Where do folk music and gothic poetry come together? In Greenwich Village, of course! Two beloved but very different figures in the Village’s history are united in a surprising twist — the activist and folk singer Phil Ochs set a poem penned by the notoriously morbid Edgar Allan Poe, “The Bells,” to music.
This unexpected confluence helps shed light on these two great and beloved writers and performers who each found a home in the Village’s creative community.
Edgar Allan Poe in the Village
Probably the most romantic and tragic figure in American literature in the first half of the nineteenth century was Edgar Allan Poe (1809-1849). In February of 1837 Poe arrived in New York, and took up his residence in a no-longer-standing house at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Waverly Place with his wife Virginia and her mother. They did not have an auspicious start to their time in the Village, though Poe was an attendee of Ann Charlotte Lynch Botta’s famous literary salon for a time, which helped him to launch his literary career.
By the spring of that year they had already moved to 113-1/2 Carmine Street. On Carmine Street, Poe wrote The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Gold Bug. This house was located across the street from St. John’s Graveyard, a melancholy setting, which must have appealed to his romantic nature. Another move, to 83 West Third Street, produced a second-edition update to The Raven and brought the author relative fame. In April of 1846, Poe moved away from Greenwich Village for the last time – up to the Bronx, though once his beloved wife died, he moved around frequently until his death in Baltimore.
“The Bells” – Poe and Ochs
“The Bells” is a poem that puts Poe’s aural and linguistic skills front and center – the way the words sound in the mouth is already like a song, with the rhythm and timbre of the poem reflecting their topic. It was in this poem that Poe coined the word “tintinnabulation” — the word you frequently see when you look up “onomatopoeia” in the dictionary as this linguistic device’s most celebrated illustration. In four parts, Poe explores the various uses of bells – moving from the marriage celebration to the funeral, from “the jingling and the tinkling” in part 1 to the “moaning and the groaning” in part 4.
The poem, posthumously published, was put to music by the clear-voiced folk singer and Villager Phil Ochs, taking on a new life and power. The song is rhythmic, repetitive like the tolling of bells themselves, and socially critical, as Ochs was.
Towards the end of the poem, Poe wrote:
On the human heart a stone—
They are neither man nor woman—
They are neither brute nor human—
They are Ghouls:
And their king it is who tolls;
And he rolls, rolls, rolls,
A pæan from the bells!
Ochs seems to take this sentiment – though not the words themselves – to craft a message which speaks out against those who sit silently while the bells toll the terrors of their terrifying messages. This sentiment is aligned both with Poe’s and Ochs’s criticism of the broader society of their times, which they saw as being more about appearances than actions.
Phil Ochs’ Life and Music
Philip David Ochs was born December 19, 1940, in El Paso, Texas. Ochs was a “topical” singer, guitarist and songwriter, who moved to and got his first playing gigs in Greenwich Village. Fellow folk singer Dave Van Ronk is quoted saying that “He had been a journalism student before he became a singer, and he would never sacrifice what he felt to be the truth for a good line.” Folk singer and activist Pete Seeger wrote Phil a note in 1963 that said: “I wish I had one tenth your talent as a songwriter.”
An early opponent of the Vietnam War, Ochs took part in numerous anti-war protests and demonstrations. In 1964, Bob Dylan commented in Broadside magazine that “I just can’t keep up with Phil. And he’s getting better and better and better.” Ochs eventually recorded a total of eight albums. In 1966 he sold out Carnegie Hall for his solo concert.
He played at the 1968 DNC protest in Chicago and was as politically involved as he was musically involved – these two parts of his life were deeply intertwined. After the Vietnam War ended in 1975, Ochs played at One Last Rally in New York City, performing a duet with Joan Baez.
Less than a year later, Ochs committed suicide on April 9, 1976. Critic L.A. Smith summed up Phil Ochs’ career as follows: “Among folk legends, the late Phil Ochs is nearly peerless. His dozen years as a ringing voice in the war against social and political injustice left the world with a wealth of music and lyrics that remain powerful and in some cases topical more than 30 years after he recorded them.”
Though Phil Ochs remained outside the spotlight of mainstream culture, those who know Ochs know that everything he was singing about in the 1960s and ‘70s is still relevant today – Lady Gaga sang one of his songs at her DNC performance in 2017, covered nicely by the Washington Post, which declared that everyone should be listening to Ochs.
Ochs’s music drew inspiration from so many Villagers and their stories, not just Edgar Allan Poe. Buried in his gorgeous ballad “Flower Lady” is the following verse: “Soldiers, disillusioned, come home from the war. Sarcastic students tell them not to fight no more. And they argue through the night. Black is black and white is white. Walk away both knowing they are right.”
Most of Phil’s songs were political, some humorous and some very serious. He wrote about the topics of the day, such as civil rights, Vietnam, and hungry miners. He also wrote about personalities such as Billie Sol Estes, a businessman who took his money into politics, William Worthy, an African-American journalist, civil rights activist, and dissident who pressed his right to travel regardless of U.S. State Department regulations, and Lou Marsh, an athlete killed on the streets of New York.
Finding Phil and His Work
There have been two biographies written about Ochs. Death of a Rebel by Marc Elliot was written in 1977, and There But For Fortune – The Life of Phil Ochs by Michael Schumacher was published in 1996. Rhino Records released a 3-CD compilation titled Farewells and Fantasies in 1997 which includes all of his best known works plus some previously unreleased tracks. Sliced Bread Records released a double cd of covers of Phil’s songs performed by 28 artists in 1998 entitled The Songs of Phil Ochs.For more on Phil, visit the Phil Ochs Web Page.