Utah Phillips, 1935-2008

By Jeffrey Barg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Feb. 20, 2009

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The author in his recovered vehicle.

More than any of the mandolins or sing-alongs or itchy-grass-butt, the one moment of the 2001 Philadelphia Folk Festival that hangs clearest in my mind is Utah Phillips barking, "Wavy Gravy said, 'You aren't what you eat; you're what you don't poop.'"

On a few occasions since, I've tried to fact-check that quotation, but it hasn't come up. Which shouldn't be surprising. Utah Phillips' history wasn't the kind to get fact-checked. It's the kind that was passed down orally, and hence got truer with every telling.

The singer, songwriter, activist, historian, storyteller and railroad tramp died a little more than a week ago at his home in Nevada City, Calif. Though he spent a lifetime imparting stories, songs and poems to the multitudes that came to hear him play, he took with him all the bits that never got written down--what he referred to as "the long memory."

"He's such an incredible source of knowledge that doesn't get catalogued in the United States, stuff that doesn't get taught in history classes--the story of the underclass," says Brad Wrenn, who co-produced The Ballad of Joe Hill at the 2006 Philly Fringe, a story about the early-20th-century songwriter and union organizer put to death in 1915.

The way the story goes, Joe Hill was giving the labor bosses too much trouble and rabble-rousing among the workers, so he was framed on a murder charge. The Ballad told Joe Hill's tale with song, dance, film and old-fashioned vaudevillian slapstick, performed in one of Eastern State Penitentiary's rotting cellblocks. By turns raucous, hilarious and eerie, the sold-out run of The Ballad of Joe Hill was one of the highlights of that year's fest.

"Brad sent me Utah's recording of 'I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,' and that ended up being the capstone of the piece," says Adrienne Mackey, a 2004 Swarthmore grad who directed the show. The old folk song has long symbolized workers' struggle to organize, and harks back to a time when unions were fighting for 40-hour workweeks, for weekends--things that we now take for granted, but that wouldn't exist were it not for folks like Joe Hill and Utah Phillips.

Phillips was introduced to a younger generation--including Wrenn and Mackey--in the mid- to late '90s, when folksinger Ani DiFranco recorded two albums with him. DiFranco, who met Phillips while touring on the folk festival circuit, was in town last Friday at World Cafe Live for a noncommercial radio convention hosted by WXPN.

"Though we have very different personas to the outside world or to the literal types in the world, we're doing the same work," DiFranco says. "He and I immediately realized that and sort of began that relationship of feeding off each other."

Though their musical styles are radically different--DiFranco is known for her rhythmic guitar playing and soaring melodies, while Phillips just kind of whacked at the guitar and talked in an off-key speak-song--they found a similar mentality in how they used humor to perform.

"I remember saying to Utah once, which he sort of picked up and carried, that I recognized his mechanism of first making people comfortable, and if you get them to throw their heads back and laugh, and open their mouths, you can kind of stick something hard to swallow down in there," DiFranco says with her neck craned all the way back.

"Anybody who sat anywhere near him learned about history," she continues. "He was constantly teaching and conveying all the stories that he'd come across in his life. He was an encyclopedia of the people's history of the United States."

"It's like a library dying," says Wrenn. "All this stuff has been recorded, but he was really a man who dedicated himself to history."

In preparing for The Ballad of Joe Hill, which Mackey and Wrenn hope to remount at Eastern State in a year or two, Wrenn actually talked with Phillips on the phone about Joe Hill.

"Utah really was an Industrial Workers of the World union member," says Wrenn. "To Utah, Joe Hill really was a symbol. Utah truly believed that he was this thing of legend, that he gave his life for the union movement."
DiFranco, Mackey and Wrenn are just three of the many taking up the mantle and spreading the seeds sown by Phillips and so many before him--engaging literally in the folk process.

"His music is a person-to-person oral history--something that's alive and passed on," says Mackey. "With The Ballad of Joe Hill I really wanted to make sure that music, the same music that Utah played, was passed on in the same way. When the guys learned that music in rehearsal, it was all by rote, same as the IWW singers would have learned it, without sheet music to take and study alone. In the show the audience got the chance to learn that music the same way with the actors singing it and then getting a chance to sing it right back to them. It was our little tribute to Utah's method of storytelling."

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