Small Circle of Friends

6 07 2017

To be ahead of your time, and outside of time seems be best described symbolically as a circle. Phil Ochs, as an activist and musician, seemed to embody the philosophy that he espoused through his music during the social movements of the sixties and early seventies. Having recently seen the excellently produced Phil Ochs There But For Fortune documentary, I have been reintroduced to the music of the phenomenally prolific poet of people power.

One of his songs which steps outside the culture of the day and into literary level lyricism, is ‘Small Circle of Friends.’ Perhaps it is the fact that though marijuana is now legal, many of the other ‘social ‘situations which he critiques in this song are still significant in today’s societal struggle. Ochs describes indifference to sexually based violence – ‘there’s a woman being grabbed, they’ve dragged her to the bushes and now she’s being stabbed,’ and lack of concern and compassion based on fear ‘Thirteen cars are piled up, they’re hanging on a cliff. Maybe we should pull them back with our towing chain, but we gotta move and we might get sued.’

Each verse pointing out the smallest and perhaps most functional structure existing today, a group of friends. While he doesn’t offer particular solutions to the difficulties of race, or poverty, he does emphasize a distinction between haves and have-nots through his use of the word ‘captured’ in regard to an arrest for marijuana possession and subtly suggesting that for the have-nots the point of law is to maintain the status quo, regardless of the obvious imbalance: Wouldn’t it be a riot if they really blew their tops?  But they got too much already and besides we got the cops.’

The documentary suggests that Ochs lyric’s were not accessible because of the overt political messages, and on more than one occasion describes his relationship to Bob Dylan. Dylan’s songs were inherently political at the beginning of his career, though the truth in the messages of his songs also ring true today, because ‘the times they are a changing.’