Phil Ochs was born on December 19, 1940, and in about eight months (not quite), he’ll have been gone longer than he lived. I first discovered his music when I was in college and knew I’d found something fascinating. The way I found his music could be the subject of a blog entry unto itself.
When I was in my car the entire day, I’ve had his music playing on the iPod. My older son was with me in the car when the one song out of his entire library that contains an objectionable word came up. (Please note that I’m not counting the spoken-word introduction to the song “I Ain’t Marching Anymore” from the 1968 Vancouver concert where he defines a protest song as “a song that they don’t play on the radio … because they play the shit that they play.”)
The song is “I Kill Therefore I Am,” which, in that same Vancouver concert, he introduced as “an existential portrait” of the police. The verse in question is as follows:
I don’t like the students now
For they don’t have no respect
They don’t like to work now
I think I’ll wring their neck
They call me pig although I’m underpaid
I’ll show those faggots that I’m not afraid…
Historically, when my children have been in the car when words I don’t want them to repeat come on a song, I’ll either (1) turn the volume way down and make a lot of noise to drown out the bad words, or (2) skip the song completely.
I decided not to do that this time. Instead, I told my son that the word was coming up, and that it’s a really nasty word. And I actually told him what makes it a nasty word. And furthermore, that although he might occasionally hear me and mommy use bad words, this is one word I don’t actually use, it’s that bad a word. And I told him that using that word would be reason enough to get a spanking. He understood and was fine with it.
And it was a good teaching moment. As a linguist, I recognize that some words aren’t going to go away, and we probably are better off not trying to ban those words. Recognize them, acknowledge them, and know what they really mean before you either use them or make a decision not to.
And like all words, there are even times when this one could be used.
To hear the song, here’s a YouTube video that was set against it: