For one man and a guitar Martyn Joseph creates a performance with a huge far-reaching sound that is energetic, compelling and passionate. Be it to two hundred people or twenty thousand, Martyn continues to empower, encourage and entertain listeners through his music.
January 2020 will see Martyn release Days Of Decision: A Tribute to Phil Ochs, who was also, like Martyn, known for his sharp wit, sardonic humour, earnest humanism, political activism, insightful and alliterative lyrics, and distinctive voice. Martyn says
“In 1993 I found myself opening for the great Irish band Clannad on their North American tour. On June 11th we played the first of two nights at the Somerville Theatre, Boston, Massachusetts. The following day there was a great review of the show written by Steve Morse in the Boston Globe. Steve wrote glowingly of Clannad’s brilliant performance and at the bottom kindly added ‘Opener Martyn Joseph was a profound experience of his own. He combined edgy protest songs that reached a Phil Ochs intensity at times, but also had a droll sense of humour that kept the audience pleasantly off guard throughout. A fine talent.’
Twenty years after the Boston Globe review, I happened to meet Phil’s sister Sonny, a wonderful woman with a big heart who is doing a great job of keeping Phil’s music alive through concerts and on her radio show. With her encouragement, and to play a part, I decided to record an album of Phil Ochs songs. Phil was a great and prolific songwriter. The cannon of songs he left us with is extraordinary and it was not easy to choose the songs recorded here. ‘That Was The President’ floors me every time and captures perfectly the despair and shock of the loss of JFK. Phil sent an early draft copy of the lyrics to Jackie Kennedy. When faced by criticism from some for being pro establishment Phil’s response was ‘systems not men are the enemy’.
I was moved to discover an old radio interview where Phil describes writing ‘Song Of My Returning’ whilst travelling in Wales. It’s a more personal lyric but it’s the troubadour’s lament and I felt an empathetic connection to it. These are but two of the songs I chose but there were many others I could have drawn on and the idea is that this will whet the appetite and the listener will want to seek out more of Phil’s work. They won’t be disappointed. Phil had a beautiful voice and a gifted way with vibrato and timbre. He wasn’t the world’s greatest guitar player and his sense of rhythm could be a little unique, but that pure lilting vocal along with his ragged meter endears him to my ears even more. Recording was interesting. I decided to primarily strum rather than work on complicated guitar arrangements that might distract and move too far away from the original work. My voice will never be as pure as Phil’s, but I tried to meet the commitment that his songs demand. It will require a certain amount of grace from his fans, but I hope I’ve done justice to this snapshot of the great man’s opus.
What is most striking to me is how poignant and vital his words remain to our present time. It’s uncanny that as you wander through this material there are so many echoes of our current struggle with right wing populism and those who pervade their wares through lies, cynicism and fear. Phil once said that ‘In such ugly times, the only true protest is beauty’. He brought and left us with a lot of that ‘beauty’ and it’s been an honour to dwell within it for a while and hopefully give it a small nudge forward.”
Phil Ochs sister Sonny wrote of the project,
“My brother, Phil Ochs, died by his own hand more than 40 years ago on April 9, 1976 at the age of 35. He wrote an amazing number of songs – many of which were political in nature and which are still relevant today. The songs are being recorded by many different artists all these years later. I was honoured to learn that Martyn Joseph had decided to put out a CD exclusively featuring Phil’s songs. Martyn is a performer who not only talks the talk but also walks the walk. Phil would have loved to know him and be his friend! They both show sensitivity to the needs of the underdog.
I am very happy with the songs that Martyn decided to record. They show Phil’s range of song writing – topical songs, humour, love songs, songs about individuals, songs to excite a rally, etc. The beauty of this cd is that Martyn gives sparse renditions of the songs. The cd is about the songs, not the performer. It’s the words and melodies that count. No bells and whistles – just pure respect for the music. The listener is free to listen to the words which are so important even this many years later. Thank you, Martyn, for helping to carry on the legacy!”
Martyn Joseph will be touring the UK to promote Days Of Decision: A Tribute to Phil Ochs during January and February 2020 including three dates across Wales:
Sunday 26 January: Wyeside Arts Centre, Builth Wells. 7.30pm £17 Tel. 01982 552555 http://www.wyeside.co.uk
Tuesday 28 January: St Davids Hall, Cardiff. 7.30pm £18 adv. Tel. 029 2087 8444 http://www.stdavidshallcardiff.co.uk
Thursday 30 January: Theatr Mwldan, Cardigan. 7.30pm £17 Tel. 01239 621200 http://www.mwldan.co.uk
Photograph: Konstantina Frasia