“Jim Dean of Indiana” is not one of Phil Ochs’ better known songs, certainly not up there with “I Ain’t Marchin Anymore,” “Small Circle of Friends,” or even “When I’m Gone.” It is from his last album, the ironically titled Phil Ochs Greatest Hits, was never released as a single, and recieved little to no airplay. I have to admit when I first heard the album back in the seventies, “Jim Dean” didn’t impress me nearly as much as Phil’s baroque mini-masterpieces, “No More Songs” and “Bach, Beethover, Mozart, & Me,” his country semi-parody, “Gas Station Women” (which I now see more as a homage to Faron Young), or the occasionally covered straightforward rock song, “My Kingdom for a Car.” Nevertheless, the song had deep meaning for Phil, for whom Dean had near mythical significance since first encountering him in late adolescence, seeing him in pictures like East of Eden, Rebel Without a Cause, and Giant as a larger-than-life figure at the local movie theater. As he was coming to the end of a brief but incredibly productive recording career, Phil seems to have consciously returned to his roots for inspiration, writing about the time he was “A Boy in Ohio,” and the homage to Faron Young I refer to above. Phil seems to have become increasingly drawn to his own homage to the Hollywood rebel-icon, apparently obssessively playing it on the piano at his sister’s house in Far Rockaway, New York in the last months before his suicide in April 1976.
Coming back to the song after not listening to it for a long time, I find the song has a delicacy and simplicity that is quite moving. It certainly isn’t the type of song Phil was best known for–protest songs like “Another Age“–being instead a kind of understated excercise in empathy, and perhaps a plea for compassion for the lost and the lonely, a state that Phil was coming increasingly to identify with as he started a long slide into deep depression. The song is not strictly accurate as an account of Dean’s life: he wasn’t physically abused by a farm hand, but more likely sexually abused by a local minister, and the song entirely ignores the many years Dean spent in Southern California before his mother’s death from uterine cancer in 1940 (it was at this time he joined his aunt Ortense and her husband Marcus Wilson in Indiana. Phil, in fact, was in a position to know some intimate details of Dean’s life, in that he often talked with Troubadour owner Doug Weston about the actor while living in Los Angeles. In fact, Weston had at least occasionally talked to Dean while working as a bartender in early 1950s Greenwich Village (Eliot, Death of a Rebel 156-57), although how intimate their conversations were, and how much of them Weston conveyed to to a fascinated Phil I don’t know. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting song, very briefly mentioning Dean’s movie career, largely because the song is less anchored to the actor’s person than the place he lived in from pre-adolescence until his mid-teens: the Wilson farm in Indiana. Thus we remain achored in Dean’s conscousness until he moves away, but then he is a figure mostly seen from the perspecitive of Marcus and Ortense Wilson and–to a much lesser degree–the surrounding townspeople. The physical presence of the living Dean only enters the song once away from the farm, and that is when Marcus and Ortense drive to Los Angeles to “speak with him for half an hour,” before leaving for his rendevous with mortality. The song is not strictly chronological, and the slideshow is even more unstuck in time (Giant only came out after Dean died, but I believe the marquee photo is of the local cinema in Fairmount, Indiana), but I think it works. I hope you do too.
This is sort of the conclusion of what I am coming to think of an elegiac trilogy of slideshows, the first on Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons, the second on Rufus Wainwright and Kate McGarrigle, and this one on Jim and Phil, who never met but who were both ‘boys in Midwest,’ to slightly paraphrase Phil’s song. This one’s for Shannon. And for James and Phil, of course.