On April 9, 1976 my brother, Phil Ochs, ended his life by hanging
himself. He was 35 years old. He had written over 100 songs, and had
traveled to many countries. He suffered from manic-depression and had been
experiencing a long term writer's block. Many of his songs had been
recorded by artists such as John Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, Ronnie Gilbert,
Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Pete Seeger.
Six years after Phil's death, Ned Traynor who was then active with the
musicians' cooperative which was producing concerts at the Speakeasy on
MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village, suggested that they do a Phil Ochs
Song Night. I said that I thought it was a great idea. From time to time
I would call up and suggest the name of a performer I would like to see in
the program. Everyone I suggested was accepted. After a while, I realized
that nobody was really in charge.
Anyhow, I was at that first show and emceed a good portion of it. It
was in October of '83, but I don't recall the exact date. It was quite
disorganized with far too many performers. I left at about midnight, and
there were still many others waiting to perform. Most of the performers
were members of the Hudson River Sloop Singers who are affiliated with the
The following year we did another Song Night at the Speakeasy on Oct.
6 which I organized and emceed. Once again, most of the performers were
members of the Sloop Singers Other performers included Sammy Walker, Tom
Intondi, David Massengill, Rod MacDonald, Oscar Brand and The Washington
By 1984 I decided to more the show to Folk City which was better known
and where I had been working the open mike on Monday evenings. We
continued with most of the same performers, but that was a very special
year because Magpie joined the show, and they have been in every single
Song Night since then.
Our second show at Folk City the following year was really memorable.
We had quite a who's who of performers that night including Suzanne Vega,
Melanie, Tom Paxton, Fred Small, Happy Traum, Eric Andersen, Christine
Lavin, Frank Christian, Dave Van Ronk and Magpie. The place was
By December of '86 Folk City had closed down. Realizing that the Song
Night had become quite popular, I decided to move it to a larger venue.
For that year and next we were at the Bottom Line which seats about 400
people. We sold the place out two years in a row. (Not surprising
considering the quality of the performers we were featuring - John Gorka,
Aztec Two-Step, Ronnie Gilbert, David Massengill, Alix Dobkin, Sammy
Walker, Buskin & Batteau, Fred Small, Rod MacDonald, Magpie, Kim & Reggie
Harris, and Christine Lavin, among others)
I had moved up to the Albany area in '86, so I decided to move the
Song Night upstate so as not to have to travel to the city anymore. In
1987 the Song Night was held for the first time at the Eighth Step
Coffeehouse on Nov. 6th, and it was held there every year until 1999 except
once when there was a date mix-up, and it had to be held elsewhere in the
Capitol District. That same year we did a Song Night in Philadelphia.
Up to this point all the Song Nights had the same formula. Each
performer would sing one or two of Phil's songs, depending on how many they
knew, and that was it. The philosophy behind Song Night was to keep Phil's
music alive, to give all the monies collected to organizations in the folk
field who were struggling financially, and to showcase performers. Money
was given to groups like People's Music Network, Broadside Magazine, Sing
Out Magazine, New Song Library, various non-profit folk clubs and college
radio stations. I would appeal to the audience to go out and see the
performers when they were in town doing their own material. I found it
frustrating that people would pay money to hear Phil's songs, but not the
songs of the performers. Sammy Walker said, "Phil Ochs draws a larger
audience dead than we do alive."
A side benefit of the creation of the Song Night was that several
performers liked the songs that I asked them to sing so much that they
included them in their repertoires and sang them all around the country.
The ultimate thrill was when Kim and Reggie Harris not only recorded "In
the Heat of the Summer", they also made it the title song of their first
After several years of only doing Phil's songs at the Song Nights I
started to get bored hearing the same songs over and over by basically the
same performers. We were playing in different venues including Washington
DC and Cambridge, Massachusetts by this time so the audiences were
different, but I needed a change. I decided to change to format so that
each performer would do one of Phil's songs and one of his/her own, thus
giving the audience a taste of what is being written today. As of now,
this is still the formula we're using. I much prefer it, but some of the
performers think we should only do Phil's songs, and that's what some of
Another minor change was added when we did a show at the Village Gate
in Manhattan in November of '93. There was a biography of Phil by Michael
Schumacher being written at that time. He let us have some of his
transcripts from several interviews. We had two excerpts read which
described some of Phil's adventures in Africa and South America. They were
quite humorous and added a new dimension to the Song Night. We have
included this practice in several Song Nights since then.
So the Song Nights continue. Many performers have taken part in them,
and many more will be invited in the future. Some of the regulars include
Emma's Revolution (Pat Humphries & Sandy Apatow) ,
John Flynn, David Roth, Greg Greenway,
Kim & Reggie Harris and Magpie.
In 1994 we made our first foray into Canada, doing a show in Toronto, in
1996 we did a min-tour covering 8 cities in the mid west, and in 1999 we
went to 7 cities in the mid west including a major tribute to Phil at the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. We also did 2 nights at the
Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage.
We toured the northwest in 2004, starting in Vancouver with shows in
Washington and Oregon, ending up in California - San Francisco, Santa Cruz
and Berkeley. It's really exciting to be a part of a
constantly evolving show with the main purpose of keeping Phil Ochs' music