What do we know about Phil Ochs? He was a member of the 50s/60s protest movement and a prolific songwriter admired by his contemporaries. He never really had a hit in any conventional sense and died far too soon by his own hand. Yet, he is still remembered although, sadly, most of his records are out of print. I’d like to think that Days Of Decision, subtitled A Tribute To Phil Ochs, may do something to rekindle interest in his work. Martyn Joseph has something of Phil Ochs’ passion and commitment but also a great sensitivity towards the music. Someone else might have been tempted to “modernise” these songs but that isn’t Martyn’s way.
The set opens with one of Phil’s best-known songs, ‘I Ain’t Marching Anymore’, which holds a dark mirror to Dylan’s ‘With God On Our Side’. Phil details America’s wars, both foreign and domestic, and states forcefully that he’s had enough. Martyn performs it with a simple strummed guitar complete with a tap on the instrument at the end; it could have been recorded in 1962 in Phil’s kitchen.
He sticks to the same style through ‘I’m Gonna Say It Now’ and ‘Days Of Decision’, gradually increasing the complexity of his accompaniments, adding piano to ‘Flower Lady’. Many of these songs are rooted in contemporary events and with ‘The Ballad Of William Worthy’ I really had to investigate the back story. ‘That Was The President’ was written in the immediate aftermath rather than through the prism of history and it is probably the best song ever written about the events of November 1963.
Inevitably, many of the songs still resonate and I credit Martyn’s choice of material for this. ‘Knock On The Door’, ‘Lou Marsh’ and Phil’s other best known song, ‘There But For Fortune’, still have meaning: totalitarianism, gang warfare and poverty are still rife.
Very subtly, Martyn allows his performances to develop in parallel with Phil’s career. He is so deeply immersed in these songs that it’s easy to forget that you’re not listening to the originals although Martyn admits that he doesn’t have Ochs’ purity of tone. But if, Phil Ochs had lived to his mid-fifties this is how he would have sounded, I’m sure. As my first review of a 2020 release Days Of Decision seems most appropriate. It gives me some hope.
Artist’s website: www.martynjoseph.net
‘When I’m Gone’ – live on the sofa: