Sunday, May 25, 2008

More on Utah Phillips

To add some of my personal memories to what Jess and Ellen have posted already, Utah Phillips was a character with whom I grew up. I'm not sure when I first saw him. It was presumably at the Old Songs Festival, and I was probably three years old. I have a sense of his name being mentioned around the house in conjunction with folk festivals, concerts and my father's radio show. He was a semi-mythical character whose name I definitely knew -- I recall my father, when I was very young, referring to "otter water" with regards to bodily functions: the term is taken from "Moose Turd Pie," the signature Bruce Phillips story.

My first concrete Utah Phillips memory comes from when I was maybe seven years old, and my father had taken me to the (UPDATED) Carriage House at the University of Bridgeport (not the Carriage Barn in New Canaan, Connecticut, as I previously reported). I was the only kid in sight, and this loud and brash man with a big, white beard was up on stage telling stories and singing songs. This was Utah, of course. And this was fine and good for the most part until Utah launched into a story that involved the phrase, "Kids are assh*les!" What?! My ears perked up. What did the huge man on stage just say? My heart quickened. Uh-oh. Where was I? I was the only kid there. And if kids were assh*les, what was going to happen to me? Was I going to be attacked? What had I done? The fear was a little intense.

But no one seemed to pay me much notice. I stayed on my guard, waiting to hear more anti-kid talk from stage and waiting to be run out of the place. By the end of the concert, I think that my heart rate had returned to normal, but the memory was firmly implanted in my head.

In its entirely, Utah's soliloquy is something to the effect of "Kids are assh*oles. But they're their own assh*les! When you grow up, you have to be someone else's assh*le." (Repeating this to a friend once, she replied, "Charming...") It is, of course, a tribute to the freedom and independence of childhood, as opposed to the strictures of the wage-labor system of capitalism. Try and explain that to a seven year old, however!

Well, I forgave Utah enough such that I was willing to pay tribute to him on the radio during WKCR's annual Country Music Festival in my sophomore year of college (February 1999). I had programmed a segment on U. Utah Phillips and Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Now, these guys are folk singers, not country singers, although Utah's first "hit" song was one recorded by Flatt & Scruggs in the 1950s, "Rock Salt and Nails," and certainly his songs of trains and hobos echo much of the country music repertoire. (I played "Rock Salt and Nails" this morning on The Moonshine Show as part of a small tribute.) But here I was, a young Turk trying to pass them off as country music artists during the Country Festival. And the calls started coming in -- mostly in response to Jack Elliott, I have to say -- "Who are these guys? Why did you choose to play them?" That was the general tone. The one that I remember most came in response to my playing Rambling Jack's version of "Buffalo Skinners." I answered the phone to hear an angry old white man yelling, "What is this?! I want to hear Gene Autry singing this song! Not one of your friends from college!" Before I could explain to him that Jack Elliott was a good number of years older than me and therefore not a friend from college, he had hung up on me. I sank into the chair, asking myself, "Who am I kidding anyway? This isn't what people want to hear. Why am I trying to force my tastes on them?"

But then in the next set, the tone of the callers changed. "When are you going to play 'Moose Turd Pie'?" "Where can I get a recording of that story? I've never heard of this guy before. Utah? His name is really Utah?" People were responding to the music. The positive call that I most clearly remember was a listener describing seeing Utah Phillips at the 14th Street YMCA in the late 1960s or early 1970s and thanking me for bringing back all the memories of that concert from 30 years earlier.

I last saw Utah in March 2007. He was playing at the Sounding Board in Hartford, Connecticut. It was quite clear by that time already that Utah might not make another swing out East -- I mean, we had said that before when the heart troubles first really surged up, and here he was, so who knew what actually might happen -- so my father and I were going to go this show. And I gathered Kate (who I once had forced to listen to nearly the entire three-CD Utah Phillips box set during a D.C.-to-New York car ride), Sandro and Simon (who was the most eager to go) to see the show with us. Utah did not disappoint. He was in fine form with jokes, stories and songs. A lot of the material was nearly word-for-word what can be found on various recordings, and that made me realize how much of an art his entertaining was -- how he had developed and perfected these stories over the years, trying out different jokes, different little wordplays and so on. He was sometimes disappointed in his own playing or in needing to take a pause to catch his breath. But we all knew that we were seeing a great, a living American legend, and the five of us stepped out of that show glad that we had made the trip from New York and New Haven, glad that we had been able to see Utah for what we knew then might be -- and indeed turned out to be -- the last time.

As Simon wrote when I passed the news along to him, let's all hope that Utah actually gets some of that pie in the sky.

UPDATE: My mother wants credit for using the phrase "otter water" around the house. I'm sorry, Mom, but I just don't remember it that way. What can I say?

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