He rubbed elbows with Bob Dylan and Richie Havens. He studied the blues with John Fahey and Robbie Basho. But his musical ambition always felt different.
December 25, 2023 at 6:00 a.m. EST
Ochs has spent his years going places, finding things, dusting them off, putting them back in circulation and moving along — as a folk singer, as a blues guitarist, and now, as an 82-year-old who’s been spending his December mornings composting autumn leaves and fireplace ashes into garden mulch. (Ochs will turn 83 on New Year’s Eve.) He once rubbed elbows with Bob Dylan and Richie Havens in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the 1960s, but as a recording artist, Ochs is better known for learning his instrument alongside John Fahey and Robbie Basho, fingerstyle guitarists who established their respective cults with clanging strings and twinkling melodies, creating their own rough starlight.
And Ochs is still at it. “Max is one of the last surviving original American primitive guitarists,” says Josh Rosenthal of Tompkins Square Records, a label that launched back in 2005 with the release of “Imaginational Anthem,” a compilation album featuring the chiming titular Ochs composition. “He didn’t do a ton of recording, but you can tell by the recordings he did make in the late ’60s that he was right there. … The blues revival, the folk thing, Bob Dylan, Indian music — it was all coming together. But it’s hard to say that Max represents anything because his body of work is so scant. But I know what he represents because I know the man.”
Atypical approaches make for atypical legacies. Ochs is a musician who has always prioritized participation over recognition, and he’d probably rather learn songs than write them, plus, songwriting might just be the act of learning something from yourself in the first place. Either way, time hasn’t forgotten him. And he’s happy. Isn’t that success?
Across hours of conversation in his Severna Park, Md., home on the Severn River, the only time Ochs mentions anything resembling ambition is when he describes the sacred teenage moment when he heard Elizabeth Cotton playing “Freight Train” on WETA. “It was that particular kind of Piedmont, double-thumb picking, and I just thought, ‘Man, if I could do that, I would never ask for anything more,’” Ochs says. “I couldn’t imagine anything better than being able to play ‘Freight Train.’”
Ochs says he found one of his earliest guitar teachers, Harry Banks, hitchhiking on Ritchie Highway near Severna Park: “I said, ‘Where are you going?’ And he said, ‘Anna-no-place,’” Ochs recalls. “He lived in a trailer with a bulldog named Buttercup, so I brought him to my mom’s house in Annapolis and said, ‘Mom, this is Mr. Banks, and he’s gonna play my guitar.’ Banks was like, ‘Do you have a knife?’ ‘Hey mom, can you give Mr. Banks a knife?’” Banks retuned Ochs’ Stella Harmony acoustic guitar, began to run the dull side of the utensil up and down the strings, and there, on his mother’s back porch, Ochs learned how to play the blues.
“The slide is like a floating bridge,” Ochs says. “It holds the note in this liquid way. If you wiggle it a little, you get this rich, beautiful vibrato. And Harry Banks did it like second nature … I was delighted. And I wanted it.”
He didn’t find much of it during his two years at Carleton College in Minnesota, but when Ochs transferred to the University of Maryland in 1960, he quickly fell in with a discerning crew of guitar enthusiasts that spectators dubbed “the blues mafia” — Fahey and his Takoma Records co-founder Ed Denson, folk scholar Dick Spottswood, legendary record collector Joe Bussard, and the guitarists Basho, Michael “Backwards Sam Firk” Stewart and Tom “Fang” Hoskins, among others. “I never could get a good blues name,” Ochs laments. “I called myself ‘Blind Lemon Pledge.’”
He began attending regular hootenannies at the Unicorn nightclub in Washington, happy to perform, but far more eager to get schooled. “I learned by watching,” he says. “It was something so primal. Primeval? It went deeper into my ears” — especially whenever Fahey was on the stage. “We already recognized that he was great,” Ochs says. “His foundation was Mississippi John Hurt, but then he was also like Erik Satie. He recognized some kind of pure beauty or simplicity in what he was doing by scraping away all the unnecessary stuff.”
Basho was more of a peer, or maybe even a rival. “He was Robbie Robinson back then,” Ochs says. “He was my roommate, and we were both desperately trying to learn how to double-thumb. He sweated a lot. He had beautiful golden-red hair in ringlets. … He had a deep hunger, and was full of desires, but I didn’t realize what a genius he had in him. He took it to transcendental heights.” (Fahey, Basho and Ochs would reconvene on vinyl in 1967 with the release of “Contemporary Guitar — Spring ’67,” a compilation album on Takoma Records that secured Ochs’ spot in the American primitive canon.)
Ochs decided to change the scenery after a New York gig at the Bitter End where he played Sin-Killer Griffin’s “Wasn’t That a Mighty Storm.” He spotted Pete Seeger in the audience, singing along through a smile. At another show at Gerdes Folk City, Bob Dylan bumped into Ochs at the bar and praised his rendition of Furry Lewis’s “I Will Turn Your Money Green.” Max Ochs says he first met the protest singer Phil Ochs at that same venue — and at a family funeral a few weeks later, he learned that they were cousins. (“Second cousins to the second power,” Max explains. “His grandfather and my grandfather were brothers. His grandmother and my grandmother were sisters. They were set up by a matchmaker and had a double wedding.”)
Settling into New York life, Ochs played in a psychedelic band called the Seventh Sons, jammed with David Crosby, even spent a night in jail with Ed Sanders of the Fugs after being arrested at a war protest. But the most important musical relationship he formed while living in New York was with Mississippi John Hurt, the touring blues legend who crashed at Ochs’ apartment so frequently Hurt wrote a song about it — “Welcome Address,” later recorded as “Boys, You’re Welcome.” Ochs felt more like a student than a host: “He was so patient with me. I really wanted to learn ‘Frankie and Albert.’ ‘Could you just slow down and show me again?’ And it was like the transmission of the dharma!”
In 1966, Ochs hitchhiked to New Mexico and bopped around the West on spiritual quests and peyote trips, but by 1970, he was back in the Annapolis area, still playing music, but not as interested in recording it. “Realistically, I thought I was mediocre, not excellent,” Ochs says. “And in capitalism, everything becomes a competition, whether you like it or not. I wanted music to be a community, not a competition.” Things got quieter, and it felt fine. “I like silence,” he says. “In music, silence is a rest. Music is no good without the rest. Really good music knows when to be quiet and when to have some sound.”
As for community, he found it working for anti-poverty and conflict resolution groups, which led him to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, where he instantly joined the choir, met his wife, Suzanne, in 1986, and started a monthly coffeehouse performance series in 1993 that lasted more than two decades. Ochs speaks of his collaborators in the choir — say, the late composer Betsy Jo Angebranndt, current choir director Rob Redei, the flutist Anne Parsons — in the same reverent tone he uses when talking about Charles Ives or Son House. His musical life isn’t as starry as it was in Greenwich Village, but it still feels vast. “One of my songs says ‘Music is my church.’” Ochs explains. “My childhood faith was atheism — my father being a good Jewish atheist — but now, I feel that I’m a failed atheist because there’s so much mystery going on.”
Outside, the Severn River looks like molten gold in the December sunshine, and Ochs is telling Suzanne and his grandson, Jem Seidel, a tale from a Chicago blues festival in the early ’60s: He stepped into the green room and witnessed one musician, Rev. Robert Wilkins, forgiving another, Robert Pete Williams, for committing a fatal shooting for which he’d been granted parole years earlier.
“You’d think I’d know all these stories,” Seidel says, “but every time he starts talking, it’s always new.” Ochs is currently recording an album with Seidel’s New Jersey-based jazz-funk band, Rugburn, and they plan to release it next year — Ochs’ first since a pair of recordings for Tompkins Square, 2008’s “Hooray for Another Day” and 2017’s “The Music of Harry Taussig and Max Ochs.” In a few weeks, he’ll be co-teaching a course on the blues with Suzanne at the Anne Arundel Community College. His mind is busy and without regrets. “If I had gotten famous, I’d probably be dead now,” Ochs says. “I certainly wouldn’t be here with Suzy, and these nine grandchildren, and this wonderful community, and every single person in the Unitarian choir. I just love them all. So I waste no time wishing I had done something different.”
The only thing he still aspires to is good listening. “Like Tony Vivaldi. He was a sound man,” Ochs says of the 18th-century composer. “He would listen to the birds. And I swear to the Unitarian atheist god that, when I was outside chopping wood the other day, I heard a bird sing, ‘Doot-doot-doot-doot-do-do-do.’”
Ochs is trilling the tidy signature melody of “Spring” from Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons,” but his voice somehow contains the sound of tired bluesmen, wide-awake church choirs, angry protest chants, happy coffee house singalongs and that old car jack slide making guitar strings melt the same way Harry Banks did on that Annapolis porch so many decades ago. Maybe a musician’s legacy isn’t in the songs they wrote, but the sounds they heard.