Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune

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Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune
Promotional poster
Directed by Kenneth Bowser[1]
Produced by Michael Cohl
Kenneth Bowser
Michael Ochs[1]
Written by Kenneth Bowser[1]
Music by Phil Ochs
Edited by Pamela Scott Arnold
Distributed by First Run Features
Release date
  • October 1, 2010 (2010-10-01) (Woodstock)
  • January 5, 2011 (2011-01-05) (United States)
Running time
97 minutes
Country United States
Language English

Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune is a documentary film on the life and times of folk singer-songwriter Phil Ochs.[3] The film, released theatrically in January 2011, was written and directed by Kenneth Bowser.[1][2] Its title is taken from one of Ochs' best known songs, "There but for Fortune" (1963).[4]

The film features extensive archival footage of Ochs, as well as scenes reflecting the turbulent political climate of the 1960s during which he emerged as a spokesperson on causes such as racial injustice, political oppression, the horrors of war, and labor issues.[5] In addition, it includes interviews with family members and many of the artists and activists who knew him from his arrival in Greenwich Village in the early 1960s through his death in 1976. Also featured are comments from contemporary figures on Ochs' influence. This documentary was broadcast on January 23, 2012 on the PBS series American Masters.[6][7]

Personal biography and political history[edit]

The film is a biography of Ochs as well as a history of the anti-war movement, the folk song revival in the United States, and left-wing political activism during the 1960s.[2][5] Tracking Ochs' rise to fame during the folk and protest song movements of the period, the film depicts his growing involvement in the radical politics that developed over the decade.[8][9] Throughout, he wrote hundreds of songs, many of them ripped straight from the daily news. As the film's interviews bring out, Ochs firmly believed his music could change the world for the better.[1]

Besides the archival footage of Ochs and the interviews with others involved in the folk movement, the film features extensive news clips of the events of the times, including the Civil Rights struggle in the South, assassination of President John F. Kennedy, rallies protesting US military involvement in Vietnam, assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, shootings of students at Kent State, and the "police riot" at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago.[2][5][10] Ochs became a part of the inner circle that sought to defeat US policies, and the film shows interviews with some of the movement's central figures, several of whom were close friends with Ochs, including Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, co-founders of the Youth International Party, and Tom Hayden, who went on to become a California State Senator.[11]

As the film recounts, Ochs first became interested in politics and folk music while attending college at Ohio State University.[10] He eventually dropped out of school and moved to Greenwich Village in 1962. His goal was to become the folk movement's leading songwriter. Unfortunately, Bob Dylan was already on his way to claiming that title, and Ochs had to settle for second best, at least in that regard. One of the film's subjects is the contrast between the two. Dylan, less concerned with politics than his music, abandoned topical songs early on. Ochs, on the other hand, held by his commitment to the era's causes, which made him, in Kenneth Bowser's view, probably the most important protest singer of the 1960s.[8]

According to interviews with those close to Ochs, the political struggles weighed heavily on the folk singer, who took much of it personally.[9] After the events in Chicago, he felt that America had lost its way. Suffering from bipolar disorder, Ochs subsequently became depressed and slid into alcoholism. He committed suicide at his sister's home in 1976.


In addition to archival footage of Ochs, the film features interviews with his younger brother Michael, a producer of the film and the singer's manager starting in the mid sixties; his older sister, Sonny; his wife, Alice Skinner; and his daughter, Meegan Lee Ochs.[2][5] It also includes interviews with many of the figures who were connected with Ochs through music and politics, including:

Among the contemporary figures influenced by Ochs who are featured in the film are singer-songwriter Billy Bragg, singer Jello Biafra,[21] and actor Sean Penn. Literary critic Christopher Hitchens provides commentary on Ochs' career.[2]


The film features parts of about three dozen songs that Ochs had written over the span of his career, from "Draft Dodger Rag" and "I Ain't Marching Anymore" to "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends" and "One Way Ticket Home". It also includes a cover of his song "Love Me, I'm a Liberal" by Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon. Songs by other artists include Dave Van Ronk's recording of the traditional "He Was a Friend of Mine", Bob Dylan's recording of his song "Blowin' in the Wind", and Chilean activist and singer-songwriter Víctor Jara's recording of his song "El Cigarrito".[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune Press Kit" (PDF). First Run Features. 2010. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Holden, Stephen (January 4, 2011). "Aspiring to Musical Power and Glory". The New York Times: C6. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  3. ^ Green, Jonah (January 5, 2011). "There But For Fortune: A Moving Tribute To A Complicated Singer". Huffington Post. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  4. ^ a b c Lovece, Frank (January 5, 2011). "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune". Film Journal International. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d Rooney, David (January 2, 2011). "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune - Film Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  6. ^ "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune". PBS. December 20, 2011. Retrieved January 11, 2012.
  7. ^ "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune". Season 26. Episode 1. January 23, 2012. PBS. Missing or empty |series= (help)
  8. ^ a b Shepherd, Julianne Escobedo (January 6, 2011). "Phil Ochs, a Musical American Hero". AlterNet. Retrieved January 17, 2011.
  9. ^ a b Kenneth, Bowser. "Film Trailer: Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune". TV Guide. Retrieved January 17, 2011.
  10. ^ a b Baker, Bob (December 22, 2010). "Tracing the Arc of a Tragic Folk Singer". New York Times. Retrieved January 17, 2011.
  11. ^ a b "Testimony of Phillip David Ochs". The Chicago Eight Trial: Excerpts from the Trial Transcript. Famous Trials. December 11, 1969. Retrieved March 24, 2018.
  12. ^ Gray 2006, pp. 513
  13. ^ a b Amy, Goodman (January 6, 2011). "Phil Ochs: The Life and Legacy of a Legendary American Folk Singer". Democracy Now!. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  14. ^ a b c d e Anderson, John (January 4, 2010). "Phil Ochs: There but for Fortune". Variety. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  15. ^ Fine, Marshall (January 6, 2011). "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune". Huffington Post. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  16. ^ Schumacher 1996, pp. 219–222
  17. ^ Schumacher 1996, pp. 225–226
  18. ^ a b "Phil Ochs: There But For Fortune (2011)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved January 8, 2011.
  19. ^ Schumacher, Michael (1996). There But for Fortune: The Life of Phil Ochs. Hyperion. ISBN 0-7868-6084-7.
  20. ^ Lanthier, Joseph Jon (January 3, 2011). "Phil Ochs: There But for Fortune". Slant Magazine. Retrieved January 9, 2011.
  21. ^ Johnson, Martin (January 4, 2011). "A Voice Echoes in the Village". Wall Street Journal Online. Retrieved January 9, 2011.


External links[edit]