The Folk Rock On: Utah Phillips

What did a young rock star like Ani DiFranco see in folk music’s old codger? The answer has young fans singing about Wobblies, strikes, and Mother Jones
Utah Phillips.  Photo provided by Fleming & Associates, Inc
We met each other a number of years ago when Ani was doing a single in Philadelphia. She was playing at one venue, and I was playing at another, but we were boarded in the same house with Professor Kenny Goldstein. That was 15 years ago.

She was young, but she was doing better and better, owning what she does.
One of the admirable things about Ani is that she didn't wait for somebody to record her; she started a record company. She owns what she does, which is near to the heart of any Wobbly.*

We both wound up with the same agent, Fleming and Associates in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Ani was in the office, and she found a tape of one of my performances. Out of curiosity, she took it to listen to while she was driving in her car.
She decided that she wanted her audience to hear those songs and stories that I tell. Our collaboration came together through her genius; she has the most powerful intellect I've ever encountered. She wrote me a letter and she said, just send me recordings of concerts.

I had several boxes of recordings. I'd finish a concert and someone would hand me a tape. A lot of the stuff had been in the basement under water, but I sent her 100 hours of tapes. She wrote in a letter that she wanted to take the stories and mix in her music and her sounds. I was skeptical, but one paragraph convinced me. She said, “Not that there's anything wrong with your performance as it stands, but I'm aware of the vertigo a young audience experiences when the music stops and they're left at the precipice of words and ideas.”

Now, anybody's going to say that to me, I'll work with them. So I sent her off the tapes, and I didn't know what was going to show up until it arrived in the mail. And I was stunned. I thought it was really very beautiful, what she did.

She had taken all those tapes to a studio in Texas and cleaned them all up digitally, and did a masterful job of actually restoring what, in any other context, would be regarded as field recordings.

So we recorded that one song called “The Past Didn't Go Anywhere,” and then several years later she wanted to record another one, only this time in front of a small, live audience in a studio down in New Orleans in the French Quarter. And, once again, she did the mixing right at the board with her band—me performing, and she and the band doing backup vocals on Joe Hill's song.

The audience was made up of—well, this is a mark of Ani's people in her office in Buffalo—they called and asked who I wanted invited to this little studio that holds maybe about 30 people. They asked if I knew anybody in New Orleans. I said, get hold of the Catholic Worker Hospitality House, the soup kitchens, the homeless community—and those are the people who showed up. They were invited, and they were ready to sing.

So you've got people laughing and singing. And what she did with this instrumentally and music-wise was just stunning. It sounded like something that would be very appealing to young people.

Let me tell you about the effect of her decision to do this—just one example, because there's been an exhaustive correspondence that's come to me over this.

I met a man from Normal, Illinois, who was working at the Caterpillar factory, a union man. His daughter was a young teenager who didn't know anything about the union. One day, she came down to breakfast and asked what he knew about Mother Jones. When he asked her where she learned about that, she said she had this record, “Fellow Workers,” from Ani DiFranco.
That blossomed into her going with him to union meetings, going to the workplace. It blossomed into a real understanding of what was happening in that workplace, and why the union movement was so important. And that story could be told over and over again, about how that record went out there and did its work among young people.

The upshot is that when I go to play a town and the posters are out and the publicity is out, some of Ani's audience is going to show up, and we get along fine.

There's one group down here in the Bay Area that started showing up on the sidewalk in front of the places I was playing in Redwood City. They're called Radical Cheerleaders, and they do cheer?leading with these stone radical raps on the sidewalk to entertain people waiting to come in. They're part of a national network of street theater cheerleaders.

I went out there and sang with them, and they started showing up in other places. Finally, I invited them to come and get on the stage when I played Davis, California. They came to my 70th birthday party, and I got them on the stage again. Then they took over the sidewalk outside of the concert hall.

So, through Ani, I got access to young people and they got access to me. She unplugged the channel.

Ani gave young people the chance to access a different kind of world through me that hearkens back to the early oral culture. It's a setting where you get something essential that helps you make your way through life from one of your elders.

To be part of that oral culture, I make myself learn songs not from books or records, but from living human beings. It's the same with stories I shape to suit my needs.

Making it through hard times
I've learned from young people, too. The young people I've met through Ani have taught me to stay awake. They're called the “X Generation,” but I think they are the “Y Generation,” because they're always asking why bullshit is happening.

I find that being able to hang out with those young people gives me more creativity, more real imagination than I can remember from when I was their age.
It's that creative spark, that creative leap, we desperately need now.

Because we are—and I am talking about the peace movement now—we are stuck. We have failed. We have to rebuild the whole progressive movement, and it's going to be built on innovation, and that's going to come from young people. But we  old folks have to be there, so that they don't have to make the same mistakes that we made.

It's going to be built on sacrifice. A lot of us are going to be giving up a whole lot more than we're comfortable with now, because we're facing fascism square in the face.
It's always been tough. There's a little song about that called “We're Singing Through the Hard Times, Waiting for the Good Times to Come.” We have to do something together—one of the reasons these old labor songs are so important.

I remember how old Fred Hansen,  a longshoreman in Houston and an I.W.W. dock worker, would use those songs to keep peace when we went out on strike on the docks. The rule was no booze and no guns, because that would give the bosses an excuse to get an injunction and call in the National Guard and break the strike.

Since there was no strike relief, tempers would start to rub raw. Before somebody got mad enough to pick up a brick and throw it at the company guard, Hansen would start singing these old songs—he'd get people singing. When they were singing together they weren't throwing punches and throwing rocks. There's a real practical use for these songs, singing together and expressing our solidarity through song.

If I sing Joe Hill's “Pie in the Sky,” I get to tell the story of the Spokane free speech fight, which I learned from Herb Edwards, a Pacific Norwegian logger, long since dead. I can tell that story about how it was organized, how it was run. And then be able to say—because they did win that fight —it didn't take any ballot boxes, it didn't take any political parties. It was called direct action, and it comes to us highly recommended. And everybody gets it right away, today. They get to singing the song together.

Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips
photo by Steven Stone
A good time to be alive

It's years ago that I first sang that song, and I don't feel all that different from the way that I felt when I woke up coming out of the army nearly 50 years ago. Well, when I stop getting old, I'll be dead, so I like getting old.

I think that what's most important is keeping alive a sense of curiosity. The other gift that I was given from childhood was memory. I always have something that I'm trying to memorize; it's like lifting weights to keep your muscles strong. If I wake up in the middle of the night and I can't sleep, I'll go over songs and stories to make sure the words are all where they need to be.

Of course I know I'm going to pop off, it's just a given. I stave it off as well as I can. I have congestive heart failure that was diagnosed 10 years ago.  It took a long time to get all the medications right, and I ingest a pharmacopoeia, daily.

I do yoga for seniors, an hour of stretching every morning. I get out there and work. I leave town twice a month at least, including travel and performance time.

I feel a profound sense of mission. It's a good time to be out there, doing what I do.
It's always a good time, but this is a particularly good time, because the ship of state is in dire straits. And we're on it.

So, it's a good time to be out there getting people to laugh and be alive.

Joseph Campbell said all we really want is to be completely human and in each other's company. That's why I want to be on the stage; I want to be with people in front of people.

I want us to laugh together and to sing together. And to think together. Because I have issues that I want to deal with, and we'll talk and sing about those. And I want people, when I come to town, to talk and sing and tell stories. I want them to feel better when they leave than when they came.

Yeah. More hopeful.

* Wobblies are members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), a labor union that became known, in the opening decades of the 20th century, for its militant advocacy of workers' rights.

Utah Phillips, born in Cleveland in 1935, has performed his original folk music-based songs for a half century. Find him at
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