Ani Difranco and Utah Phillips(RBR015-D)
Righteous Babe Records
A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
The press packet that arrived in the mail is a masterpiece in promotion. Packaged in a manila folder, it resembles a Human Resources case report from an unnamed company. The enclosed cover letter describes "two of our organization's more outspoken malcontents . . . have joined forces and appear to be conspiring to sow seeds of unrest among the people of America." The names of these two agitators are Utah Phillips and Ani Difranco and their method of subversion is their latest CD: Fellow Workers. (Righteous Babe Records RBR015, available from 1-800-ON-HER-OWN).
Phillips is the singer/storyteller and Santa Claus look-alike with a voice as deep and as comforting as your grandfather's. He was born to a pair of labor organizers and served a tour of duty in the Korean War. Upon returning to the US as a pacifist, he developed his storytelling skills as a way to avoid work in a warehouse in Salt Lake City. In 1968, he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Ticket. Later, he would hit the rails as a hobo and traveling folksinger. In 1997, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Folk Alliance and a Lifetime Service to Labor Award from the American Federation of Musicians, Traveling Musicians Local 1000.
Difranco, on the other hand, is a one-woman phenom. After growing up in Buffalo, New York, she moved to New York City to hone her performance skills. She founded her own record company Righteous Babe Records and, since, has repeatedly turned down offers from major labels. Instead, she has sold hundreds of thousands of albums and built her fan base through a constant diet of touring and releasing a new album every year. In the words of one industry insider, she is "every major label's worst nightmare."
This is not the first time the 29-year-old Difranco and 64-year-old Phillips have teamed together. In 1996, Difranco shocked cultural pundits by signing the elder statesman to her self-made record company and releasing The Past Didn't Go Anywhere" "Past" was born of Difranco culling 100 historical hours of Phillips' performances and overdubbing sonic landscapes in the studio. In contrast, Fellow Workers is a true interactive collaboration, not only in name, but musically, as well. It was recorded live in a New Orleans living-room theatre during two December 1998 shows in front of roughly 40 people. Whereas Past was primarily Phillips' biography set to Difranco's soundtrack, Fellow Workers is about what Phillips calls "the history you don't read in history books." In other words, history-book history is that of "the ruling class, the generals and the industrialists, and the presidents who didn't get caught: the people who own the wealth of the country, but none of the history of those who created it." This rationale is spelled out in The Long Memory, a reflective story underlain with appropriate music by the band and a guest appearance by Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) on trumpet.
Only six of the tracks are true songs with Phillips singing melody: Stupid's Song, Bread and Roses, Pie in the Sky, I Will Not Obey, Joe Hill, and Dump the Bosses ('boss' is double SOB spelled backwards, Phillips proudly states), many of which are traditional or old protest songs. Difranco and her band provide genuine background harmonies on several tracks, as opposed to the vocal wailing found on Past. Fellow Workers opens and closes with two instrumentals. In between, Phillips weaves in and out of stories about ordinary people who made extraordinary sacrifices to give us the things we now take for granted: the federally mandated minimum wage, the right to a safe workplace, and the creation of child-labor laws. One example is Joe Hill, who was executed by the State of Utah in November 1915 for writing pro-labor songs (so much for the First Amendment!). Also, there was Mother Jones, who, at age 83, was dubbed "the most dangerous woman in America" by Theodore Roosevelt for her organization of labor groups during the strikes that led to the creation of the 8-hour work day in Colorado.
There were few practice sessions that led up to the recording sessions. "I find it's much more useful to just jump in and follow my instincts," says Difranco. "Once I've given birth to an idea, I prefer not to try and dictate what it will become, so much as give it some growing room and respond to the result." An example of this extemporaneous approach comes about at the end of Why Come? with a powerful jam that features Difranco and multi-instrumentalist Julie Wolf trading vocal licks. This approach, however, also leads to a few flubs, such as "The Saw-Playing Musician," when Phillips' gets so wrapped up in telling the origin of the term "Skid Row" that he forgets the reason he got onto that topic in the first place. "I figure, for a record to be life-like, the musicians and participants have to be living in the moment," justifies Difranco.
Despite the 36-year age difference between them, Difranco and Phillips produce a wonderful collaboration. Difranco's teenage fans may shun Fellow Workers as irrelevant to their lives and Phillips' fans may view it as a sell out, but both these groups would be missing the point. Few living performers extol the olden days of labor unions from a firsthand experience as well as Phillips. No matter how articulate, humorous, and passionate he is, if no one hears the message, then who has received it, internalized it, and related it to others? The folk tradition on which Difranco and Phillips both rely depends on this grassroots approach. Difranco appreciates this apparent contradiction and the collaboration is her way of paying homage to those that came before her. Fellow Workers is a CD that should be heard by all, as a means to further their education on how the present America of downsizing, NAFTA, and corporate mergers came to be. As Phillips would say, "Shut up and listen to what came before you and see what use it has."
Edited by David N. Pyles