Ready? Here’s how it went.
Several years back, Utah Phillips — folksinger, storyteller, raconteur, 51-year card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World, and ceaseless labor advocate — wrote a song called "The Orphan Train."
"The Orphan Train" grew out of Phillips’ conversations with the now-grown kids who’d been shipped out West between the 1880s and the 1920s by East Coast orphanages, to live with families on the American frontier. Utah Phillips taught that song to a Denver man named Rob Brown. Brown, fascinated by the history, later started an organization for the surviving Orphan Train kids.
In April this year, Brown’s organization mounted its first convention in Denver. As it happened, Utah Phillips was in town that weekend, doing a show for the IWW, and he got to attend the convention and catch up with some of the Orphan Train kids. While he was there, the organizers gave him passes to a show playing that evening in town, a musical about Appalachian coal mining history called Fire on the Mountain.
"And I sat in the house, and this wonderful singer came out, a woman who had the best Appalachian voice I’ve ever heard. And she sang ‘Miner’s Lullaby.’ Well, hell, I wrote that song in Park City, Utah, many years ago.
"I don’t write songs for money," Phillips says. "You breathe them in the air, and they take on a life of their own. And that’s one example of how far a song will take you."
This sort of casting-bread-upon-the-waters approach has been essential to Utah Phillips’ art for 36 years. The past, ran the title of his 1996 collaboration with Ani DiFranco, didn’t go anywhere. That deep sense of history — not primarily the events, but the people who initiated those events — permeates Phillips’ songs and stories. An evening in his company is an object lesson in the power of folk art to help everyday people develop a sense of their shared worth and importance in the world.
And it’s also damn funny.
"There’s nothing more lethal than a whole evening of political talk," Utah says. "Mostly, I really want to get people laughing and, hopefully, singing together. And then there are issues that I want to get to, issues of war and peace, and labor history. But I’m not going to stand there and harangue people."
Yet Phillips’ live shows are, and have always been, a finely balanced mix of words and music. Stories about important figures from American labor history and the pacifist movement (many of whom Utah was personally acquainted with), rollicking tales about the genesis of a particular song, and Twain-esque observations on the state of the union, as well as the unions, provide the context for Phillips’ musical performances.
That blended approach developed organically. In the early 1960s, Utah was cutting his performance teeth playing in taverns when Kenneth Goldstein, a folklorist from the University of Pennsylvania, overheard him and invited him to record his first record.
"I sort of backed into folk music, after I was told what it was I was playing," Utah says. "After I was blacklisted in Utah" — Phillips was fired from his job at the State Archives after running for U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket in 1968 — "I started working in places that were open to folk performers. This was during the great folk revival, when there were a lot of people crossing the belly of the continent, singing our people’s music. And it occurred to me that what was happening between the songs was as important as the songs themselves, and I figured I’d better put as much time into that as I did the music. So I set about creating little settings for the songs — explanations, background or just plain blather."
Always an eager student of folk history, Phillips, by this time a member of the IWW, made a point of seeking out the organization’s old-timers as he traveled around the country.
"They’re all gone now, but they gave me the songs and the substance of their lives, their stories. In other words, that’s what I inherited. Sooner or later you have to decide what to inherit. And that’s what you put back into the world."
2005 marks the 100th anniversary of the International Workers of the World. It also brings Phillips’ 70th birthday, and the 40th anniversary of the Ark, Ann Arbor’s resilient folk music venue. It’s a location dear to Phillips, who’s been performing at the club since it was "a little hole in the wall behind a church" back in 1970. Utah’s May 11 show at the Ark is being billed as "The Birthday Show," and it makes the best kind of sense that all these milestones should be seen as cause for celebration.
Utah’s 70th is a special point of pride. Diagnosed with congestive heart failure in 1995, he’s already passed the halfway point; 50 percent of people who are so diagnosed don’t live past the fifth year. On March 15, it will be a full decade since his diagnosis. With benefit of the right diet and exercise, he’s healthy and working, which is a state of affairs he’s happy to report.
And happy to exploit.
"I’m not an educator," he says, "and I’m not a lecturer. But people who lived before us lived extraordinary lives, lives that’ll never be lived again, and they figured out, against unbelievable odds, they figured out how to come together and change the condition of labor, the conditions of their lives. It’s an easy thing to miss, especially for young kids. In mass media and television — particularly television — there is no progressive voice. And if the kids aren’t getting it in their family, or in the educational system, where labor simply isn’t taught, they’re just taking their information from a very narrow band of what’s going on in the country.
"I guess that’s one of the things I try to poke through," he says, laughing. "You’re not just a helpless pawn enmeshed in forces over which you have no control. It’s your life, and you can change it, and you can join forces with others to change it. That’s an important lesson to learn. And it’s a tough one. It’s a lesson in analysis, being able to sit back and investigate a situation. It’s a lesson in reaching out to other people, who have the same problems.
"And it’s a lesson in courage. Courage is the principal virtue. If you haven’t got it, you can’t practice any of the others."
Wednesday, May 11, at the Ark (316 S. Main, Ann Arbor; 734-763-8587) with Bodhi. Eric Waggoner is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]