This was a byproduct of my Phil Ochs’ play project. Sammy Walker is a Georgia born folksinger who knew Phil during his last year or so in New York. Phil helped the young singer with contacts, and produced his first album, Songs for Patty, singing background vocals on a couple of the tracks. With a voice poised somewhere between Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, Sammy probably suffered from sounding a bit too much like these near mythic figures. He is also an excellent songwriter in his own right, recording several albums in the late 1970s and 1980s, as well as one in 2008. While it has a number of excellent songs, his first album includes this standout track, which is I think vaguely based on Salinger’s book. I have to admit my own memories of A Catcher in the Rye are pretty sketchy; it was one of those youth classics that I didn’t get around to reading until I was really too old to appreciate it (as I remember, I found Holden a bit pretentious and annoying). This slideshow makes a major motif out of the sea, although I frankly don’t remember that in the book at all, and I think I probably make a bit too much out of the reference to the shoreline in the song’s chorus. That’s Sammy and Phil in the picture above, circa 1975. His music is worth checking out, by the way, if you’re interested in folk music with an occasionally topical edge.
“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.
This is a slideshow I originally posted on the “50 Phil Ochs Fans Can’t Be Wrong” group on Facebook, then on The Daily Kos, but it has garnered so much positive response (for me, anyway, so the bar is pretty low), that I thought I would post it here. It is sort of appropriate for the upcoming July 4th holiday, although it is more marked by a tone of elegiac doom than celebratory patriotism (Memorial Day would have been more appropriate, but I just finished it yesterday morning). I have found out some interesting stuff from the numerous responses I have gotten. As one of my Facebook respondents pointed out, Phil had an earlier song on another submarine disaster (the USS Thresher) that appears on his “All the News thats Fit to Sing” album. Also, according to one of my Daily Kos respondents, it was written in the key of D minor, and I must say the effect is still incredibly haunting, and I’m sure I’ve listened to it more than a hundred times.
This slideshow inspired by one of Phil’s most evocative and moving songs, “The Scorpion Departs but Never Returns” (from his “Rehearsals for Retirement” album. Actually, it wasn’t until fairly recently that I learned it was based on an actual event, the disappearance of the nuclear submarine the U.S.S. Scorpion (SSN-589) on May 22, 1968, about three months before Phil went to Chicago. I was nine years old at the time, but passionately interested in news and politics, although I have to admit I have no memory of hearing about submarine’s disappearance at the time (1968 was a very busy and rather horrific year). Although there have been lots of theories, many designed to stoke cold war hysteria and increase public support for the ever-expanding military industrial complex, apparently the sub imploded because it went too deep. As the Scorpion’s nickname among some of her crew members was “scrapiron,”and she apparently had not been fully serviced, I suspect structural deficiencies had something to do with it. The audio at the end of the video, after Phil’s song concludes, is the audio record of the implosion (the first boom is the actual implosion, followed by a series of diminishing echoes). If I am reading the recording correctly (posted above), everybody on board basically died within two seconds, probably crushed by the implosion rather than drowning (of course, this was not public knowledge when Phil wrote the song).
I have tried to do justice to the pathos of the terrible loss of life of the tragedy, and the suffering of the sailor’s surviving friends and relations, while also trying to illustrate how Phil was using his poetic imagination to transform the incident into a means to explore his own growing depression, before being pretty much tipped into the abyss by the tear gas and riot sticks of August. Hope you like it.