Utah Phillips Interview
Legendary story teller and folk singer opens up
(Bruce “Utah” Phillips was interviewed by Radio Free World Webmaster Joey Latimer on June 11, 1993 at a Mexican restaurant in Idyllwild, California. The interview was originally conducted for Folk Music Quarterly Magazine.)
JL: Do you consider yourself a folk musician?
U: As to being a musician, critics are divided. And they deserve to be. I used to finger pick the guitar. I learned finger picking from Mrs. Etta Baker, herself. A very fine traditional guitarist. Lead thumb Baker. I loved fingerpicking and then over the years my right hand stopped. My thumb doesn’t work. So I quit playing for three years. It was Kate Wolf who got me back playing again. When she got leukemia, she called me and asked me to take her engagement, so it wouldn’t have to be canceled. I hired an accompanist and before she went back to the hospital for the bone marrow transplant, we had dinner and she said, “Well you know you’re singing and talking about things nobody else is.” So she demanded that I go back to work. I said, “but I can’t play the guitar Kate.” And she said nobody ever came to listen to you play the guitar. So I guess that in terms of being a musician in that sense, no I’m not much of a musician. Although I do know a great deal about it. I can’t do it anymore. And then the right hand is now giving out because of a lump in the palm. But still in all, some of the best musicians I’ve known, people like Nimrod Workman, their voice is their instrument. Almeda Riddle, great traditional singer. Joe Heaney, good heavens! The man who won every prize in Ireland for singing in Gaelic. One of the great traditional singers. Worked as an elevator operator in Seattle. The voice is an instrument. I learned to sing more unaccompanied. I think that by and large I’m a story teller. I’m vastly enamored with words as you’ve probably surmised and it’s just that sometimes the stories have tunes, and then they become songs, and they lapse back to the story. It’s all one to me. So, no I wouldn’t say I’m much of a musician.
JL: When you were younger, considering getting into music and story telling, who did you listen to?
U: I never considered getting into story telling and folk singing. The concept never occurred to me. Story telling is something that you do when you’re a little kid. You try explaining why you’re late for dinner. Why you sat through the second matinee. Watching Henry Fonda as Jessie James. We all tell stories. Listen to your children’s excuses. Some of us never gave it up. I’m one of those. So it’s an organic part of the way we live…if you live in an oral culture. I grew up in an oral culture. First of all there isn’t an old Jewish neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio, where everybody talked to everybody a lot. I try to continue to create an oral culture for me to live in, a culture that’s made largely out of speakers and listeners. Rather than out of…I don’t have a television set and can’t stand ’em. (It’s) the same with singing, I always sang and made up songs ever since I ran away from home the first time up to Yellowstone National Park, before high school, to work on the road crews, but people showed me how to play the guitar. What they were singing was Jimmy Rogers, Gene Autry, and old cowboy songs, Broadway songs too. That’s when I first joined the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. It’s a singing group. The labor movement used to be a singing movement. That’s an organic part of your life, then. It’s not something you decide to become.
JL: A natural progression?
U: Yeah, it’s something you grew up with. It’s after I left Utah, for political reasons, after I ran for the U.S. Senate as a Peace Candidate during the Viet Nam War and wound up not being employable anymore because we took 6,000 votes from the wrong people in Utah…that friends suggested that I leave the state and try to make a living singing and telling stories. It occurred to me that that was absurd. But I got away from Utah and I did find that, yeah, there were things like the Philadelphia Folk Festival. That there were things like the Folk Song Society of Greater Boston. I found this enormous family of people who used the words folk music and folk dance and story telling and they used it not to describe an enormous and varied body of material, but they were using it primarily as a social device to spend time together. That’s the part that I’ve never given up–the part I refuse to get away from, that seemed to be the most valid, that in town to town, city to city all over the country, there were, and still are and continue to grow, people’s organizations of folks who are doing sometimes dumb, no-where jobs they can’t seem to get out of, who want to create a social circle, a social setting in which they can function, which is not competitive, isn’t venal, doesn’t cost and arm and a leg, is participatory, all the things TV can’t give you and that’s what the music, and the dance and the stories are there for anyway. So, that’s why the folk dance clubs, the contra dancers are doing it, that’s why the singers circles are starting up all over the country, you know, where people get together and have a pot luck and share songs together, sometimes around a theme from week to week. Sharing food and music together is a holy activity–noncompetitive surroundings. So, I fell into that family, you see. I was absorbed into it. That’s where I belong. It operates at a subindustrial level. That’s a good term. Subindustrial. It’s unplugged from the music industry. There’s nothing to do with it really. But it involves a collectively enormous amount of energy across the continent. Because it is subindustrial, it’s very often difficult for people in one area to know about it in another area. That’s why we now have the Folk Alliance.
JL: To draw the different groups together?
U: To communicate about tactics. Like how does a folk music society get folk music into schools going? You know, where is our audience going to come from? Where are you going to find the kids who want to learn traditional music–wonderful old songs, songs that in fact belong to them but they don’t know it? How are you going to, as a small folk club, folk society, non-profit, all a labor of love, going to access public funds/arts money, that belongs to them anyway? Or how are you going to start the tactics of say starting a Bread and Roses, which means you get local musicians who love to play and do music going into old folks homes, hospitals and prisons where there is no humane music. And I mean humane music. That’s another distinction, one of the other reasons that the folk music family, and me in particular, resists the industry. Our music, folk music deals with every aspect of human existence, it always has. If you go into any group, you can’t define folk music without defining that group; a group of people that it represents, a specific group. That specific group, might be Swedish immigrants in Wisconsin, are gonna have their own furniture building style, their gonna have their own fence building style, their own roofing style, their own folk medicine they’ve inherited, their own proverbs and aphorisms and figures of speech, their own kind of music, their own kind of stories you see, as long as the integrity of that group is maintained and those things are transmitted orally from one generation to the next.
JL: So your definition of folk music might be that it is music characteristic of certain types of groups?
U: A group of people, yeah. And you can’t define the folk song separate from that context. And I’m not just talking in terms of an immigrant group. Let’s say a bunch of kids leave camp. And at camp they learned a song. Now if this group of kids had been together two weeks at a camp, up in the mountains, on the way home they take that song and some of the wiseacres use it to make up a parody about the bus driver’s bald head. And everybody sits there following, ya know. During the length of the trip, from the camp back to town, that’s that group’s folk song. OK. Its identity is anonymous, its authorship’s anonymous, it’s owned collectively, by everybody. Now if the kids get off the bus, they disburse. Where does the song go? Well, to the school yard. A kid may see that the janitor has a bald head and make up the jingle, you see, and start singing it in the school yard about the janitor. Well then, see, there’s evidence of world transmission, it changes, there are versions of it now, you see, another hallmark of a folk song, that it exists in variance.
JL: I see.
U: If a school teacher, who was, say, a camp counselor that summer heard that song on the bus, then heard the other one in the school yard, and decided to collect them and then write them down, then they become literary. You see, then they’re literary songs. So folk music, organized folk music has been enchanted by, attracted to, the core of it has been, to do the folk dancing, tunes that don’t belong to anybody in terms of folk music, songs that don’t belong to anybody, belong to everybody. That collective identity. It’s a definition that we’re rapidly losing. I don’t mean to be critical of the magazine to which we’re speaking, but if you look at it–and definititions do change–the magazine is devoted virtually entirely to music that is owned. It has somebody’s name on it.
JL: By some (specific) writer?
U: This is a Dylan’s song, this a Stan Roger’s song, and these are folk singers who own this music and if you want to record it you’re gonna get a license for it. And then you’re gonna sit on the stage and say now I’m gonna sing a Stan Roger’s song, now I’m gonna sing a Bob Dylan’s song.
JL: Have you written a song that another singer has recorded… and if they did, did they pay you?
U: Let me forge ahead to that point. I think there are people who make a living writing songs, and I think that’s fine. I don’t. I’m one of those who don’t. That’s purely subjective. That’s because I’m at war with the state, and that’s because of my experiences during the Korean War. And it supplies the state. It’s like capitalism itself. It’s one reason I despise the industry and won’t do anything for it. But that’s subjective. I’m not gonna try and talk anybody out of being a journeyman song writer and writing to the market, the way some painters paint to the market, you see. Go ahead and do it. At some point, the tradition is going to dry up, like a well, when everything is owned, you see.
JL: Interesting concept.
U: And when everything is translated technically and not cross generationally. When the children, the children’s market, when everything is driven by market forces. A young adults market, a young married’s market, ya know, a geriatric market. When everything is driven by market forces, then the themes are confined to commercially reliable themes, which the industry does. It confines what our music does to more and more commercially reliable themes. The love lost, ya know. Haven’t we beaten that one to death yet? It’s important, but it’s only a part of our lives, it’s only just a part of our lives. Folk music, in it’s anonymity, continues to deal with every aspect of human existence: religion, booze, war, peace, dogs. The music is even becoming more intensely personal, more intensely owned–a useful distinction, I think, during the Folk Music Revival, or Great Folk Music Scare we called it, when traditional music was strip mined like coal and sold back to us by commercial interest. We began to build the cult of the singer/song writer around Woody ideas and Leadbelly ideas. Great ideas. Those writers, Mark Spolstra, Bob Dylan, Tom Paxton, Len Chandler, all of them wrote songs that everybody sings; that people still sing, that still show up in songbooks, people know and sing. Most of the singer/song writers writing today, who own what they write are writing signature songs–writing songs, that they’re the only ones who sing them because they’re hard to sing. They’re beautifully crafted, beautifully sculpted, the language is great, the poetry is prodigious. But they’re not songs that are going to seed the tradition. So the tradition is going to dry up, of all of the elements as I described them, are going to dry up if we don’t build that tradition consciously. If we don’t consciously, at some point say, I’ve gotten what I need from this song as a creative artist. I’ve gotten what I need from this song in terms of being able to get myself a decent place to live, and to put my kids in college, maybe when the copyright comes up for renewal I’m gonna let it go into the public domain, see. Just to see what happens. But in order to do that, you got to take your name off of it. Say this is no longer mine, that this is ours. Now with mine, I’ve just started doing that. The songs like, Rock, Salt And Nails and Starlight On The Rails, and so on have just, if I get the paper from the publisher’s. You know if you try to lead a principled life, if you try to grope your way to ethical decision making you can’t tackle things that are easy–you know, that are simple. It’s like strangling your children, when you got to do something that’s really hard. So… I really feel at fault with myself and yeah I’d let those songs go.
JL: What does that mean, you’d let them go?
U: They go into the public domain ’cause they’re no longer mine.
JL: You just sign them away?
U: I’m just saying I don’t need the copyright.
JL: (But) people will recognize that you wrote them?
U: They may or may not. You see, anybody can come along and copyright them now. They can strip mine them right back. But that’s their bad karma, if they want to mess with it…you know.
JL: My wife just wrote a song called, Bless the World, which is a very nice song that kids could sing, anyone could sing. So, looking at it from that point of view, the way to get that song out there, so to speak, might be for her to do what you’re just saying.
U: Well, if she really wants to do that. If it’s not just a matter of, I want people to know this song, I want this song to be important in the lives of people, if they have a use for it, like a good tool, like a good hammer, a good saw that’s gonna help you get the job done, fine. If at the same time I want you to know who I am, my ego demands that you know who I am at the same time, I’ve got to make a living too, so I want you to have a license to record this song, to use it, ya know, if you need those things fine, go ahead and do it, ya know.
JL: I see.
U: I’m talking about at some point, after the song has provided you with those things then, at that point, ya know, after say the life of 21 years, under copyright, and the song has been recorded, has been used, at some point saying…
JL: Don’t renew it…
U: Goodbye…Yeah, just let it go. And that’s been a real challenge, a real challenging thing.
JL: For you?
U: Yeah. A real challenging thing.
JL: So, that is one of most important things for those of us who write songs to consider as far as assuring the future of folk music.
U: Oh yeah. If we’re talking about seeding the tradition. That’s the outward part of it. That’s yourself as an actor in the world. What kind of contribution can I make to reseeding the tradition, like after clear cutting the forest, and planting small trees so the forest will continue to grow. Another commitment you can make as an individual out there is to tell your children stories…or get the television set out of your house, which is a little more dire, so that you can talk to each other. Restoring the oral culture, an oral reflection, a world of listeners and speakers. Internally, one of the things you can began to deal with, in that way, is in the mystery of possession. I think that, it’s my instinctive feeling, that things like racism, sexism, and bossism…you have to look at all three together…are rooted in possession, in the possession of people and things. Now you can’t deal with sexism, and racism and bossism, unless we deal with our own discrete acts of possession. So with me, it’s an experiment, internally, an experiment in doing that so I can clear up… and begin to deal with those other forces in my life that are ugly and demeaning. You know, less than I want to be.
JL: Folk music magazines often point out how the music industry is broken into country-western, jazz, rock and roll, gospel, and rap categories, but folk music isn’t included. If folk music was one of those categories, and was popularized in that way, wouldn’t it go in a totally different direction? Would it be “folk music” if it was a commercial genre?
U: It was that way once. I’ve already talked about the notion that most of the songs being written can’t or are only sung by the people who write them and aren’t sung by a broad variety of people. I think there’s also, how would you put it…that the commercial folk music revival happened concurrently with the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War. It struck right back to the roots, you see, of the old left. The old left has a great deal, a very strong role to play through the Almanac Singers, through people’s songs, to the Weavers with the genesis of the commercial Folk Music Revival. And the Viet Nam War, the Peace Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the bus rides, the Mississippi Freedom Summer of ’64 where in, you could have, We Shall Overcome, in a top hootenanny TV show that was seen by millions of people. We don’t have movements of that power, and of that scope today. Consequently, the themes that the singer/song writers are addressing tend to be more personal and less universal.
JL: I see.
U: So there’s the major distinction. You can see it, of course. Just keep your ears open and listen. So again, another contribution the singer/song writers could make to seeding the tradition is to try, with their great skill to put some time into writing songs of more universal sentiment, of more universal things, you see and then give them to the people to use.
JL: Do you think that for folk music to gain the prominent place it once had in the market that there would have to be another war or depression?
U: No, folk music…no music justifies a Viet Nam War.
JL: I don’t mean that it justifies it. I’m saying does it take something like that to happen to cause people to be attracted to music that…
U: No. The proof is in the pudding. You go back and look at the Vance Randolf’s folk songs of the Ozarks, back to that group, that village, where people, when they were through working in the mines, through with working in the forests, through working in the fields, got together on the front porch, or the barn dance, and sang and shared music. It dealt with universal themes. It dealt with every aspect of human existence, OK. Everything going on in that group, there were songs to deal with it. So it doesn’t take anything dire. It takes will. It takes the desire to rise above a culture which says you have freedom of speech, you can say anything you want as long as you do it alone, which builds that hyper-individualism, that white cowboy hat, that individual who is served by public and private corporate entities… is connected to them by vertical connections at the expense of horizontal connections called kinship. If you want to span your ability to do those things, you got to rise above that individualism, reestablish that horizontal connectedness and rejoin the community. And we’ve got to stop talking about ourselves so much because everybody else is doing it, you know. And that’s what they want you to do. They want us to talk about me, me, me. And they say, OK, we’ll take care of you, you, you. And the minute you start talking, historically, the minute we start talking about us and what we’re gonna do they’ve called out the National Guard. OK.
JL: Most of those we would call folk singers and song writers seem to be in our age group (over 39). Fewer younger people seem to be interested in folk music. So, what would you recommend to encourage more young people, to follow this tradition?
U: Join a folk music society. Join or start singer circles. (The) Folk Music Alliance can show you how to do that and give you some real help in doing that. Share food and music with your friends in the back yard, front yard, living room, share music with your friends, songs you make up, songs you find, songs you ask your relatives and ask the people around you to sing. Make no mistake about it, though. Folk music in the sense that I’m talking about that is representative of a group, is being created. But it’s not being paid much attention to. You can’t tell me that 25 thousand Crips and Bloods, in Los Angeles aren’t creating culture, poetry, street theatre, drama, art, at some level. Aren’t creating it. But nobody can go in and listen to it, and find it.
JL: It’s dangerous…
U: The tip of that iceberg that finally emerges, ya know, is instantly commercialized. Instantly goes gold or platinum. But there’s an enormous amount there happening. The underclass, you know, especially people of color, are creating an enormous political, enormous music just dealing with the substance of their lives. Some in very violent ways. But that’s what the culture reflects. Let me give you a good example. We can finish this up by drawing a thread of continuity around communities. Emily Dickinson identified, what’s called organic meter in English. English is an inflected language. There is generally, at least one accented syllable in a word that tends to be the root. And that root can be traced back to cognates. All the way back to Indo European, proto-Indo Europeans, Sanskrit and all. Most of the European languages are Indo European. That accented syllable means that we have a regular meter. That meter tends to follow that organic rhythm, the beat of the heart or your pulse. Simonites, a great tragic poet, told his students, “remember the pulse, remember the heart”. That’s the first rhythm you hear when you’re born. The rhythm of your own heart, boom boom, boom boom. The trochaic foot going, going. The great Eddas(, in the literature of the Norse…for thousands of years powerful singers…(were) only written down in the year 1,000 by Snorri Sturluson. Before that they were sung. The old story measure from the Norse, it’s called Old Four Square. Stanza after stanza, about the great battle of Beowulf. Four lines, four stressed syllables per line, each line with a scheduled pause. When they were sung, that was to catch your breath. Four stresses per line, four lines. If you take common rap and scan it, you’re gonna have Old Four Square. Not because rhythmically the dominant element is black, but because it’s English. And that’s what English does when you let it alone. See. When you let it alone that’s exactly what it does.
JL: It just naturally comes out like that?
U: It comes out in that organic rhythm. Your kids do it. Trick or treat, wash my feet, give me something good to eat. If you don’t I don’t care, I’ll just eat my underwear. Old Four Square. Reflected through the whole musical literature of the Northern world, in old tunes that probably used to have words. Old Four Square. Irish Washer Woman. The reason why it does that is because the kids don’t go to school. Crips and Bloods don’t go to school. What they do is learn street English. Street English is grounded in the old Germanic. The old Saxon. It was the Norman Conquest that brought the Latin and French, after 1066, into England. And that gave us the polysyllables. That gave us a university to rich people, and to school. That gave to some people a mansion, some people a house. Some people a garage, some people a shed. That means that they urinate and we piss. They defecate, we shit. That’s a vagina, this is a cunt. The old language got badly stigmatized. Again, the language of the lower class, the language of the street. That’s the language that you hear. When you just listen to kids talking on the street, in the neighborhood, who don’t go to school. And if you leave that language alone, it behaves. It comes out an old ballad, old story measure. Just like the English ballads. So, the case is made, you know. It is there. And it is happening.
JL: So, it’s just a matter of being aware of it?
U: Being aware of it and also letting it alone. You know. And of course, once you do make it into a commodity, once it does becomes driven by market forces, it may retain the rhythmic structure but you’re going to ring out the meaning, you see, to make it commercially reliable. That’s why we have this whole subculture, this folk music family, so that we don’t ring the meaning out of our music. Which is, as much as to say, we don’t ring the meaning out of our lives.