A Hobo's Progress

U. Utah Phillips, inspiration to Ani DiFranco and card-carrying Wobbly, is Northern California's institutional memory of itinerant folk

Nonetheless, Phillips plans to run for president again in the next election on his own Sloth and Indolence ticket. "I always run, and why not, because I always win. When I'm not in the White House, it's a stunning victory!" But say if he were elected .... "I wouldn't do anything. I'd say if you want something done, get together and do it yourself. I'm not the boss -- I'm not gonna tell you what to do. Anarchists are some of the most organized people I know because you gotta learn to be your own government."

In his "downtime," Phillips collects his thoughts, songs, and what he calls "bits of doggerel and miscellaneous and unidentifiable trash" for presentation on a wild ride of a weekly community radio broadcast, Loafer's Glory, where he addresses topics from labor and black history to baseball. Additionally, since 1990, Phillips has released six CDs, the most recent the collection of stories The Moscow Hold. There's also the traditional and original labor songs recorded with longtime pal Rosalie Sorrels, 1996's The Long Memory. Last year, local multi-instrumentalist folk duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin earned a Grammy nomination for their album Heartsongs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips.

"Utah phoned us up four years ago -- he'd had a dream we were singing one of those songs," says Stecher. "Sometimes you hear a songwriter's song and you think that's so and so's song. You hear Utah's songs and you think they've always existed. You don't feel his stamp. Instead it feels like it came out of the earth; the craft is almost concealed and they sound like folk songs." Kate Brislin adds: "I felt like what he gave us were some gems and what he asked us to do was to make settings for them, as if we were making a piece of jewelry to set off his incredible songs. He paints pictures and tells stories in song very, very well."

Phillips: Rail-rider, rabble-rouser, and righteous folkie.
Hank Meals
Phillips: Rail-rider, rabble-rouser, and righteous folkie.

Ani DiFranco also created a musical landscape, albeit of a less traditional variety, for Phillips' words on 1996's rhythm- and sample-inspired collaboration The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, followed up earlier this year with Fellow Workers. "She had pirated a recording of a concert I did in Ithaca, New York, and listened to it while she was traveling," says Phillips of his initial contact with the dissident folk singer. "[She] wrote me a letter saying, 'I want my audience to hear these stories. You don't have to do anything, just lend me live concert tapes.' So I put 'em in a box -- some of them had been under water -- and I sent about a hundred hours of those things to her and I didn't know what she was going to do until it showed up in the mail.

"And I was stunned. I liked it. Some of my old comrades and political people didn't like it and I just had to tell them, 'Well, it wasn't made for you. Surprise!' But it really did work. And what she said in that letter, and what really sold me on the idea of working with her -- I think she was 22 at the time -- I can quote: 'Not that there's anything wrong with your performances as they stand, but I am 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 gonna say that, you're gonna work with them, see. I would trust Ani with anything of mine. Her instincts are so keen."

The experiences Phillips had working with DiFranco put him in touch with a generation of politically minded youth. A busload of fans, he says, followed DiFranco up from Indiana to Kalamazoo, taking a detour to Minneapolis to see him at a recent three-day conference of peace activists. DiFranco's fans were also in attendance when he appeared at the Old Songs Festival in Albany, N.Y. "Here are these people, some of whom are leathered, spiked, pierced, and it's sort of off-putting to the old folkies, but by the second day, they're all dancin' and singin' together. So it goes both ways. Everybody knows something I don't know. Whether I like 'em or not, the only way I'm gonna find out what it is, is to ask and to really listen, really pay attention. I made myself that way -- not my school and not even my parents. It was an act of will somewhere around the age of 10 when I realized I was responsible for my education and I still am. If I'm in the hospital overnight for an angioplasty, I want to know what it's like workin' on the night shift, year after year, from the night shift nurses. I want to talk to the janitors. It's an endless source of fascination being on the planet, being alive, being around other people. I guess one of the reasons I took over my education was I realized one of the most valuable things I was born with is curiosity and I didn't want anybody to take it away."

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