"I would like people to trust their memories more, rely less on assigning what they know to books and to machines. I'd like people to exercise all their parts, physically, mentally, emotionally, rather than being boxed in."
—Utah Phillips, 2005
I came into the music and stories of Utah Phillips the way a lot of people my age did. It was around 2005, and I was very much into Ani Difranco. I don't listen to her a whole lot anymore, but at the time, her music was very important to what I was trying to accomplish as a writer. Her albums in constant rotation he was a very necessary and useful influence for where I wound up going next. Moving through all her albums (and there's a lot of them) and enjoying her strange brand of spoken word poetry, folk music storytelling and often-sharp social and political commentary, it was almost inevitable that I would work my way to Utah Phillips. I knew next to nothing about him, but I imagined there had to be something worth a look going on. Especially since Difranco had chosen to release two albums with Phillips on her Righteous Babe Records label, Fellow Workers and The Past Didn't Go Anywhere.
One of the great pleasures of loving music is the element of surprise it offers. Very few things in my life allow me to step into something with absolutely little or no preconceived notions of what I can expect. And when it comes out of nowhere to completely floor me, however it goes about doing that, I tend to realize that things are not quite as bad as CNN and the like often lead me to think.
In other words, how bad can the world be, when it still has the potential to create music and words that are capable of not only taking you on their own journey but one that applies to no one else but you as well?
But here's the thing about Fellow Workers and The Past Didn't Go Anywhere. For the most part, the music itself isn't all that great. Difranco did a good thing introducing one of her mentors to a whole new generation of listeners. Anyone who gets into Utah Phillips through those two albums owes her that classic and great debt of gratitude. Beyond that, her contributions are fairly disposable. A lot of the music and background noise that she herself lends to Phillips stories and songs doesn't really add anything significant to the proceedings. At best, it blends into the background. At worst, it's just annoying.
Since a lot of it belongs in the second category, Difranco probably would have done well to just leave the whole thing to Phillip's own musicianship.
In the end though, it didn't really matter to me all that much. Because it was the stories that had grabbed hold of me and hooked my attention until long after the last tracks had left the scene. I have always had a fascination with the history of the people who really built this country and with the people who actually have something worth saying because they've actually been out in the world enough to know what the hell they're talking about. Well into his sixties by the time these records came out, Phillips suited both of those interests of mine in flawless form. Not only did he give me a wealth of history that I had never been previously exposed to, of heroes and villains as great in stature as the songs they inspired, but he proved something to me that has been exceptionally important as times goes on. He showed me that the most significant protests are the ones that get their point across like an army of quiet, relentlessly determined ghosts. Ideas can change any dire situation simply by the sheer force of a person's belief in them and their ability to unite others under their necessity. Nothing has to be burned down. Obscenities do not need to be howled into a microphone. There is indeed a place for those things. They can be useful in their own way, but they should never be the one and only means of expressing the things that need to be expressed while there is still time to get them out into the world.
Phillips was a pacifist for much of his career. It was his belief throughout his entire body of remarkable work that great change could be initiated by making people aware of not only the history that had brought them to where they were at that moment but also the history that was going on in real-time. He rarely had to raise his voice, but that didn't make his stories of such figures as Lucy Parsons and Mother Jones any less inspiring. If anything, his weathered voice rich with experience and a passion for his beliefs and source material made them as absorbing as they could hope to be. By the time I had exhausted every one of his albums that I could get my hands on, I felt like I had to meet this guy for myself. Unfortunately, since I lived Virginia, and he was out in California, I didn't think that was going to be a terribly realistic goal.
I decided that the best way to go about it was to try for an interview. Through his website, I found a phone number that allowed me to call and leave an interview request. I didn't have particularly high hopes for getting an answer, but I didn't think it would hurt to try anyway.
The fact that he called me back and set a date that worked for both of us was roughly as jarring as the music itself. I felt then as I do now that I was about to interview a musician roughly as important to his intentions as Johnny Cash or Bob Dylan were to theirs. Not only was I looking forward to the fact that this was going to make for a great interview that would be a must-read for anyone who happened across it, but I was also anticipating a memorable conversation. Which is something I've always been a tireless junkie for.
I wasn't the least bit surprised that both of those expectations were met almost effortlessly. We spoke for a little over an hour, with Phillips not only answering every one of my questions patiently and thoughtfully but also forcing me to engage in a little critical thinking, which generally isn't something you get out of an interview. I've always felt that the best interviews are the ones that read like an incredibly interesting conversation. Utah Phillips was the first interview I had ever done that truly made me feel as though as I had achieved that measure myself. He was every bit the persona set forth in his albums. That of a weary-yet-tireless citizen of the world, whose ambitions in life were often as simple as having a place to call home, a means to travel as far as possible to share his music and stories and an opportunity to leave people looking at something in a far different light. Perhaps even opening them up to consider taking on the work he himself had become a part of so many years ago.
He certainly had that effect on me. My favorite part of the interview was easily our conversation on the death penalty. As I worked to transcript the conversation later on, I made an editorial decision to keep my part of the dialog in verbatim. It made me look more than a little ignorant, and I still flinch when I remember just how far off the mark I was when he posed a couple questions of his own to me. But of far greater importance than that, it definitively illustrated Phillips' fascinating thought process. His incredible insight into his personal philosophy that without a certain dedication to the past, to the constant need to study and understand our history and what it means to the present, that we wouldn't have a future worth holding onto.
I've scored a lot of memorable interviews since we spoke three years ago. I've had a chance in the journalism side of my career to speak to people like Henry Rollins, Lance Henriksen, Clay McLeod Chapman, George A. Romero, Jill Sobule, Doug Bradley, Sid Haig and several others. All individuals whose work I greatly admire. But not one of them has so far managed to equal the time I spent talking to one of the wisest, warmest personalities I have ever known in any form. I am incredibly honored to have been able to speak with him and know his music.
It makes me think now of another memorable moment from our interview. I had asked him to tell me about some of his own heroes, and he began his answer with a quote from Ammon Hennacy, which was that if one was going to have any heroes at all to "Make sure they're dead so they can't blow it."
I like that, and I've used it in conversations ever since. On the other hand, I'm pleased to say that I've also been fortunate to have at least a couple of heroes who didn't blow it while they were still alive. Utah Phillips is certainly one of them.
Meanwhile, I'm still traveling. And every time I do, I find more and more of the history in people and places that I can't imagine Phillips ever lost his enthusiasm and affection for in the final days of his life. I've also come to realize over the last three years that the only way it can all keep going is if I and others find our own stories to tell. We have to keep moving under that pretense, amongst others. Utah Phillips was one of the first people I ever met to make this clear to me. I'm glad he did. Knowing this has made me that much more aware of the world around me as well as myself.
That's his legacy, and that's what anyone lucky enough to find themselves immersed in any one of his albums stands to gain.
Gabriel Ricard is a Staff Interviewer at Unlikely 2.0. You can learn more about him at his bio page.