HOW UTAH GOT TO BE LIKE THAT
U. UTAH PHILLIPS AND ANI DI FRANCO
This is the story of how Utah got to be like that. I don't mean Utah, the state, but Utah, the man.
His given name may be Bruce, but he calls himself U. Utah Phillips. And, to his fans like me, he may be one of America's least known folk figures, but we idolize him as one of America's most valid. And also as one of America's most colorful.
When I first met Utah more than a quarter of a century ago, he wore a big, leather cowboy hat. Now, he wears a fedora but to me it still looks like a cowboy hat. And at the same time, his fedora is reminiscent of the tramps who ride the rods and camp where they can, which is exactly what Utah used to do. His repertoire is full of songs and stories about those days, but he doesn't tour either the rail yards or the folkie entertainment circuit any more.
Like me, Utah has heart trouble and, at 61, he has been advised by his cardiologist to retire to his home in the Forty-Niner gold rush town of Nevada City, California. He doesn't live in Utah any more.
With a snow-white, Santa Claus beard, Utah is the epitome of what right-wing devils demonize: more than just a "Liberal," more than just a "progressive," he is a dyed-in-the-wool anarchist-activist. Utah is a free spirit, a forward-looker, a yea-sayer, a visionary, an advocate of change-for-the-better, a believer in peace, harmony, brotherhood and unity who loves this country even though, like a lot of us, he can't stand its government. And, although he quotes two of America's greatest humorists frequently, Utah to his fans is his own Will Rogers and his own Mark Twain. In other words, his wisdom comes through the wry.
He also is almost a red-diaper-baby. His step-father, Sid Cohen, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party. As for Utah's mother, she worked for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) when unionism was still in the hands of idealists rather than racketeers. Utah himself has been a long-time member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the I.W.W., affectionately nicknamed "the Wobblies," and his repertoire is naturally peppered with Wobblie songs as well as with labor union songs. In 1968, he got 6,000 votes when he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. That cost him his job as an archivist for the State of Utah.
How did Utah get to be that way? He tells the story himself on a new CD which has just arrived in my mailbox. It came like an Xmas gift from the out-of-my-life oblivion into which Utah disappeared after I last saw him maybe some 20 years ago. Actually, I was the one who disappeared into oblivion when I was kicked out of journalism for no good reason and exiled to my Devil's Island of the mind for 20 years or more. Obviously unplugged from the folkie circuit for all that time, I've always kept wondering what happened to Utah.
The name of his CD is the past didn't go anywhere and, in the third cut, entitled Korea, Utah says his 14-year-old son, Brendan, asked him that question: "How did you get to be like that?"
"Since the kids have been little, they've always known that I've vanished from their lives periodically," Utah starts, describing his existence as a troubadour. "And they never really had any idea of what it is that I do. What do I do? If I don't know, why should they?"
This tale was recorded during a live show, so that line gets a big laugh from the audience. Utah goes on to explain that in the summer Brendan got to be 14, Utah took him on one of Utah's tours as a traveling minstrel.
"We got a chance to talk as adults, instead of just as father-and-son," says Utah.
The two of them had just left Boston and were headed up to the Left Bank Cafe in Blue Hill, Maine. It was just above Marblehead that Brendan turned toward his father and asked, "How did you get to be like that?"
"Fair question," comments Utah, rhetorically. "I knew what he meant. He didn't have all the language to say exactly what he meant. What he meant to say was, 'Why is it that you are fundamentally alienated from the entire institutional structure of society?'"
Utah said he had never been asked that. He told Brendan: "Now, don't listen to the radio and don't talk to me for half an hour while I think about it."
So they drove and talked. They were on Highway One because it was pretty and close to the water. Toward the Maine border, there was a picnic area with picnic tables. It was a bright, clear day, and Utah says he pulled into the picnic area parking lot. He sat Brendan down at one of the picnic tables and told him the story.
"You know, I was over in Korea," Utah begins.
"I've always wondered about that," interrupts Brendan. "Did you shoot anybody?"
Utah honestly didn't know, but that's not the story.
"I was up at Kumari Gap by the Inchon River," Utah resumes, "There were about 75,000 Chinese soldiers on the other side and they all wanted me out of there, with every righteous reason that you could think of. I had long since figured out that I was the wrong person in the wrong place at the wrong time for the most specious of reasons. But there I was!
"My clothing was rotting on my body. Every exotic mold in the world was attacking my clothing and my person. My boots had big holes in them from the rot. I wanted to swim in the Inchon River and get that feeling of death, that feeling of rot off of me. The Chinese soldiers on the other side, they were swimming. They were having a wonderful time.
"But there was a rule, a regulation against swimming in the Inchon River. I thought that was foolish, but then a young Korean fellow who worked as a carpenter for us---all his family
To make room when a baby is born, the eldest in the house sits on the bank of the Inchon with a water jug and waits to die
had been killed off in the war---he said to me in what English he had:
"'You know when we get married here, the young married couple moves in with the elders, moves in with the grandparents. But there's nothing growing. Everything's been destroyed. There's no food. So, the first baby that's born, the oldest, the old man, goes out with a jug of water and a blanket and sits on the bank of the Inchon River and waits to die. He sits there until he dies. And then would roll down the bank and into the river and his body'll be carried out to sea. And we don't want you to swim in the Inchon River because our elders are floating out to sea.'"
"That's when it began to crumble for me. That's when I ran away. Not just from that. I ran away from the blueprint for self-destruction I had been handed as a man, for violence in excess, for sexual excess, for racial excess."
Utah tells about the commanding officer who, when he told his men that the babies fathered by American GIs and Korean women were thrown into orphanages because the Korean government wouldn't care for them, added:
"'Sad as that is, someday this will really help the Korean people because it'll raise their intelligence level."
"That's what we were dealing with," Utah says he told Brendan. "So, I ran away. I ran down to Seoul City, down toward ASCOM, not to the Army, I ran away to a place called the Korea House. It was Korean civilians reaching out to GIs to give them some better vision of who they were than we were getting up at the divisions. And they hid me for three weeks. They didn't have any clothes that would fit me.
"Late one night, it was a stormy, stormy night, the rain falling in sheets, I could go out. They figured nobody would see me. We walked through the mud and the rain. The whole city was devastated. And they took me to a concert at the Ewah Women's University. A large auditorium with shell holes in the ceiling and the rain pouring through the holes and kleig lights on the stage hooked up to car batteries---this wasn't the U.S.O., this was the Korean Students Association.
"The person they had invited to sing---I was the only white person there---the person they had invited to sing was Marian Anderson, the great black operatic soprano, who had been on tour in Japan. There she was, singing Oh Freedom and Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen. And I watched her through the rain coming through the ceiling and thought back to Salt Lake, where my father, Sid, who ran the Capital Theater---it was a movie house but it had been an old vaudeville house---and he wanted to bring live performances back to the Capital.
"In 1948, he invited Marian Anderson to come and sing there. And I remember we went to the train station to pick her up and took her to the biggest hotel in town, the Hotel Utah, but they wouldn't let her stay there because she was black. And I remember my father's humiliation and I remember her humiliation as I saw her singing there through the rain. And I realized right then, I said, Brendan, right then, I knew that it was all wrong, that it all had to change and that change had to start with me."
That story is told on one of the 12 cuts on the past didn't go anywhere, with a musical accompaniment added by rising star Ani DiFranco, described as a fiery songwriter, singer and indie music entrepreneur, who put Utah's CD out on her own label, Righteous Babe, which she founded in her hometown of Buffalo. Righteous Babe still nests there, even though Ani's long since moved her own sweet ass to the big-time hipness of the Big Apple. Except she's hardly ever there. She's always on the road, playing sold-out shows in big houses like New York's Beacon or the Mayan in L.A.
Korea is not the only cut on the CD that explains how Utah got to be like that. He tells stories about bums on the rods and stories about bums in the plush, about running for President on the Sloth and Indolence Party ticket, about characters in his life like Dorothea Brounell and Frying Pan Jack, a fellow tramp who ate free in restaurants with the help of his tramp cockroach. He tells how the charlatans who run this country strip-mine our souls and peddle our natural resources for money they take under the table.
And he tells about Eddy Balchoswsky, the concert pianist who lost an arm fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War, when the democracies were too chicken to stand up to Hitler, a move which at that time might have forestalled the necessity for a World War II. You read about Eddy Balchowsky in THE BLACKLISTED JOURNALIST Column Fourteen, in a poem called Less Is More, by Gerald Nicosia. When I mentioned this to Utah, he told me that he already met Gerry at a benefit for the late Jan Kerouac, Jack's daughter, in San Francisco before she died. As for the late Eddy Balchowsky, those scrawls and paintings he once sold for quarters in Chicago's back alleys may one day be worth a fortune.
Like me, Utah's a storyteller, except he's got it over me because he sings his stories as well as tells them. They all explain how he got to be like that. Utah began learning his craft as a storyteller when he was a teenager, listening to the exploits of the hobos, tramps and bums he met while riding the rails. His first instrument was the ukelele, but he needed to learn guitar to accompany himself singing songs he wrote in the style of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow.
What happened after his misadventures as a soldier in Korea? One thing I asked Utah when we were ultimately reunited on the telephone: "When you 'ran away,' does that mean you deserted?" His answer was that there were so many "deserters" that the Army decided to shoot them all for desertion would cause a scandal, so Utah was classified as an AWOL. After he was shipped back to the U.S., he became an alcoholic and a bum on the rods until he found shelter with Catholic Workers Movement activist Ammon Hennacy, who proved to be a great influence on Utah and a catalyst in Utah's commitment to pacifism and anarchism. On this CD, Utah tells how Ammon Hennacy helped him save his own life by turning him into a pacifist, making him shed violence, abandon the weapons of privilege and of his white skin and pledge himself to peacefulness in the same way that an alcoholic quits drinking by joining AA.
Meeting Rosalie Sorrels turned out to be as significant in Utah's life as his later meeting with Ani DiFranco. That meeting with Rosalie, he says, occurred many years ago in the early '50s before he went away to soldier in the Korean War. A goodbye party for Utah turned into a two-day event and Rosalie showed up with her baritone ukelele, her instrument at the time. As far as I'm concerned, Rosalie is another of America's least known but most valid folk figures. To me she is another Underground folk legend.
"She was singing mainly English ballads in a rather high falsetto voice," Utah says, "and I was singing old-time country music that I had learned either tramping in Yellowstone or off of old 78s."
By the time Utah got back from Korea, the folk music boom was booming and the folksingers coming through Salt Lake City would all stay at Rosalie's house because she was Salt Lake's folkie queen at that time. Born in Boise, Idaho, she had married a telephone lineman who was injured on the job and reassigned to a desk job in the home office in Salt Lake City. Naturally, she moved to Salt Lake with him and wound up bearing him five kids. The kids grew up in a house devoted entirely to folk music.
"Songs I made up in Korea when I was overseas," Utah remembers, "I'd teach them to Rosalie in her living room in Salt Lake. When she came East in 1965, which was before I did, she was singing those songs around in the East on the folk music circuit. So when I finally did go East to find her, what I discovered was that people in the East already knew my songs. That was the way I got started in the trade."
"Back East" was mainly Saratoga, where the great Lena Spencer presided at the Cafe Lena.
"She was the great teacher of us all," Utah says. "The Great Mother. She not only gave us a place to play and a place to sing but also places to sleep and food to eat and she showed us how to book ourselves into other places to play. She would even make telephone calls for us. She was the center. In this one big old crumbling house, you had Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle and Jerry Jeff Walker was in and out of town. Rosalie and everybody hung out at Lena's. When Lena died, I conducted the wake, the memorial up in Saratoga."
During the 1960s, Utah performed at anti-war rallies, worked in behalf of transients and migrant laborers and participated in countless strikes. It was after Utah and Rosalie hit New York from Saratoga that I met the two of them, fell under their spell and was given the great honor of trying out as their manager. I still have boxes of their reel-to-reel demo tapes lying around my house that I couldn't even give away. But I believed in Rosalie and Utah just as I still believe in them. At the time, I was writing my POP SCENE column for the New York Post for $400 a week while also trying to make a million dollars in the music business.
But Rosalie didn't want to be a star. At one point, I had Rosalie booked onto the Woodstock Festival, but when it came her turn to go out on the big stage and face an audience of a half million, she just couldn't do it. It might have meant instant stardom for her, but she just couldn't do it. She said she was having more fun playing backstage for Jerry Garcia.
As for Utah, I once took him to meet John and Yoko, who were busy filming a movie just showing legs. To be in the movie, you had to show your legs to John's and Yoko's satisfaction, which meant you had to lift your skirt or drop your trousers. It turned out that a number of women volunteering to be filmed weren't wearing panties. As for Utah, was he wearing boxer shorts or briefs? One intimate disclosure I can reveal about Utah is that he wasn't wearing either.
"It took about a year for us to figure out that we were not manageable," Utah reminds me. "That's when I began booking myself across the country, the Ark in Ann Arbor, the San Diego Folk Festival, the Denver Folk Center. I really got around the country, back and forth. I got an old '47 Chevy sedan in Colorado and toured in it all over the country while managing myself.
"Then, in 1974, I was invited to host the Folk Life Festival at the World's Fair in Spokane, Washington, and I wound up settling in Spokane. From there, I kept touring, doing maybe 120 cities a year, until my hands quit on me. I suffered from Dutytrian's Contraction, which made it hard for me to play chords on the guitar. I had a couple of small kids by then."
He had been traveling with another folk singer, Kate Wolf, but she came down with leukemia.
"I have to go to the hospital," she told Utah. "I don't want to cancel all these dates. Would you take them for me?"
So, Utah hired an accompanist and played Kate's dates. After which, she told Utah:
"You know, you gotta go back and do this again because you're singing about things and talking about things that nobody else is."
"But Kate," Utah replied, "I can't play the guitar!"
To which Kate answered:
"Nobody ever came to listen to you play the guitar, anyway."
"So," Utah says, "she passed away and I went back at it, now working with her agents, Fleming/Tamulevich and Associates, who treated me very, very well right up to the point where I moved to Nevada City, California. Then, almost exactly a year ago, the cardiologist told me: 'If you keep touring, your heart's gonna stop.' So now, I'm here in Nevada City."
As for Ani DiFranco, Utah said he met her casually in Philadelphia when they did the same radio show, Gene Shay, whom Utah describes as "the great folk DJ of song and story in Philadelphia."
"I can't say that I knew Ani at that time," Utah remembers. "She was probably around 20, 21 years old. The agency was sending out a live recording tape that I had done for old Phil Shapiro on his 'Bound for Glory' show in Ithaca, New York, it was a long-running show, a live show. They were sending out this tape as a way to get work, a demo tape. Well, she took one from the office and listened to it while she was traveling. And she decided she wanted her 'hip-hop' generation, her Generation X kids, to hear some of those stories.
"So, she wrote me a letter and I can quote you part of the letter because I committed it to memory. In her letter, she outlined her project. She wanted to put the CD out on her own label. She's self-contained. She owns what she does. She wanted to take the words and surround them with her own sounds. And then she said: 'Not that there is anything wrong with your performance as it stands, 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.'
"Well, I read that and I said, 'Wow! This is it! This is the deal!' I sent her about a hundred hours of old concert tapes of mine. I sent them off in a box. She was driving cross-country, touring and she listened to everything. God, that's hard! She went and did the noise-reduction on the older tapes, the older recordings. But mainly what she did---if I wanted stories to stick around if I wasn't here any more, she picked the right ones. Without even knowing. She did it by instinct and by judgement. And she put them in the right order. I mean, how she figured that out, I don't know. But she did! It came out completely different than anything I visualized."
The point Utah makes is that Ani put this recording together for kids of her generation. And if his old-time fans don't like it, Utah says:
"This record wasn't made for you!."
As I've tried to let everyone know, I've been out of action for some 26 years, so I never met Ani or even heard of her before I received this CD, but the package included a bio that immediately makes me want to hear any one of the nine CDs she has put out since 1990. Described by the Boston Globe as a "word-of-mouth" phenomenon who's been playing sold-out shows across North America for years now, she continues to accumulate rave reviews, including this one from Spin:
"On the road more than 200 days a year, DiFranco has been a live phenomenon since she first started shocking mild-mannered folkies more than 10 years ago. . . In concert, DiFranco is both a consummate performer and a humble anti-star laying her smallest defeats and triumphs at your feet. She doesn't just bare her soul in time-honored folk tradition, she dilates, opening herself wide to people, experience, psychic infection. Her motley crew of devotees has grown the past 7 years to include dyke-punks, hippies and clean-cut college grrrls and the boys they met in women's studies class, but one thing hasn't changed: Her audiences shout along to every word as DiFranco trods the familiar turf of pain, revenge, and eventual self-acceptance---with a ferocity that inspires mosh pits.
Reading reviews like that makes me want to rush right out and catch Ani's act, which I promise I will do at my earliest convenience. Despite the fact that I am some 40 years her senior, I know that she and I are kindred souls simply from the fact that Utah was able to inspire both of us to do what we could to make both him and his wisdom more visible and available to the world. Except that where I failed, I believe Ani will succeed.
I found the past didn't go anywhere not only entertaining as hell but spiritually very gratifying. It's not that Utah is never wrong, it's just that he always manages to sound as righteous as left-wingish. As for the music that Ani has added to Utah's storytelling, some cuts are so full of rhythm and energy that they even make you want to get up and start dancing. But most of all on this CD, you learn the most important lessons Utah has learned. For instance:
"I learned in Korea that I would never again in my life abdicate to somebody else my right and my ability to decide who the enemy is."
And that's how Utah got to be like that. ##
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