Monday, May 26, 2008

let me tell you a story: Utah Phillips, 1935-2008

Utah Phillips died on May 26th. I just heard. My sister was listening to public radio, and they read his obituary. She called me. He’s a great hero of mine. He was a cantankerous old guy, an Army deserter turned alcoholic bum turned pacifist anarchist, who wrote rather awful folk songs. This man taught me so much (only a slice of which I'll have room to mention here )and I never met him.

I remember when I first heard his voice, though. We (my twin sister and I, and probably some friends too, though I can’t remember now) were at yet another Ani DiFranco concert in 1995. We were 14 years old. The first half of the concert was on fire—we were all ready to jump out of our skins with pumped-up tearing guitar and feminism. Then the lights came up for the intermission, and we were all at a loss. They turned up the intermission music, something mellow to keep us in line, and it slowly started to seep in through the ringing in my ears. It was compelling. It was a riff with a story, and the more I listened, it was a story with a riff. It was telling the story of our country, the part we never hear, of the Korean war and freight trains and labor strikes, of the poetry of bums and of Catholic anarchists and opera. But standing there in the smoky sweaty hyped auditorium, I couldn’t quite hear well enough to put the pieces together—I just knew I wanted to hear more.

Those stories came out the next year on the best recording I'll ever own, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, an album with Ani’s music supporting Utah’s guitar plucking and rambling histories, and was followed up four years later with Fellow Workers. That first collaboration really changed me. It was musically strange, still is, fiddles and turntables, but the music keeps you going, makes you remember that though the words are talking about the 30s, the 60s, that it really is as relevant as it strikes you, and that though it’s an old guy rambling on, that it’s ok to get riled up. Having that musical support and encouragement allowed me to listen.

Utah Phillips is usually described as a folk musician. But he wasn’t a very good singer, never claimed to be, didn’t actually sing many songs during his concerts. “Folk music is boring. ‘Wack fall the di-do, oh blow ye winds, hi-ho,’ hell, that’s boring.” Though he did write a good many songs, he was at his core a storyteller. His stories were irreverent, funny, respectful, and full of a deep understanding of our place in history, on just whose shoulders we stand today.

“Time is an enormous long river, and I am standing in it, just as you are standing in it. My elders were the tributaries. And everything they thought, and every struggle they went through, and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down, flows down to me. And if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into that river, and take out what I need to get through this world. Bridges, from my time to your time, as my elders from their time to my time. And we will put into the river, and we let it go, and it flows away from us and away from us until it no longer has our name, our identity; it has its own utility, its own use, and people will take what they need and make it part of their lives.”

It was through his stories I first learned of the history not taught, of the American labor movement, the strikes and speeches and murders and heroes that fought with innovation and courage to give us fair wages and hours. The history of Mother Jones and Ammon Hennessey, of the Pennsylvania coal miners and the Lawrence MA textile workers, of Marian Anderson and war deserters. The history of the folk. And through him and our shared hero, Mark Twain, I learned to love my country despite its government.

This was no passive history, no past America. Utah was an agitator to the end, reframing the political pieces we are handed, reminding us of our power, trying to get us to speak up and act out. He refused to see the world the way those in power want us to see it, and refused to let them dictate his life. This wasn’t reactionary, defensive anarchy: this was about defining who we are for ourselves, as individuals and in communities. At 14, this whole concept was revelatory to me, and continues to inspire me in everything I do.

“No matter how new age you get, old age gonna kick your ass.”
Utah suffered from heart problems for years. It had recently sapped his energy so much that he couldn’t play the guitar any more, and he got out of breath just recording his radio broadcasts. He didn’t give up on life, but his heart eventually gave out. He died as best any of us could ask: in bed at home, with spring breezes coming in through the window, asleep, next to his wife.

What Utah said of his elders is better than any words I could say of him: "But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.”

For more information:
Utah’s life story

Utah’s note to friends on his birthday, two weeks ago


carolyn said...

:-) Beautiful. And things I never knew!

Lisa Nonken said...

nicely done, sis. You brought a tear to my eye.