Four decades of folk
If you told folk singer-troubadour U. Utah Phillips two years ago that the Smithsonian Institution would make it possible for him to record the best parts of his career, he wouldn’t have believed it.
Phillips would have said he was on Rounder, Righteous Babe and Redhouse Records.
Now add the Smithsonian Institution’s Folkways Records to the record label list.
All it took to set the wheels in motion was for his friend Erika Haskell, who works with Folkways, to visit Phillips at his Nevada City house last year and for Phillips to casually remark that he wanted to record some of his favorite songs for an audio songbook.
Right after Haskell’s visit, Phillips said Saturday, a Folkways representative called him on the phone.
As a result, Phillips will have 61 originals written during the last 40 years on a new four-CD set, “Starlight on the Rails: The Songs of Utah Phillips.” The stories behind each song are told by Phillips on the CDs, which should be nationally distributed by October.
That’s 296 listening minutes about subjects across the board.
The songs are about cowboys, miners, trains, tramps, the common man, the labor movement, war and peace, and “all the dumb things that can happen when you fall in love,” to quote Phillips.
It’s become quite the autobiographical effort, because Phillips, 66, has campaigned unrelentingly for the working class and societal concerns since he began performing.
“I think it’s going to be a big relief for me to put out in the world what I choose,” Phillips said. “I’ve written thousands of songs, and some of them are quite terrible. These are the ones I choose to persist in the world. They sort of summarize my life to this point.”
Phillips, who has devoted his career to spreading messages about increasing the power of the working class and decreasing the power of the ruling class via his songs and stories, is rather proud of this latest accomplishment.
“I was very clear with the Smithsonian that I would have complete control over everything,” Phillips said adamant-
ly, “which is unusual in this business. Either it was going to be the way I wanted or it wasn’t going to be.”
Phillips chose who would help him on the CD.
Bruce Wheelock at Flying Whale Recording Studio in Grass Valley finished recording stories and remastering tunes for the four CDs a month ago. Graphic designer Lisa Etlund in Santa Cruz is creating the cover. Joe Hickerson, a retired curator at the Library of Congress’ folk song archives, is writing the liner notes.
Two of his close music peers, Pete Seeger (a folk singer-songwriter who helped popularize folk music nationwide in the 1950s and 1960s) and Ani Di Franco (a folk singer-songwriter who today fills venues nationwide) wrote a message and poem respectively for the CD. His dear friend Rosalie Sorrels guests on a few of his originals.
“She sings better than me. She does ‘Rock Salt and Nails,’ a song only heard in her living room 40 years ago, which I wrote when I came back (as an Army soldier) angry from Korea on the Troop Ship Mitchell,” Phillips said. “I was freezing on the deck when I wrote it, and I wouldn’t have sung it at Rosalie’s if I hadn’t been drunk. I don’t feel that way anymore.”
Phillips is no stranger to the Smithsonian. For several years, he either performed at or booked musicians who sang labor songs for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Although he never imagined the Smithsonian would play a major role in preserving his songs, Phillips tried to do just that for several years.
“The problem with it was, I don’t read music, no one I know reads music, or if they do, they won’t,” Phillips said, laughing. “What I wanted to do is an audio songbook: Instead of a book, you have a set of records.”
Phillips is unquestionably a folk music legend.
His home studio is covered wall-to-wall with awards and plaques. Phillips has received a constant stream of accolades from the entertainment field, nonprofit organizations and the labor movement. Awards include the 1997 North American Folk Alliance lifetime achievement award, also given to Seeger and Woody Guthrie.
But to Phillips, his biggest achievements are his “three beautiful children, one grandchild, and the faith and confidence of an enormous folk music community all over North America.”
Of his folk music career, Phillips is pleased he did it his way.
“The folk music community members have permitted me to live well,” Phillips explained, “to make a living, not a killing, in a way where we were partners in bringing music into these communities rather than me having a boss. That’s probably the achievement that pleases me the most – to get by without having a boss.”
Phillips has toured nonstop around the country since the late 1960s. Although doctors told him in 1995 to stop because of congestive heart failure, Phillips still travels at least once a month.
“I need to go out and work some more to pay the bills. I’ve been back on the road on a limited basis, but will now do two engagements every other month,” Phillips said, almost apologizing.
In two weeks, he’s off to Portland, Ore., to do his annual benefit for the Sisters of the Road (a homeless cafe), and then Seattle two weeks later for a concert.
The math doesn’t add up. He’ll be spending more time on the road than only every other month. Performing is just something Phillips can’t give up.
He’ll have a weeklong residence at Pitzer College in Southern California in March and lecture about labor unions, anarchy and nonviolence. The residency will conclude with a concert.
In between gigs throughout California, Phillips will perform at Center for the Arts in Grass Valley on May 11.
“Normally I don’t play at home,” he said. “It’s like a bird not wanting to foul its own nest. But it’s been a long time since I played here, and I just want to be able to stretch out with old friends.”
Since November 1997, he has also been busy with his radio show, “Loafer’s Glory.”
Sunday’s show was his 100th show, and he’s decided to suspend the regular airings and do occasional shows “when the spirit moves me.”
“Loafer’s Glory,” transmitted by Pacifica Network’s KPFA in Berkeley to community stations around the country, will become a part of KPFA’s “Across The Great Divide.”
Whatever Phillips is doing – whether it’s performing, lecturing or talking on his radio show – he’s having fun.
His advice to others?
“The way I’m thinking these days, of people watching TV, sitting before computers, just consuming – I want to tell them to learn to sing your own song, dance your own dance and tell your own story,” he suggested. “The best you can hope for is that in the end, it will have been well told.”
With the pending release of “Starlight on the Rails,” Phillips doesn’t have to worry about following his own advice.
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