Effect Measure

When the singer-songwriter Phil Ochs took his own life in 1976 he was a year and a half older than me. It’s hard for some of us to believe he’s been gone 33 years. His music and the ideals he fought for are still so strong. Phil was best known for his anti-war songs. Yet he wrote a different kind of song that continues to grow in importance to me as I near the end of my own life. Like many people my age I’m losing a lot of friends, colleagues and family of late — two in the last month and word that yet another is near the end of her life and entering hospice care. While I remain relatively healthy and carry no dire diagnoses. I’m realistic, I’m not afraid of dying, but ever more conscious that time is getting short and there remains much to do — as there always will be, even when I’m gone.

This song of Phil Ochs doesn’t make me think of the ones who are gone but of the living, especially the young generation. Last night I heard conservative commentator David Brooks say on PBS’s News Hour he was very optimistic about the under thirties. I don’t agree with Brooks about much, but in this case I’m with him. As a Professor I have a lot of contact with that generation and they are a cut above their predecessors. That’s on average, of course. There are many wonderful people of every generation, but this new one has a seriousness of purpose and a deeper understanding that they and their peers are essentially the same underneath the crap their parents piled on them (of which religion is a prime but not sole example). Maybe the openness of a connected and globalized society has done it. I don’t know. But they’ll be the ones to carry on when I’m gone, and I’m optimistic. Which brings me to Phil Ochs’ song, When I’m gone.

There are some wonderful and polished versions on YouTube (try Ani Difranco or Allison Crowe and you can hear Phil sing it himself here). But I selected one by a young folksinger, Kim Ruehl, performed live at a coffeehouse in Seattle just a couple of months ago. There is an innocence and genuineness about it that is very affecting. She’s young. She’s the future. And she and her friends and neighbors and loved ones and fellow citizens of the planet will be here when I’m gone.

But I’m not gone yet. I’m still around. For a while anyway. With my shoulder still to the wheel. Because there’s lots to do. So I guess I better do it while I’m here:


  1. #1 Snowy Owl
    November 29, 2009

    Thank you Revere, So Nice, So True

  2. #2 Granny Sue
    November 29, 2009


  3. #3 LHDguy
    November 29, 2009

    This is indeed a fantastic song. WFMT’s (Chicago) The Midnight Special signs off each weekly Saturday night program with this song performed by Ochs. Thanks for the links!

  4. #4 mistah charley, ph.d.
    November 29, 2009

    It’s really true that self-medicating with ethanol is counterproductive, and maybe Phil Ochs would have lasted longer if he hadn’t been doing that. Once again I feel sad that he’s gone, but as my own personal experience has been reminding me recently, everyone has an expiration date. “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

    In searching the web for the text of the following poem about passing work on from generation to generation, which I wanted to quote, I found it on a page about Andrzej M. Łobaczewski, a Polish psychologist who, in the face of much adversity, wrote about the interaction of personal and political pathology.


    Here is the poem, from Idries Shah’s book, Wisdom of the Idiots:

    Tavern Pledge

    ‘It may be said: “They came in vain.”
    Let it not be that they came in vain.

    We leave this, the bequest, to you;
    We finished what we could, we left the rest to you.

    Remember, this is work entrusted-
    Remember, beloved, we shall meet again.’

    — Dervish Song

  5. #5 revere
    November 29, 2009

    mistah charley: It’s a terrific poem and altho I don’t expect there will be a “me” to see anyone again, the sentiments express how I feel. Thanks. And yes, Phil was dying slowly by his own hand even before he finished the job. Life is complicated and so are people.

  6. #6 Jean
    November 29, 2009

    Thank you for posting the song, which really spoke to me, and for the introductions to Kim Ruehl and Phil Ochs.

  7. #7 C. Corax
    November 29, 2009

    Thank you, as always, for posting this link to some great folk music. I can’t believe Phil Ochs has been dead for 33 years. His songs sound as fresh and passionate today as they did when he was alive.

  8. #8 Catharine
    November 29, 2009

    Yes, life is complicated. Not to mention hard. But Revere, we still need you for many years to come!

  9. #9 Paula
    November 29, 2009

    Thanks for this, Revere. It’s hard confronting the deaths of those one’s close to and the recognition of one’s own mortality, and I appreciate your reminding us, through Ochs, how we are situated, too, in song and vitality and hope and joy.

  10. #10 Mark
    November 29, 2009

    Thanks Revere.

    This gave me pause, and an excuse to embark (even if only for an hour) on a voyage of discovery / rediscovery of Phil Ochs and his music. Thanks for that. (Just don’t tell the co-authors of the manuscript I was supposed to be working on.)

    For anyone wishing to pick up your guitar and play along, here is a reasonable source of chords and words: http://web.cecs.pdx.edu/~trent/ochs/lyrics/when-im-gone.html.
    And some might be interested in a newly released recording of Ochs in concert in 1970: http://www.amchitka-concert.com/

  11. #11 revere
    November 30, 2009

    Mark: Thanks for the Amchitka link. Didn’t know about this. Looks like I might have to get it!

  12. #12 Pieter B
    December 1, 2009

    Phil Ochs wrote the soundtrack to my activist days. It was a glorious time in many ways.

    The greatest irony ever was when that over-the-top jingoistic patriorgasm known as the Orange Bowl halftime show some New Year in the mid-80s was choreographed to “The Power and The Glory.” If Phil had shown up at the Orange Bowl while he was alive, the halftime show would have been him being burned at the stake. I sat there watching it shaking my head in amazement. They left out a couple of verses, as I recall.

  13. #13 Magpie
    December 4, 2009

    See, this is why I like anonymity on the internet. I don’t know this revere’s gender (Revere has several, I’m told) and my own is undeclared. Appearance is irrelevant, genitals don’t come into it, yet here I am with that warm fuzzy tingly feeling that is called a crush.

    I totally have a crush on Revere. ­čśŤ

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