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Trent Lott ... Find Another Country to Be Part Of

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Listening to Mississippi Senator Trent Lott's comments about Strom Thurmond, that if the retiring South Carolina Senator had been elected President in 1948 the county "wouldn¹t have had all these problems over the years," the lyrics of folk and protest song writer Phil Ochs may once again resound through the subconscious of many, with the words of his classic "Here's to the State of Mississippi" echoing more vibrant than ever.

Perhaps if he was still alive, Ochs would revise the haunting refrain of "Here's to the State of Mississippi," changing the chorus from "Oh here's to the land you¹ve torn out the heart of, Mississippi find another country to be part of" by replacing the name of the state with that of Senator Lott.

It would have an all too appropriate ring to many today: "Senator Lott find yourself another country to be part of."

And, yet, time has a way of freezing people in moments, and the ghosts of the past at times remain and at others fade away. Ochs, like James Dean or Buddy Holly, remains forever young, a defiant voice of passionate conviction. But, in actuality, Ochs was only thirty-five when he committed suicide in April of 1976, hanging himself in his sister¹s bathroom in Queens; not only a contemporary of Lott¹s, but only six months older than the Mississippi Senator at the time.

Ochs, who was born in El Paso, Texas, arrived in New York City during the early '60s, starting out singing on the street and passing the hat. It was a time of controversy and confrontation, with Greenwich Village a focal spot, and Ochs's political lyrics, and sense of outrage, catapulted him to sudden recognition as a voice for the downtrodden and oppressed. In fact, by 1966, Ochs performed a solo concert at Carnegie Hall to a sold-out crowd, two years before Lott started his political career as an administrative assistant to a Mississippi Congressman.

While Lott was receiving his Juris Doctorate in 1967 from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Ochs, a friend of Bob Dylan, was putting out seven albums during that turbulent decade, described by many as the period in which "the country suffered a nervous breakdown." In fact, Dylan once said, "I can¹t keep up with Phil. And he¹s getting better and better."

Known best for songs like "Draft Dodger Rag," "I Ain¹t Marching Anymore," and "Outside of a Small Circle of Friends," Ochs was more aware of the deep schism within Mississippi some thirty years ago than Lott apparently is today, as evidenced by the Magnolia State¹s Senator's explanation for his gaff about the country being better off if Strom Thurmond had won election as president running as a Dixiecrat in favor of segregation.

Ochs's other songs included "Going Down to Mississippi," "You Should Have Been Down in Mississippi," "Freedom Riders," and "Too Many Martyrs," originally called "The Ballad of Medgar Evers," but it was a time when lines were sharply drawn, shades of gray didn¹t obscure the poles of the extreme positions, of the difference between right and wrong, notwithstanding the subjective influence of history on contrasting groups.

Today, Ochs would probably shake his head, as the Hatfield and McCoy cacophony of factions in Congress, and their respective celebrity media stars desecrate the battles of the not so distant past with simplistic sound bites in the present over the Lott controversy.

In the world of factional politics, where each side chomps at the bit and salivates when it appears there is an opening to strike for the jugular, both sides strike sharply whenever such an opening is perceived, real or imagined. Sometimes the cut is fatal, many times it isn't, but both sides continually look for that inviting wound of possible vulnerability.

Senator Lott's comments at Thurmond's 100th birthday party were ignorant, racist, stupid, or offensive, depending on whom you ask. But it doesn¹t matter. The snowball has started rolling down the mountain, and then momentum gains, and time will tell whether reality or illusion prevails.

Still, the words of Phil Ochs in a rasping, angry voice can be heard, a voice signing lyrics at a time when Trent Lott was entering young manhood, and quite possibly missed the change in the landscape, both then and now, through his parochial vision.

Congressmen will gather in a circus of delay
While the Constitution is drowning in an ocean of decay
Unwed mothers should be sterilized, I've even heard them say
Yes, corruption can be classic in the Mississippi way
Oh, here to the lands you¹ve torn out the heart of
Mississippi find another country to be part of

Yes, things today may not be so bad in Mississippi, but a remembrance of the past, and the sacrifices of so many, are just too great to simply dismiss and forget.