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Friday, November 08, 2019

The Telling Takes Us Home

From the Vault Dept.: Lena Spencer died October 23, 1989, nearly thirty years after founding Saratoga’s Caffè Lena, and Utah Phillips (whom I also wrote about here) was among the many performers who’d been nurtured there who made a special tribute trip to perform in her honor. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review of the event.


UTAH PHILLIPS MADE A SPECIAL TRIP to town to play a pair of concerts at Caffè Lena last weekend. Friday night he told the first of his sold-out houses a thing or two about the late Lena Spencer and her long-running coffeehouse, paying the sort of level-headed tribute that needs paying when people are soggy with grief.

Utah Phillips at Caffè Lena in an earlier day
“I have no patience with death,” he said. “Death pisses me off.”

Then he launched into his familiar opening song, “Railroading on the Great Divide,” between stanzas of which he recalled the first time, 20 years ago, that he walked up the stairs to the second-floor hall, back when he was first putting together a career on the folksong circuit.

Phillips is unique among such performers in that he harkens to traditions of two or three generations ago but keeps them very much alive in his songs and stories. He has a thousand stories about travelling the rods – hitching rides on freights – and the company of hoboes and tramps. He’s a card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World who can sing you the songs of that movement (“The Wobblies liked to use the old hymn tunes ‘cause they were pretty and wrote new words for them so they made more sense.”)

He’s thinner than he was the last time we saw him, the result of a bout with ill-health this year, but he looks and sounds much more robust. He’s what my West Virginian mother would call sassy, although he’d win her over with his outfit of plaid flannel and wide galluses.

She also wouldn’t have minded “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” an original written when he was hitchhiking through that state. Like so many of the songs he’s written, it has a timelessness that makes it sound older than its years.

It’s fairly easy to spot those songs written during the folk boom of 25 years ago, but that’s not the Phillips style. Consequently, and ironically, his material is always in danger of being ascribed to Trad.

“Lena didn’t think I existed,” he told us during his evening of reminiscence. “When Rosalie Sorrels sang my songs, Lena thought she was just making up this Utah Phillips character.”

Bruce Phillips actually was thrown out of Utah – he doesn’t tell us why, but he’s quick with Mormon jokes – and went into the irregular employment of singing and storytelling. And he tells some whoppers, carefully setting them up as the hobo tales of people like Frying Pan Jack and Hood River Blackie.

In short, Phillips is a survivor who endures with marvellously easygoing grandeur, in a way that parallels the endurance of Caffè Lena itself. Will it survive Lena’s passing? We have to hope so. The turnout for Phillips’ concerts was a good sign.

More important is the need for nurturance. As Utah explained, many of his songs were written in the coffehouse, sitting back on the green bench he favored for that occupation. “Lena would always say to me, ‘Don’t whine about it, write about it!’”

Although songs like “Queen of the Rails” and “The Goodnight-Loving Trail” evoke the old west, they were products of Saratoga, when Phillips and many other writer-singers lived at 4 Franklin Square, enjoying the creative inspiration of such camaraderie “and eating too damn much of Lena’s lasagna.”

How well is Utah’s stuff known? As he rummaged in his memory for some of the old songs he discovered “The Telling Takes Me Home,” forgot a lyric and was helped by an audience member.

Although he sang more originals than usual over the course of the three-hour show, he made a few dips into his bag of labor songs, finishing, as usual, with “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” complete with interpolated tale-telling.

There were some other tributes to Lena during the past weekend, but none could have been more meaningful than a Caffè Lena event that recalled her past and looked forward to a Lena-inspired future. As Utah observed, the rest is up to us.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 27 November 1989

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