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by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

Lately, after an unusually long silence from singer/songwriters, there's been a semi-deluge of anti-war (read: anti Bush administration) songs.

Neil Young's "Living With War," Pink's "Dear Mr. President," Pearl Jam's "World Wide Suicide," are a few examples. Last year, former Jayhawk's lead singer, Mark Olson, put out a CD that included the subtle lyric, "I'm Going To Punch Don Rumsfeld In The Mouth."

While some might say, "what took so long?" A more pertinent question would be, "why haven't we paid more attention to the old ones?"

There were the classics from Guthrie, Seeger, Dylan, Baez and, of course, Guthrie. But no one laid out more anti tracks in such short period of time than did Phil Ochs. This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of his death. How hard did his lyrics hit the Democratic and Republican administrations? At his much too early death at the age of thirty-five, the FBI had a 410-page file on Ochs.

The single element from the Ochs library that strikes one most is how analogous his lyrics are to today's issues and conflicts. Oh, you might have to change the name of the country or war or poison, but the message is the same: What the hell are we thinking?

While many of his songs might have been too on the money, his passion and humor always rang true. Even his prologues were rich with biting satire.

In his "Santa Domingo" set up, he spoke to the 1965 condition of U.S. foreign policy with "...take the Dominican Republic...which we did...killing a few people here and there...mostly there, saving the day for freedom and democracy."

In "Ballad of the Cuban Invasion," his ode to our '62 failed assault on the Bay of Pigs, you replace Castro with Iraq and no more apropos song need be written for today's ill-conceived war.

They were told when they arrived,
They'd be helped by Castro's men,
But they found out, those who survived,
That the CIA was wrong again,
Why were they wearing my country clothes?
Why were they spending my country's gold
Who were the friends and who were the foes?
The headlines were lying, why wasn't I told?

In 1965's "I Ain't Marchin' Anymore," while he so simply made the case for history's misguided investment of bodies and souls, it nicely fits the neo-cons who've had the last five years run on us.

It's always the old who lead us to war,
Always the young who die.

In this administration and its lack of personal commitment we just might want to massage the lyrics to...

It's always who have the most and never volunteered for battle who lead us to war,
Always the those who have the least who die.

Ochs didn't pick a side and stick. His words and music took aim anywhere he saw injustice or hypocrites, no matter their politics. In "Love Me, I'm A Liberal," he took to task those who talk the talk but shirk the walk; much like those in Congress and the press who sat back and let this administration carry us unquestionably into Iraq.

In his 1962 (yes, '62) "Vietnam," he may have penned the manner and location to send today's anti-war message...

Well, if you want to stop the fighting over there, over there then you better stir up action over here
Drop your Congressman a line, let him know what's on your mind and the crisis will be over over there.

This wasn't meant to be an homage to Phil Ochs -- though it is certainly due -- as much as a question of our own willingness to ignore what we already know.

And as we face another war of forgetting what we once knew, here's Ochs "What Are We Fighting For" to remind us just how yesterday's lessons hold today's answers. He's been gone for thirty years but you wonder if he didn't know that there would be an Iraq; a Bush, Rumsfeld, or Cheney; a Limbaugh, Hannity or O'Reilly.

Turn on your TV, turn it on so loud,
And watch the fool a smiling there and tell me that you're proud,
And listen to your radio, the noise it starts to pour,
Oh I know you're set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?
Read your morning papers, read every single line,
And tell me if you can believe that simple world you find,
Read every slanted word till your eyes are getting sore,
I know you're set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?
And listen to your leaders, the ones who won the race,
As they stand right there before you and lie into your face,
If you ever try to buy them, you know what they stand for,
I know you're set for fighting, but what are you fighting for?

Steve Young, author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful" can be read every Sunday in the LA Daily News Op-Ed page (right next to Bill O'Reilly)

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Albion Monitor   April 20, 2006   (

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