Phil Ochs – Iron Lady

Only killing shows that killing doesn't pay.

Phil Ochs was an American topical folk singer-songwriter, most active, politically and artistically, in the 1960’s counterculture era. His strenuous advocacy of peace, freedom, equality, social fairness, human rights and human dignity inspired nearly all of his music, and that very same music, in turn, inspired or gave voice to a similar advocacy of many others at the time.

For instance, in one of his most known songs, “The War Is Over”, from his 1968 album “Tape from California”, he envisioned that the war in Vietnam – which in reality would go on for another 7 years – had already ended, therefore declared it over, inviting others to join his vision. The invitation was earnestly accepted, and when Ochs performed the song to a crowd of at least 6000 anti-war protesters gathered at the Chicago Coliseum on the 27th of August 1968, the members of the audience started burning their military draft cards.

However, though Ochs incarnated a pivotal figure in the anti-war movement at the time, the scope of his social heedfulness covered many other pressing and controversial issues, critically commented, in his songs, with his characteristic uncompromising and quick-witted veracity. Some of those issues keep being as pressing and controversial as they were at the time, though one would ingenuously think that the passing of half a century would have reduced them to nothing but unfathomable anachronisms.

It is the case, for instance, of the still much debated legitimacy of capital punishment, to which Ochs unequivocally objected in his song “Iron Lady”, from the 1965 album “I Ain’t Marching Anymore”. In the liner notes of the album, Ochs noted that his inspiration to conceive this fervent anthem against the death penalty had stemmed from the Caryl Chessman case, which began in 1948 and eventually led to Chessman being executed in 1960 by the state of Florida, regardless of the national and international pleads to prevent it.

In 1998, the Greek-American avant-garde artist Diamanda Galás dedicated her own interpretation of “Iron Lady” to serial killer Aileen Wuornos. When Galas’ scorchingly powerful rendition of the song was released with the tribute album “Malediction and Prayer”(1998), Wuornos had already served 6 years in death row and would be serving another 4, before being executed in 2002, once again, by the state of Florida.

In “The Selling of a Serial Killer”(1993), the first of the two documentaries in which filmmaker Nick Broomfield followed Wuornos’ controversial case, her then lawyer Steve Glazer, recounted his singing “Iron Lady” to Wuornos while she was incarcerated. According to Glazer, she “enjoyed it”.

Have you seen the iron lady’s charms?
Legs of steel, leather on her arms
Taking on a man to die
A life for a life, an eye for an eye
And death’s the iron lady in the chair

(…)

The “Iron Lady”, whose other picturesque epithets in American history have included “Yellow Mama”, “Old Sparky”, “Gruesome Gertie”, and “Old Smokie”, is, of course, the electric chair.

After its conception at the end of the 19th century, it became United States’ most established method of execution in the following century, replacing hanging. In turn, the extensive use of the electric chair was replaced by gassing and especially lethal injection, introduced in the 1980’s. A number of American states still retain the electric chair as an optional method of execution.

Stop the murder, deter the crimes away
Only killing shows that killing doesn’t pay
Yes that’s the kind of law it takes
Even though we make mistakes
And sometimes send the wrong man to the chair

In the death row waiting for their turn
No time to change, not a chance to learn
Waiting for someone to call
Say it’s over after all
They won’t have to face the justice of the chair

(…)

In these last lines Ochs chronicles one of the most excruciating aspects of being on death row: the meaningless wait for nothing but having nothing more to wait for, and the hopeful hopelessness in hope.

This very aspect was described also by French Nobel Prize author Albert Camus. In his “Reflections on the Guillotine” (1957), he writes: what then is capital punishment but the most premeditated of murders, to which no criminal’s deed, however calculated it may be, can be compared? For there to be equivalence, the death penalty would have to punish a criminal who had warned his victim of the date at which he would inflict a horrible death on him and who, from that moment onward, had confined him at his mercy for months. Such a monster is not encountered in private life.”

Although nowadays the average time an inmate spends on death row, at least in the U.S., is not months, but more than a decade, the overall effect on the convict that Camus was trying to evoke has since been coined the term “death row phenomenon”. Namely, the process of mental and physical deterioration the inmate endures not only for the harsh conditions reserved for his or her particular sentence (i.e. being for 23 hours a day in solitary confinement) but also for the torturous awareness of having to be executed one minute to the next. A minute that then turns out to be days, weeks, months, years, decades.

And the chaplain, he reads the final prayer
Be brave my son, the Lord is waiting there
Oh murder is so wrong you see
Both the Bible and the courts agree
That the state’s allowed to murder in the chair

 In the courtroom, watch the balance of the scales
If the price is right, there’s time for more appeals
The strings are pulled, the switch is stayed
The finest lawyers fees are paid
And a rich man never died upon the chair

Since Ochs’ own regrettable fate in 1976, when he succumbed to his struggles with bipolar disorder and alcoholism by committing suicide, more than 80 states worldwide have outlawed the death penalty, and its use in the United States, where not ruled altogether unconstitutional, has seen a dramatic decline. However, together with China – constantly in the lead – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, the U.S. regularly features among the countries that hold the primacy of most reported executions per year. Four of which, in Arkansas, very recent.

Aside from breaching two fundamental rights enforced by the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely the right to life and the right to live free from torture, there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s alleged social benefits.

Moreover, consistent studies have exposed the death penalty’s arbitrariness – to which Ochs alludes to – resulting in factors such as gender, race, access to adequate legal representation, geography, often behaving as influences to determine culpability rather than or other than the gravity of the crime. The procedure of ascertaining culpability itself can turn out to have been inadequate, questionable, ambiguous, flawed or misguided, as proven by the common acquittal of death row convicts, and by the belated acquittal of those executed only to have been proven posthumously innocent.

All things considered, the belief that a symptom of a civilized society is its legal system evolving from the death penalty of the Poena Cullei to lethal injection is somewhat dubious, inasmuch as, however refined in form, there never was, and never will be, a civil murder; then again, with at least one much awaited exception: the murder of the death penalty.

 

Have you seen the iron lady’s charms?
Legs of steel, leather on her arms
Taking on a man to die
A life for a life, an eye for an eye
And death’s the iron lady in the chair

Stop the murder, deter the crimes away
Only killing shows that killing doesn’t pay
Yes that’s the kind of law it takes
Even though we make mistakes
And sometimes send the wrong man to the chair

 In the death row waiting for their turn
No time to change, not a chance to learn
Waiting for someone to call
Say it’s over after all
They won’t have to face the justice of the chair

And the chaplain, he reads the final prayer
Be brave my son, the Lord is waiting there
Oh murder is so wrong you see
Both the Bible and the courts agree
That the state’s allowed to murder in the chair

 In the courtroom, watch the balance of the scales
If the price is right, there’s time for more appeals
The strings are pulled, the switch is stayed
The finest lawyers fees are paid
And a rich man never died upon the chair

Phil Ochs – Iron Lady
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Isaac K. Wilde

Isaac is an Italian soon-to-be social work student, with a targetless passion for whatever strives to bring meaning in his life and in the life of others. His previous academic studies have involved cognitive psychology and modern literature. He is currently teaching English, writing short stories, and being publicly dispossessed of his true name by an on-going feud with shyness, hence his writing on WIB with an otherwise unnecessary pseudonym such as Isaac K. Wilde.
    One Comment
  • doctora
    12 May 2017 at 6:32 pm
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    Beautiful piece, hope greatly to hear more work from this nameless person, who has carefully researched the iron lady
    and its most famous art media.

    As one of the interpreters, I respect this piece very much.

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