“My whole life has been one wonderful accident,” declared Sonny Ochs. While an English teacher in Brooklyn, she stumbled into a career as a disk jockey, spinning folk records for WFMU and WRPI, as well as organizing events that preserve the music of her brother, Phil Ochs, whose songs of protest galvanized activists in the 1960s.
By another accident, Sonny made her way upstate to live in Schoharie County and is now a deejay at community radio station WIOX in Roxbury. Next spring, she will celebrate her 80th birthday with a concert by regulars from her “Phil Nights”: Kim and Reggie Harris, Magpie, John Flynn, and others.
“When someone asks you to do something,” said Sonny, “if it’s not illegal and it’s not going to hurt someone, say yes.” This motto was at work soon after Phil’s death in 1976, when Sonny was asked to participate in a couple of documentaries about her brother. One of the interviews took place at WFMU, the iconic free-from radio station then located in East Orange, New Jersey. The interviewer invited her to bring some of Phil’s records to play on the air. “I was Suzy Housewife then, except that I was not married any more,” said Sonny. “I was just a schoolteacher. But I said, ‘I’d love that,’ and I had a wonderful time.” Soon she had a monthly show of her own, a gig that lasted over five years, playing music by her brother and other musicians in and along the edges of the folk genre.
Throughout most of Phil’s life, the siblings were not that close. “I was the older sister, and there’s nothing more toxic than a younger brother. We had nothing in common,” said Sonny, whose nickname, picked up at Girl Scout camp, is short for Sonia. “But I was the one he came to at the end.” In the mid-70s, when Phil spiraled into depression and alcoholism and was living on the street, he sought shelter with his sister in Far Rockaway. She tried to help him, but he ended up hanging himself in her house. He was only 35.
“All the males in our family were manic-depressive,” said Sonny. “When I think of all the negatives he had to face, I’m proud of him for accomplishing so much. He was extremely shy. My father, who was a doctor, couldn’t hold a job.” Jacob Ochs lost one hospital position after another, due to his manic-depressive tendencies, forcing the family to move every few years. For Sonny, who has always been outgoing and sociable, making friends was not a problem. But, she said, “It took Phil forever to make one friend, then we’d move, and he had to start over. He escaped through movies. People can’t imagine this, but he idolized John Wayne and Audie Murphy. Phil was very patriotic. He believed we have a great country. He pointed out the flaws so we could correct them and make it an even better country.”
In 1982, Sonny was asked to help put together an event in which musicians would perform Phil’s songs, such as “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” and “Draft Dodger Rag,” anthems of the anti-war movement. “I didn’t want the music to die,” she recalled, so she invited musicians to sing at the show, held at the Speakeasy in Greenwich Village.
The Phil Ochs Song Night became an annual event. When Sonny noticed how disorganized the organizers were, she took over. She moved the show to Folk City and brought in such luminaries as Suzanne Vega, Tom Paxton, Dave Van Ronk, and Woodstock’s own Happy Traum. Since then, the events have spread as far as Canada and the West Coast. They are now held several times a year at venues around the Northeast.
While Sonny was still teaching junior high English in New York City, she bought a plot of land for camping in Middleburgh, about 50 miles west of Albany. “I got addicted to camping there and built a cabin,” she said. “Next thing I knew, it was getting harder to go back to the city. I was going back in tears, and then it dawned on me — I have a building with no mortgage — I could live here.”
She was told she would never get a teaching job upstate because she was too high on the pay scale, but when she saw that the local high school wanted an English teacher, she applied. “They hired me because they had the class from hell, and they figured if someone could handle New York City school kids, they could handle this class. I enjoyed it and got them under control.”
At the same time, she deejayed monthly on WRPI for 18 years, until she tired of driving to Troy. She thought her radio career was over, until she was asked to do an interview about Phil on WIOX, where she was persuaded to take on a new monthly show. Then one of the deejays died, and the station was short of help. “I haven’t learned to say no,” she sighed. “I get in front of the mirror and practice for hours. Then the phone rings, and I say, ‘Okay.’”
Now her show on WIOX airs weekly. She also organizes concerts at the Middleburgh Library, and she continues to run events in tribute to her brother. In 2015, the year Phil would have turned 75, she presented 11 song nights. Four festivals, including Falcon Ridge, offered Phil Ochs workshops. In Ottawa, an Ochsfest was held on his birthday, December 19. Sonny is happy that interest in his work persists. “I get calls and questions from all kinds of people,” she said. “It’s amazing how many young people are writing papers about him. A woman from Italy did her masters thesis on him and then wrote a biography.”
In the Trump era, Sonny feels Phil’s music is more pertinent than ever. If he were alive today, “I don’t think he’d have time to sleep, there’s so much material out there,” she said. “He’s already written songs that are, unfortunately, still relevant. ‘Knock on the Door’ is about being spied on, when they come to take you away. ‘There But for Fortune’ was written 40 or 50 years ago, and there’s one line somebody changed after 9/11. Where he sings, ‘Show me the ruins of the buildings once so tall,’ they changed ‘buildings’ to ‘towers.’”
Phil wrote in “Days of Decision”:
I’ve seen your heads hiding ‘neath the blankets of fear,
When the paths they are plain and the choices are clear,
But with each passing day, boys, the cost is more dear
For these are the days of decision.
Partly thanks to the devoted efforts of Sonny Ochs, this music will still be alive to inspire us in the daunting years to come. ++
For information on forthcoming “Remembering Phil Ochs Song Nights,” see https://www.sonnyochs.com.