Phil Ochs: the doomed folk singer who woke up from the American dream

In 1970, Phil Ochs released Greatest Hits, an album titled with savage irony as his career fell apart. But 50 years on, it remains a powerful indictment of an America losing its way

As a kid in the 1950s, Phil Ochs cut class and spent afternoons at the local movie house. The Searchers and Rebel Without a Cause were two of his favourites. Always a dreamer, Ochs fantasised that one day he could be a stoic cowboy like John Wayne, a teenage rebel like James Dean, or a rockabilly sex symbol like Elvis Presley. He took his early love of Hollywood with him to New York, where he became one of the most celebrated folk singers in the world, culminating in an album that has just turned 50: Greatest Hits, titled with a savage, knowing irony.

Ochs came up in the Greenwich Village folk scene, rattling off songs at a pace that caused Bob Dylan – with whom he had a friendly rivalry – to complain “I just can’t keep up with Phil”. But Ochs couldn’t cross over like Dylan did. His sole hit song There But for Fortune, which reached No 50 in the US and the Top 10 in the UK, was performed by Joan Baez.

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