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Various Artists - Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips

Singing Through the
Hard Times:
A Tribute to Utah Phillips

Various Artists

Righteous Babe Records - RBR065

Available from Righteous Babe Records.

A review written for the Folk & Acoustic Music Exchange
by Mark S. Tucker

This is a truly wonderful collection of songs memorializing Bruce Duncan "Utah" Phillips, an anarchist folk musician who was at one with Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, a 100% committed pacifist agitant artist who never ever gave up his mission for a second. I suspect he'll be properly appreciated only in retrospect and long after he should've been...not that the musicians here aren't trying their damnedest to see that occur much earlier.

The liner notes are richly satisfying with credits and quotes but woefully short on the man's accomplishments, so let me fill in a few spaces. Phillips' parents were heavily labor oriented, and Bruce's stint in the Army and the devastation of post-war Korea pretty much decided him that they were correct in their politics. He early became an organizer, activist, advocate, and tireless proselytizer for numerous homeless, anti-war, and labor causes. He was also an Egyptologist, a studier of runes, debater, a gardener, a cook, and a railroad enthusiast, among a number of further interests. Phillips concerts were as full of monologues as music, and, thus, he was a storyteller beyond his music's lyric content. In August 2007, he underwent radical treatment for heart problems. By the end of the year, he ceased touring, in January 2008 deciding to forgo a heart transplant (which, knowing the brutal mercies of the AMA, probably would have killed him anyway) and, three months later, died at the age of 73.

Phillips was a folkie through and through, dyed in the wool, giving little to modernism; thus, his work and this tribute are captured in the fields, byways, raillines, and singing breezes of the continent's heart. A member of the Marxistically inclined IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) he may have been, and thus a proponent of worldwide struggle against capitalism, but Utah Phillips was all-American...and in the best sense, a spiritual descendent of Thomas Paine, Eugene Debs, Samuel Gompers, Robert Ingersoll, Mark Twain, and everything dissenting and rebellious this country has given to its citizens and the globe.

Not one of these musicians missed any part of that, and Phillips' spirit shines through them in every single cut of this generous 2-CD bonanza (39 killer cuts), cementing his place in the museum of American treasures. This is as good as tributes get, and the roster of performing greats, near-greats, and will-maybe-be-greats is listed below. One of my faves is John McCutcheon's All Used Up, not because of the sterling delivery, deadshot sincerity, and tempered rage but because I, like Phillips , am getting fed up to the eyeballs with this piece of shit Boss Class Capitalism we've nearly been ruined by far too many times. It's well past time to break all that for good. Utah Phillips nailed the human side of it perfectly, and McCutcheon understands ever syllable and note.

That, I think, is what forms the gleaming star that suffuses this set and Phillips' work: the intensely Humanist life the guy led, a Renaissance man and a global citizen while fiercely American. There's a reason the world used to look to us despite the criminality of our rulers and captains of industry, and that reason's captured in Utah's words: it is us, the working class, the folk of the commons who compose what Paine and his small kindred (Rousseau, Montaigne, etc.; Jefferson and ilk were aristos despite their marvelous verbal prolixities, but at least understood what they usually only gave lip service to) saw in the future, and it's only we who will effect the anarchistic estate man truly deserves. That's what Phillips was pushing at, exalting, living, and preserving.

Thus, this presentation of his unique body of work via homagerie ringing as solidly as the originals, entirely sympathetic, rural as the day is long, and taking to task all the ills of our still sick society: religion, politics, law, you name it. The essentials are all there, as are the beautiful voices, dexterous instruments, and convicted passions. I'm an out-and-out hopeless aficionado of good tribute projects and this is one of the best, flawlessly carried off.

  • Magpie, Dan Schatz, Emma's Revolution, Cathy Fink, Marcy Marxer, and Friends: Singing Through the Hard Times
  • Will Brown, Cindy Kallet, & Grey Larsen: Going Away
  • Emmylou Harris & Mary Black: Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia (Phillips except 3rd verse by Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard)
  • Si Kahn: Dump the Bosses Off Your Back (John Brill)
  • John McCutcheon: All Used Up
  • Saul Brody: Starlight on the Rails
  • Lisa Null: All About Preachers
  • Harry Tuft & Jack Stanesco: She'll Never be Mine
  • Larry Penn: The Popular Wobbly (T-Bone Slim)
  • Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer: Room for the Poor
  • Sparky & Rhonda Rucker: Reuben's Train (trad arr. James "Sparky" Rucker)
  • Fast Rattler: Paddy Welcome Back
  • Magpie: Michael
  • Ed Trickett: The Telling Takes Me Home
  • Kendall Morse: Phoebe Snow
  • Faith Petric: If I Could be the Rain
  • Dan Schatz: Queen of the Rails
  • Judy Cook: Kid's Liberation
  • Pete Seeger: Or Else! (One-a These Days) (Pete Seeger with additional lyrics by David Burns & A.N.Onymous)
  • Gordon Bok: Goodnight Loving Trail
  • Rosalie Sorrels: The Soldier's Return
  • Tom Paxton: I Remember Loving You (Phillips, Tino Chumlevich, Luigi Del Puppo)
  • Elizabeth Laprelle: Jesse's Corrido (words: Phillips, tuns: Rosalie Sorrels)
  • Bruce Brackney: Hood Rover, Roll On
  • Pop and Bodie Wagner & Dakota Dave Hull: Old Buddy, Goodnight
  • Mick Lane: Hallelujah! I'm a Bum (trad.)
  • Ani DiFranco: The Internationale (instrumental) (Pierre Degeyter, arr. Ani DiFranco)
  • Kat Logan: The Faded Roses of December
  • Jay Peterson: Daddy, What's a Train?
  • Ray Bierl: Bill McCarran
  • Finest Kind: He Comes Like the Rain
  • Mark Ross: Look for Me in Butte (words: Phillips, tune: Mark Moss)
  • Jacqui Morse: The Miner's Lullaby (words: Phillips, tune: Jody Strecher & Kate Brislin)
  • Rik Palieri: Larimer Street (words: Phillips, tune: Saul Brody)
  • Jean Ritchie: Old George's Square (Jean Richie)
  • Taylor Whiteside: Rock Salt and Nails
  • Art Thieme: The Hobo's Last Ride (A. L. Kirby)
  • Caroline Paton: Singing in the Country (collected from Wooley Burt by Rosalie Sorrels)
  • Emma's Revolution: Hymn Song
All songs are written by Utah Phillips except as noted.

Edited by: David N. Pyles


Copyright 2009, Peterborough Folk Music Society.
This review may be reprinted with prior permission and attribution.

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