christ, Ghandi and Ochs!

  • jim

    fortunate to have seen him twice. one was at the u of p in phila. it was a benefit for
    the miners in hazzard ky. one of a kind. much more melodic then dylan. the best
    singer/song writer of all time,even woody. i know most of the current ones and
    no one of any era can touch him.

  • John Duckworth

    I had most of Phil’s albums. I’ve tried to find them on CD, but not all are available. No one else sang the truth so poetically. He has never been replaced.

  • Jeanne

    Who was the dark haired woman in this documentary? – no Joan Baez but the one that was featured when they were talking about Allende.

  • Wayne

    watched the show tonight at our home in Florida. never famous, opened for him once in Connecticut, the night LBJ announced “I will not seek a second term…” Phil announced that on stage and we all cheered. it was a good night, he is one, one never forgotten in my heart.

  • Steve Friedman

    The very first album I purchased with my own money was “I ain’t a Marchin Anymore”. It changed my whole way of thinking. Phil Ochs remained my hero throughout my adolescence, and I still can remember the lyrics to most of his early songs. I am grateful to have heard his songs, and am a better man for them.

  • Dan

    As a young man I heard his song Crucifixion which blew me away. It’s a long, complex, poetic song about heroes who get killed. There is something so sad about someone who tried so hard to save the world but in the end could not save himself.

  • Tom Heineman

    The documentary was outstanding as was Phil Ochs. I heard Phil in Chicago at the Earl of Old Town on Wells and North and at the Quiet Knight on Belmont and Southport several times in the early 70s. What an awesome songwriter and singer. His haunting voice and lyrics were second to none. I witnessed his slow deterioration and can remember the last time I had seen him (after his trip to Africa I believe) when he performed with his arm in a sling (don’t ask me how; I don’t remember).

    I was not aware of his bouts of depression mentioned in the documentary, but I do remember how depressed I and my friends were when we heard about his suicide. What a treasure we lost.

  • Debbie Frazier

    Phil Ochs’ music and politics inspired me when I was in college and in my 20’s. His songs and beautiful voice educated me and galvanized my now lifelong commitment to peace and justice for all. I was a reporter at United Press International when he commited suicide. I watched the story come over the wire and wept. I watched the PBS show and wept again that there is no beautiful voice of a gifted song writer to shame the corrupt and shameless people who are today destroying the America that he, I and so many others believe in.

  • Judy

    Delighted that finally a documentary film on the work, the music, the songs, the passion of Phil Ochs – I adored his work then, I still adore his work and he so deserves a place in our history of the 1960s. Thank you American Masters and PBS. I have his CDs and appreciate his music as much now as then!

  • Neal C. Chambers

    I just watched American Masterpiece present the documentary on Phil Ochs. Unlike Bob Dylan, known to all, I have always seen those who know of Phil Ochs as truly intellectual insiders – an elite group of perhaps the most aware people the world has ever known.

    Years ago I pretty much stopped watching documentaries. What I have seen over and over plagues me as the propaganda of evil and ignorant people. This documentary may change that. This documentary was so meaningful and important to me I can hardly describe what I know.

    American Masterpiece has produced the most important documentary about the history of our times and the life of Phil Och’s since Oliver Stone’s JFK. Perhaps American Masterpiece’s documentary on Phil Och’s is even more important to the few of us who know.

    Thank you Mr. Bowser and American Masterpiece for an inside look into the lives on one of the real hero’s of a dark and tragic time.

  • Alan LaPayover

    This program is a classic. All day I have been singing “Small Circle of Friends” in my head, remembering the first time I ever heard it. I can’t shake the impact of this program — how moving his life and music was, and, in the end, how tragically sad.
    Thank you Kenneth Bowser and PBS for a masterful piece about a true American Master.

  • Phil Levy

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this program.
    Phil Ochs has been my favorite singer-songwriter since I first heard his music in 1969. I loved his political-topical songs and his more personal songs, and the feeling and passion he put into all of them. Your program was brilliant.

  • Dave Gosser

    So glad to see everyone’s memories of Phil, which I share. Saw him at the Academy of Music in Philly 1968- remember him singing “Power and Glory” so passionate – a single man with a guitar could captivate the entire audience that night. Those who feel so strongly about Phil may want to check out “Phil Ochs song nights” which are at folk clubs around the country and are hosted by Sonny Ochs, Phil’s sister. The performers like John Flynn, Reggie and Kim Harris, Magpie and others really represent the spirit of Phil’s music well.

  • Ed

    Ken – thank you so much for your dedication and for directing this documentary. Also, a special shout out to “American Masters” for budgeting a 90 minute time slot for this piece (60 minutes is never enough). Thanks a lot.

  • Charlotte

    WHO is this man? I have NEVER heard of him!!!! I put in John Wayne’s name and this came up!!!!! UNLIKE the commonly held belief, John Wayne was AGAINSTsending troops to Vietnam, but after Kennedy and Johnson sent American troops there, he thought we should SUPPORT our troops!!!!!

    In Roberts and Olson’s biography of Duke, there is a touching story about him going to USC (where he played football) and seeing some anti-war people there who were harassing a young man wearing an army uniform that had an empty sleeve because he had lost his arm in Vietnam, Duke “jumped ALL over them!!!!”

    EVEN if one disagrees with a war in which our country is engaged, one doesn’t DEMEAN the soldiers who fought it!!!!!! I think the anti-war people who were against the Vietnam War and spat upon and reviled the returning soldiers have a LOT to answer for in their consciences, IF they have any!!!!


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