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When Sonny Ochs discusses what it was like being the sister of one of the most prolific American folk-songwriters, she starts at the family dinner table. Five people sitting together, all with books in front of them. One of her favorite gags as a child was making her youngest brother, Phil, burst out in laughter during dinner, knowing it would get him exiled to the kitchen. Ochs, 82, still feels bad about antagonizing her younger brother, but has tried to make up for it over the past three decades
The Phil Ochs Song Night is a touring tribute show commemorating the late folk legend. Friday, the core members of the troupe will perform Ochs’ original songs at the MSU Community Music School. The core group members who will perform Friday are Reggie Harris (guitar), Greg Greenway (keyboard/guitar), Tom Prasada-Rao (guitar/violin/fiddle) and Pat Wictor (guitar/dobro). As the Fiddle’s 45th season opener, the set will turn back the clock with lyrics that exemplify anti-war sentiments during the ’60s.
“My motivation was that Phil’s songs didn’t die,” Ochs said. “Unfortunately, the same things he was complaining about back then are still relevant today.”
Ochs hosted the first Phil Ochs tribute show inside a Manhattan folk club 36 years ago. The format has changed greatly over the years, from an open mic to a rehearsed quartet. The first couple of runs she described as “chaotic and disorganized” due to the high volume of musicians wishing to participate. Regardless of how she felt about the show, a representative from Folk City caught the open mic and asked her to host one at their bar in Greenwich Village.
Shortly after Phil Ochs’ death by suicide in 1976, his sister was asked to do interviews and host weekly music shows in his memory. Growing up, she said her brother was reclusive and they “didn’t bond over anything.” After she moved to New York City in the ’60s, she followed her brother’s career, sitting in the audience at Manhattan dives and Carnegie Hall.
“I really liked what he did,” she said, noting her apolitical childhood was stirred after listening to her brother’s music, as well as the Kingston Trio and Peter, Paul and Mary. She added that she is clever about bringing on young talent to perform at tribute shows. One of her heroes is a Chicago-based musician, Zachary Stevenson, who has emulated legends such as Ochs and Buddy Holly on stages across North America.
Stevenson is just one example of the expansive network Ochs has accumulated through hosting the series.
“I always knew what I was doing was the right thing,” Ochs said. “His music has to be heard; it can’t be let go.”
Sally Potter, the booking agent for the Fiddle, is responsible for bringing the Song Nights back to Lansing about every five years. She said the group’s set will consist of seven to 10 songs.
The next night, Ten Pound Fiddle will feature the “Fiddle Scouts,” the organization’s donation-based youth programming. Saturday’s event is a “Drummunity” workshop where children (ages 3-13) can participate in a drum circle led by Lori Fithian. Parents are welcome to jump in too.
The folk roots and dance showcase offers experiences for all ages, Potter said, from discounted student tickets at every show to winter holiday sing-a-longs.
She added that what continues to bring national acts like the Phil Ochs Song Nights back on the Ten Pound Fiddle roster is being “one of the few listening rooms in the state.”
“This lets the music take over,” she said. “It’s not broken by a phone, flash. We want our performers to have the best opportunities to present their message.”
Phil Ochs Song Night
Fri. Sept. 13, 7:30-10 p.m.
MSU Community Music School
4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing
$20 Public, $18 Members, $5 Students