Monday, May 26, 2008

"It's sad, but the telling takes me home": a farewell to Utah Phillips

I just found out this morning, in an email from my pal Chris Thorpe, that the great U. Utah Phillips has died. He passed away in his sleep on Friday night, after a long struggle with a heart condition, which of late he had been documenting in his lovely, if necessarily irregular, podcasts.

Like many people, I guess, I initially found out about Utah Phillips -- activist, folksinger, storyteller, paragon -- through his two late 90s albums with Ani Difranco, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere and Fellow Workers. I immediately warmed to both the content of his storytelling and the style of his self-presentation: always warm, and at times deceptively folksy and nostalgic -- qualities which sometimes helped to make his radical message more palatable to the people he sought to take it to -- but also witty, subversive and full of precise and oddly lyrical plain-speaking. After the first of the collaborations with Difranco I sought out other recordings -- not so easy in those pre-Amazon days, meaning that every disc I managed to track down was cherished -- and writings.

Phillips was born in 1935 and perhaps the most formative influence on his later work was the three years he spent in the army in the aftermath of the Korean war. On returning to the States he became an activist working with homeless people and travellers, and involving himself in the grassroots politics of labour and industrial relations, in which respect perhaps his strongest and most salient commitment was to the IWW. Later, he became a familiar and much-loved figure on the folk circuit, touring extensively until 1995 when his heart problems were first diagnosed.

It might perhaps seem odd that someone from my background would feel so drawn to someone like Utah Phillips, but right from the start I felt an instinctive and inspiring affinity for his work and his presence. Thinking about it now, I realise that it's not just about feeling close to his politics, or admiring his skill as a storyteller, a writer and a singer and musician. What Phillips seems always to have fed off is a set of insights about connectedness: that the natural world is not separate from the industrial world, that cultures intertwine not just in some bland Disneyfied broad view but in day-to-day encounters on the street and in the workplace, and above all that -- as per that album title, and the story from which it arose -- "the past didn't go anywhere". That kind of connectedness is deeply ethical, and everywhere political, but it is also narrative and -- though he might not have countenanced such a word -- aesthetic. In other words, his innate and sometimes furious sense of connectedness is itself not separate from (though it is in its emphases somewhat different from) the sense of connectedness that inspires so many great theatre makers, from Robert Lepage to Ken Campbell to Tim Miller to Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.

I wanted to gather here in his memory just a few of my favourite bits of Utah's writing and speaking -- including a quote which will be familiar to longterm Thompson's readers -- as well as a small handful of mp3s. These can barely add up even to a thumbnail sketch of this remarkable man's life and outlook, but I hope they might inspire a few people who happen upon this little collation to investigate further the incredible legacy that Phillips leaves. For myself, mingling tonight with a real and very palpable sadness at his loss, and a measureless gratitude for all that I learned from Utah, is a tingle of determination to work harder, and more actively, in doing whatever I can to help make the changes, both in the world and in myself, for which he worked, and about which he spoke so cogently for so many years.

RIP, Utah.

* * *

When I left Utah over 45 years ago, I had only a slim hold on what folk music was, $75 in my pocket, a head full of songs and stories, and no prospects. When I landed at Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, I found gradually that I had stumbled into a family that was in fact transcontinental. I found great numbers of people who, as part of their pattern of social responsibility, were committed to the task of making sure that folk music existed in their communities. I found singer-circles, camp-outs, picnics, concert programs, festivals great and small, celebrating a common heritage of song. And I found my community, singers and makers of songs, plying the axis from San Diego Folk Heritage to the Denver Folklore Center to the Ark in Ann Arbor to Lena's and beyond, eking out a bare living sharing what we had together, but, most of all, in each other's company. A family behaving like a family -- good, bad, every shade in between. But mostly of all a community of sentiment in which people substantially cared for each other. Listen. For 25 years now I have been part of a family which has given me a living -- not a killing, but a living -- a trade without bosses where I felt partners with those working in organized folk music, a trade in which I could own what I do, make all of the creative decisions, be free to say and sing whatever I chose to, courting criticism from peers and loving friends. Front porch, kitchen, back yard, drunk and sober, young and old, coast-to-coast folk music, a world in which I discovered that I don't need power, wealth, or fame. I need friends. And that's what I found and still find. You folkies out there! Comrades! We've created together a whole small world of song, story, travel, love and food, face to face, in every corner of the land, mutually supportive and happening at a sub-industrial level, below the level of media notice. Hooray for us! Who needs the "entertainment" industry? Who needs mass media? Small is beautiful! To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed. Please. Don't give our world up. It needs to grow, yes -- but subtly, out, through, under, quietly, like water eroding stone, subversive, alive, happy.

-- from 'Heart Letter', October 1995

* * *

I have a good friend in the East. A good singer, and a good folksinger, a good song collector, who comes and listens to my shows and says, "You sing a lot about the past. You always sing about the past; you can't live in the past, you know." And I say to him, "I can go outside and pick up a rock that's older than the oldest song you know and bring it back here and drop it on your foot. Now, the past didn't go anywhere, did it? It's right here, right now." I always thought that anybody who told me I couldn't live in the past was trying to get me to forget something that if I remembered it would get 'em in serious trouble.

-- extract from 'Bridges' on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (1996), from an assortment of transcriptions by James Han

* * *

It was Ammon Hennacy who took over my life, told me that I really loved the country, that I couldn't stand the government, taught me why I needed to be a pacifist and taught me why I needed to be an anarchist, and taught me what those things really mean.

Ammon came up to me one day, and said, "You have a lot of anger in you, and you act out, you mouth off, and you wind up getting in fights, into brawls, here in the house, and you're not any good at it. You're the one who keeps getting pushed through the door, and I'm tired of fixing the damn thing. You've got to become a pacifist." And I asked, "What is it?" He said, "Well, I could give you a book by Gandhi, but you wouldn't understand it." He said you got to look at it like alcohol. Alcohol will kill an alcoholic, unless he has the courage to sit in a circle of people like that, and say, "My name's Utah and I am an alcoholic." Then you can accept it, you can own it, have it defined for you by people whose lives have been ruined by it, and it's never going to go away. You're not going to sit in that circle sober for twenty years and have it not affect you. He said, "You have to look at your capacity for violence the same way. You are going to have to learn to confess it, and learn how to deal with it in every situation every day, for the rest of your life, because it is not going to go away." And I was able to lay all of that down.

I didn't know what exhausted me emotionally until that moment, and I realized that the experience of being a soldier, with unlimited license for excess, excessive violence, excessive sex, was a blueprint for self-destruction. Because then I began to wake up to the idea that manhood, as passed onto me by my father, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor, my army sergeant, that vision of manhood was a blueprint for self-destruction and a lie, and that was a burden that I was no longer able to carry. It was too difficult for me to be that hard. I said, "OK, Ammon, I will try that." He said, "You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed."

-- from an interview with David Kupfer, 2003

* * *

At the onset, those of you who may have heard me should probably turn to those who may have not and calmly reassure them that this is in fact what happens when I sit onstage. Not much more. This is about it. You'll notice no sudden or dramatic change in either my instrumental or vocal attack, as it were.

This is nonetheless an American folk song. Did you recognize it as such? Of course you would, you're folkies. You don't hear 'em much anymore, don't hear 'em on your AM radio, huh? Folksingers hardly ever sing 'em. That's 'cause they're boring. Folk music is boring. "Whack! fol-de-di-do, blow ye winds heigh ho," hell, that's boring. But! I am a folksinger; this is a folk music organization; you are ostensibly the folk, n'est-ce pas? That means we own this song together, right? We have thereby incurred certain social obligations which we will faithfully discharge, right? We're gonna sing this damn song together, boring or not!

-- extract from 'Nevada City, California', on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere

* * *

Well, I guess the bad news is, the Martians have landed. The good news is, they eat Mormons and pee gasoline.

-- spoken coda to the album I've Got to Know (1992)

* * *

Get the right tool for the job. My tools are words, and I have a whole toolbox full. When I need to do a word-job I always try to reach for just the right tool. That way I am able to say exactly what I mean. If I use a word you don't understand, please don't ask me to dump it for one that you know. Instead, ask me what my word means. Then you can put it in your toolbox. Then, when you have a word job, you'll have a box full of tools and be able to say exactly what you mean.

* * *

The future? I don’t know. But I have songs in a folder I’ve never paid attention to, and songs inside me waiting for me to bring them out. Through all of it, up and down, it’s the song. It’s always been the song.

-- from a letter to his friends and family, 14th May 2008

* * *

Q: How would you describe your life's purpose?

Phillips: I'm here to change the world, and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time.

-- Kupfer, 2003

* * *

Here's a little playlist I put together with what of Utah's I have to hand. (Unfortunately, almost all of what I have is on CD, and I don't currently have the ability to rip CDs on this computer, so I've had to select stuff I happen to have in mp3 already.)

In memory of U. Utah Phillips

The first two songs are classics from his repertoire; the fourth track is a story from The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, with backing by Ani Difranco and band; the fifth track is Utah's last podcast, from the end of March, after he was just home from hospital, having refused a heart transplant. There are only a handful of podcast entries all together, but they're worth a close listen, regardless of their added poignancy now; they can all be downloaded free from iTunes or from the official Utah Phillips site.

Needless to say, if your taste for Utah's work is piqued by any of these tracks, please go buy CDs.

There's a fair bit of Utah's work on YouTube: here are a couple of nice clips:

A shaggy dog story from a performance last year at the Strawberry Music Festival in Yoesmite, CA.

Talking about non-violence, and performing Leon Rosselson's 'The World Turned Upside Down'

and a sequence of still portraits accompanied by a live recording of 'There is Power in a Union'

And finally, just a few links:

The official Utah Phillips site

Utah's blog, maintained by his son Duncan, and featuring a number of messages posted since Utah's death was announced

A Canadian Press obituary

and finally the web site of Hospitality House Shelter, in western Nevada County, where Utah and his wife Joanna have been closely involved in recent times. Utah's family have asked for donations in his memory to be made to the shelter, & there's a Paypal link there to enable you to do just that, if you feel you'd like to. Seems like a good idea to me.


Anonymous said...

Hello. Where are you? You can read about my eight hours working with Anthony Neilson here if you want. It was eye-opening:
Sisters was brilliant, and in the light of that encounter I really have to say, so are you Chris. Bravo and Kudos and Zuzu's petals. Count me in your corner x

Anonymous said...

Dear Chris,

I don't have your email address but I wanted to get in touch with you so resorted to guerilla tactics via your blog comment section. So I'm afraid this is completely off topic and I apologise for that.

My name is Andrew Eglinton, I run London Theatre Blog. I'm trying to get hold of 2-3 production photos for a review of ...Sisters soon to be published on LTB. I've tried the Gate but to no avail. Would you be able to point me in the right direction at all? My email is:

londontheatreblog [at] gmail [dot] com

Many thanks indeed for your help.

Best wishes,


Thomas Moronic said...

Hey Chris

Sad to say I'd not checked out Utah Phillips before. Thanks for introducing me to his stuff. That first Youtube clip is just great. Thanks a lot mr