When she was performing during the last Democratic National Convention, Lady Gaga asked “Anybody know who Phil Ochs is?” then proceeded to sing his Vietnam protest classic, “The War is Over.”
Six months later, as Donald Trump was settling in at the White House, her plea and performance inspired a writer in The Washington Post to explain to the younger generation who Ochs was and, as the headline said, why we need him now.
I agree. Ochs was fearless and forceful, a man who was able to take the things you were thinking about and turn them into song. He provided a big chunk of the background music for my college years.
If you wanted a less abrasive tone, you had many to choose from in that era, none more lasting and powerful than Pete Seeger. Even now if you listen to the song that got him and the Smothers Brothers in trouble, “Waist Deep in the Big Muddy,” you yearn for someone who can say what you are thinking and fearing, only better and with words that rhyme.
So if you are searching for that someone today, I have one in mind, a singer-songwriter whose repertoire is much more lyrical and gentle than Ochs, much less topical than Seeger, but who has a song that he wrote four decades ago that you would swear was inspired by current events.
I’m talking about Bill Staines, the New Hampshire folksinger I first saw in Vermont in the 1 970s and whom I saw once again just last weekend in Hyde Park at a performance hosted by the Hudson Valley Folk Guild.
I’ve lost count of the times I’ve seen him although I did come up with at least eight different venues. He plays about 200 dates a year all across the country and has more than 20 CDs out. If you go and if you know anything about playing a guitar, which I do not, pay special attention to his fingers. He is left-handed but plays a guitar strung for a right-hander, upside down and backwards.
He always asks the audience to join him on the chorus, a request that is more about giving us permission than anything else. Most of the audience knows all of the words to all of his tunes, verse and chorus alike. And he usually ends with “River,” a song that he notes he wrote more than 40 years ago and that has followed him around the country on the millions of miles he has logged.
But there’s another old favorite that stood out last weekend for me and for those who came with me and do not know all of the lyrics by heart.
That song is “Bridges.” We need them, Staines sings, because:
“There are canyons, there are canyons,
They are yawning in the night,
They are rank and bitter anger,
And they are all devoid of light.
They are fear and blind suspicion,
They are apathy and pride,
They are dark and so foreboding,
And they're oh, so very wide.”
So just what are these bridges?
“They are languages and letters,
They are poetry and awe,
They are love and understanding,
And they're better than a wall.”
I, and Bill Staines, invite you to sing along whenever you feel like it.