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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Utah in Troy

From the Vault Dept.: Bruce “Utah” Phillips was a Wobbly, an organizer, a storyteller, a singer-songwriter and a delightfully cranky performer. I booked him to perform in a concert series I produced near my home in 1992 and spent a delightful post-concert evening learning that his history wasn’t as made-up as he made it sound. Ten years after that – a few years before he died – I reviewed his appearance in Troy, NY.


Utah Phillips
WOULD THE CONGREGATION PLEASE turn its attention to the first hymn on the program: “Railroading on the Great Divide.” This is not printed in our hymnals because it’s woven into the fabric of our hearts. Rev. Phillips has taken pains to point out that it is a folksong, despite the fact that folksingers don’t sing it, and that folksingers don’t sing it because it is boring. But we are going to sing because we are folk and thus joint owners of the song.

And Rev. Phillips adjusts his harmonica rack and blows chords about as tuneful as a train whistle, strums his guitar and gives forth in his reticulated baritone voice. And we sing along not out of obligation but because it’s actually fun to do so, fun to savor simple lyrics that evoke a sense of freedom hard to achieve these mechanized days. We sing along also because we need this sense of community, need it more than ever in a country gone imperialistically insane.

Whether it’s the at-home spectacle of the city of Cohoes making a fool out of itself by once again mishandling its very lovely music hall, chasing out the Eighth Step series in a political putsch, or the international horror of the nutcase installed in a stolen Presidency, pruritic finger poised above The Button, we’ve got plenty to depress us. Good thing Phillips still makes the occasional journey east to perform for us.

His is the Gospel of Collective Activity. Son of labor organizers, proud longtime Wobbly, he hit the stage with a greeting (“I’m percolatin’!”) and a question: “Everybody got a job?” Pause for audience assent. “Suckers!”

Longtime Phillips fans heard little that was new during the performance, which spanned two generous sets, but that’s not the point. You don’t expect to hear new stuff in church, and that’s what RPI’s West Hall became.

As Phillips has pointed out elsewhere, the old union organizers borrowed tunes from old hymns because everybody knew them and changed the words so they’d make more sense. Phillips layers his own sense of sensibility through a combo of song and story that’s dazzling to the ear and a delight to the mind.

“Railroading on the Great Divide,” for example, a favorite concert opener, was laced with several tales that wandered through labyrinths of gleeful wordplay, always finishing up with a huge audience laugh – tales of hoboes and philosophers (usually the same people), opportunists and crazies, celebrating those who have beaten or successfully ignored the system.

But an important message filtered through the entertainment, as the stories eased into celebrations of those who have taken on and changed the system. Mother Jones, for example, “the most dangerous woman in America,” as Theodore Roosevelt dubbed her, and her successful attempts to enact child labor laws.

And there was advice on becoming a pacifist, which involves laying down not only weapons of war but also “weapons of privilege.” “That’ll give you something to chew on,” said Phillips, launching next into Woody Guthrie’s “I’ve Got to Know.”

The service finished, as usual, with “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” tall tale-laden as always, but it brought the crowd to its feet with as much of a roar of approval as 400 greying folkies tend to muster. And we were left with the satisfying sense that when the nonsense of living grows too oppressive to ignore, we can work together to change it.

Utah Phillips
Eighth Step Concerts, West Hall, RPI, Troy, Sept. 20

Metroland Magazine, 26 September 2002

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