“Crucifixion” (sometimes titled “The Crucifixion”) is a 1966 song by Phil Ochs, a U.S. singer-songwriter. Ochs described the song as “the greatest song I’ve ever written”.
Ochs wrote “Crucifixion” during a two-hour car ride in the middle of his November 1965 concert tour of the U.K. According to Ochs’s manager, Arthur Gorson, the composer was “wary” of how his audience might react to the new song because it did not have an explicit political message. He needn’t have worried; his first public performance of “Crucifixion” was greeted by a standing ovation.
The song is about the rise and fall of a hero, and the public’s role in creating, destroying, and deifying its heroes. The first verse describes an event of cosmic proportions: “the universe explodes”, “planets are paralyzed, [and] mountains are amazed” by the raising of a falling star. In the second stanza, a baby is born; the child has been “chosen for a challenge that is hopelessly hard”, to redeem the world. The third and fourth verses describe the hero’s development: he has the insight that “beneath the greatest love, there’s a hurricane of hate”, yet he is driven to spread his message of redemption despite the tremendous difficulty.
The fifth and sixth stanzas describe the public acceptance of the hero’s message and their adoration of the hero, but warns that “success is an enemy to the losers of the day” and that the people who are applauding the hero are salivating for his destruction. The hero’s downfall comes in the seventh verse, when “the gentle soul is ripped apart and tossed into the fire”. The eighth stanza quotes the public’s reaction to the hero’s destruction: “Who would want to hurt such a hero?” “I knew he had to fall.” “How did it happen?” “Tell me every detail.” In the ninth and tenth verses, the hero’s myth grows as the public’s memory of the events fades, and his message is sterilized; the cycle has ended. “Crucifixion” ends with a repetition of the first stanza, suggesting the birth of a new hero.
“Crucifixion” usually is interpreted as an allegory likening the life and assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy to the career of Jesus, although the song may refer to other heroes as well. In 1973, Ochs explained “Crucifixion” to Studs Terkel. In the distant past, Ochs said, the people would sacrifice a healthy young man to the gods; today, things were the same.
The Kennedy assassination, in a way, was destroying our best in some kind of ritual. People say they really love the reformer, they love the radical, but they want to see him killed. It’s a certain part of the human psyche—the dark side of the human psyche.
Critical response to “Crucifixion” was mixed. A writer at Beat described the song as “Ochs’ most important work to date” and Billboard wrote that it was “very hip”. Robert Christgau, however, wrote that the song “suffer[s] from elephantiasis of the ambitions”. In March 1967, U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy and journalist Jack Newfield met Ochs, who sang “Crucifixion” for them; when Kennedy realized the song was about his brother, tears came to his eyes.
Interpreting “Crucifixion” as a song about Jesus, one New Testament scholar[who?] described the Jim and Jean version as the best song about Jesus ever recorded beside the Hallelujah Chorus.