I’m haunted. Totally haunted. The other night I saw the Phil Ochs documentary, There But For Fortune, and can’t stop thinking about a story Pete Seeger told of Chilean folksinger Victor Jara. Jara was a teacher, poet, theatre director, singer/songwriter, political activist and member of the Communist Party of Chile during the Salvador Allende regime. Ochs, an American folk singer who rivaled his friend Bob Dylan back when both were first getting started in early ‘60s Greenwich Village, met Jara on a trip to South America. The two became fast friends and performed concerts together.
On September 11, 1973, a violent coup, most likely with the help of the American C.I.A., may or may not have taken the life of the Socialist-leaning Allende (some say he committed suicide) to install a repressive and severe right-wing government headed by Augusto Pinochet. The very next day, all the poets and singers and filmmakers and college professors and homeless people and street performers and left-wing activists and others were rounded up, kidnapped and taken to Chile Stadium where they were tortured and murdered.
Victor Jara was one of those unfortunate people. For four days, he witnessed the atrocities. Then, on the fifth day, he was led out from the bowels of the stadium to the center of the field where a big table covered in blood sat awaiting his arms. It is there on that table that Victor Jara lost both his hands to the machete wielded by government goons. That’s when his tormenters laughingly told him to go play his guitar and sing now! As Seeger tells the story, he raised his two bloody stumps up in the air and led a singalong of one of his more famous protest songs. The guards, sensing he was again winning the favor of the kidnapped crowd, shot him in the head. Dead.
Today, of course, Victor Jara is a revered martyr for the songs he sung of the common man and the plight of the proletariat. His murder case was reopened in 2008 and some small semblance of justice was achieved. In 2009, a belated funeral was held with tens of thousands paying their respects. A poem he had written about conditions in the stadium that had been concealed inside of a shoe was recovered and renamed “Estadio Chile.” It is now part of Chile’s folklore. Recordings of his music have been preserved and distributed worldwide. His widow, Joan Jara, runs the Victor Jara Foundation and wrote a book, Victor: An Unfinished Song.
Phil Ochs never got over the death of his friend. He never got over the killings of JFK, RFK and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He never got over the election of Richard Nixon. He never got over the brutal beatings of youthful protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention where he performed in the streets. Upon Nixon resigning in disgrace, upon there being nothing left to protest, there must have been, in his mind, no need to keep living. So he drank himself to death, and fueled by his bi-polar condition, let no one help him… until he finally hung himself in the Long Island home of his sister. He was 35.
Phil Ochs was better than Bob Dylan. Dylan has already admitted he “used folk music” to become a rock star. Ochs was true to many causes. When Civil Rights activists James Chaney, 21; Andrew Goodman, 20; and Michael Schwerner, 24; were murdered in Mississippi by Edgar Ray Killen and his band of white power racists, Phil Ochs sang out the classic line, “Mississippi, find another country to be part of.” In the face of Vietnam, Ochs sang loud and proud “I Ain’t A’Marchin’ Anymore.” When the draft threatened our generation, Ochs used humor and profound wisdom to answer as follows.
“Sarge, I’m only 18, got a ruptured spleen and I always carry a purse/
I’m blind as a bat and my feet are flat and my asthma’s gettin’ worse/
Think of my career, my sweetheart dear and my poor old invalid aunt/
Besides I ain’t no fool, I’m goin’ to school/
And I’m workin’ in a dee-fense plant.”
—“Draft Dodger Rag”