Posts tagged Ani DiFranco

Hello Wichita

Ani DiFranco wrote this song in 1999 for Dr. Barnett Slepian of Buffalo, New York, and for Robert Sanderson and the women of the New Woman All Women Health Care Center in Birmingham, Alabama. I can’t get through the song without crying. Even on a normal day.

hold me down
i am floating away
into the overcast skies
over my hometown
on election day

what is it about birmingham?
what is it about buffalo?
that the hate-filled wanna build bunkers
in your beautiful red earth
they wanna build them
in our shiny white snow

now i’ve drawn closed the curtain
in this little booth where the truth has no place
to stand and i am feeling oh so powerless
in this stupid booth with this useless
little lever in my hand
and outside, my city is bracing
for the next killing thing
standing by the bridge and praying
for the next doctor
martin
luther
king

it was just one shot
through the kitchen window
it was just one or two miles from here
if you fly like a crow
a bullet came to visit a doctor
in his one safe place
a bullet insuring the right to life
whizzed past his kid and his wife
and knocked his glasses
right off of his face

and the blood poured off the pulpit
the blood poured down the picket line
yeah, the hatred was immediate
and the vengeance was divine
so they went and stuffed god
down the barrel of a gun
and after him
they stuffed his only son

hello birmingham
it’s buffalo
i heard you had some trouble
down there again
and i’m just calling to let to know
that somebody understands

i was once escorted
through the doors of a clinic
by a man in a bullet proof vest
and no bombs went off that day
so i am still here to say
birmingham
i’m wishing you all of my best
oh birmingham
i’m wishing you all of my best
birmingham
i’m wishing you all of my best
on this election day

— Ani DiFranco, Hello Birmingham (1999), To The Teeth

See also:

Shameless Self-promotion Sunday #36

It’s Sunday. You know what that means.

i cannot name this
i cannot explain this
and i really don’t want to
just call me shameless
i can’t even slow this down
let alone stop this
and i keep looking around
but i cannot top this

What have you been up to this week that you just can’t top? Write anything? Leave a link and a short description for your post in the comments. Or fire away about anything else you might want to talk about.

Last train headed West: R.I.P. Utah Phillips

Sad news today. From UtahPhillips.org:

May 24, 2008

Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73

Nevada City, California:

Utah Phillips, a seminal figure in American folk music who performed extensively and tirelessly for audiences on two continents for 38 years, died Friday of congestive heart failure in Nevada City, California a small town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where he lived for the last 21 years with his wife, Joanna Robinson, a freelance editor.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, he was the son of labor organizers. Whether through this early influence or an early life that was not always tranquil or easy, by his twenties Phillips demonstrated a lifelong concern with the living conditions of working people. He was a proud member of the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as the Wobblies, an organizational artifact of early twentieth-century labor struggles that has seen renewed interest and growth in membership in the last decade, not in small part due to his efforts to popularize it.

Phillips served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.

Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his elders with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.

He made me understand that music must be more than cotton candy for the ears, said John McCutcheon, a nationally-known folksinger and close friend.

In the creation of his performing persona and work, Phillips drew from influences as diverse as Borscht Belt comedian Myron Cohen, folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and Country stars Hank Williams and T. Texas Tyler.

A stint as an archivist for the State of Utah in the 1960s taught Phillips the discipline of historical research; beneath the simplest and most folksy of his songs was a rigorous attention to detail and a strong and carefully-crafted narrative structure. He was a voracious reader in a surprising variety of fields.

Meanwhile, Phillips was working at Hennacy’s Joe Hill house. In 1968 he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. The race was won by a Republican candidate, and Phillips was seen by some Democrats as having split the vote. He subsequently lost his job with the State of Utah, a process he described as blacklisting.

Phillips left Utah for Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was welcomed into a lively community of folk performers centered at the Caffé Lena, operated by Lena Spencer.

It was the coffeehouse, the place to perform. Everybody went there. She fed everybody, said John Che Greenwood, a fellow performer and friend.

Over the span of the nearly four decades that followed, Phillips worked in what he referred to as the Trade, developing an audience of hundreds of thousands and performing in large and small cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. His performing partners included Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, John McCutcheon and Ani DiFranco.

He was like an alchemist, said Sorrels, He took the stories of working people and railroad bums and he built them into work that was influenced by writers like Thomas Wolfe, but then he gave it back, he put it in language so the people whom the songs and stories were about still had them, still owned them. He didn’t believe in stealing culture from the people it was about.

A single from Phillips’s first record, Moose Turd Pie, a rollicking story about working on a railroad track gang, saw extensive airplay in 1973. From then on, Phillips had work on the road. His extensive writing and recording career included two albums with Ani DiFranco which earned a Grammy nomination. Phillips’s songs were performed and recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and others. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997.

Phillips, something of a perfectionist, claimed that he never lost his stage fright before performances. He didn’t want to lose it, he said; it kept him improving.

Phillips began suffering from the effects of chronic heart disease in 2004, and as his illness kept him off the road at times, he started a nationally syndicated folk-music radio show, Loafer’s Glory, produced at KVMR-FM and started a homeless shelter in his rural home county, where down-on-their-luck men and women were sleeping under the manzanita brush at the edge of town. Hospitality House opened in 2005 and continues to house 25 to 30 guests a night. In this way, Phillips returned to the work of his mentor Hennacy in the last four years of his life.

Phillips died at home, in bed, in his sleep, next to his wife. He is survived by his son Duncan and daughter-in-law Bobette of Salt Lake City, son Brendan of Olympia, Washington; daughter Morrigan Belle of Washington, D.C.; stepson Nicholas Tomb of Monterrey, California; stepson and daughter-in-law Ian Durfee and Mary Creasey of Davis, California; brothers David Phillips of Fairfield, California, Ed Phillips of Cleveland, Ohio and Stuart Cohen of Los Angeles; sister Deborah Cohen of Lisbon, Portugal; and a grandchild, Brendan. He was preceded in death by his father Edwin Phillips and mother Kathleen, and his stepfather, Syd Cohen.

The family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144
http://www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org

Jordan Fisher Smith and Molly Fisk

Utah Phillips is the reason I became a Wobbly. He’s also a big part of the reason that I got as interested as I got in the anarchists and the labor radicals of the early 20th century. It’s a much poorer world now that we no longer have his voice among us; the only consolation, if there is any, is how much richer it is from having had it all these years.

The old songs, these old stories… why tell them? What do they mean?

When I went to high school—that’s about as far as I got—reading my U.S. history textbook, well I got the history of the ruling class; I got the history of the generals and the industrialists and the Presidents who didn’t get caught. How about you?

I got the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history of the people who created it… you know? So when I went out to get my first job, I went out armed with someone else’s class background. They never gave me any tools to understand, or to begin to control the condition of my labor.

And that was deliberate, wasn’t it? Huh? They didn’t want me to know this. That’s why this stuff isn’t taught in the history books. We’re not supposed to know it, to understand that. No. If I wanted the true history of where I came from, as a member of the working class, I had to go to my elders. Many of them, their best working years before pensions or Social Security, gave their whole lives to the mines, to the wheat harvests, to the logging camps, to the railroad. Got nothing for it—just fetched up on the skids, living on short money, mostly drunk all the time. But they lived those extraordinary lives that can never be lived again. And in the living of them, they gave me a history that is more profound, more beautiful, more powerful, more passionate, and ultimately more useful, than the best damn history book I ever read.

As I have said so often before, the long memory is the most radical idea in America….

— Utah Phillips, The Long Memory, on Fellow Workers (recorded with Ani DiFranco)

Mark Twain said, Those of you who are inclined to worry have the widest selection in history. Why complain? Try to do something about it…. You know, it’s going on nine months now since I decided that I was going to declare that I am a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Oh yes: I’m going to run. … So I created my own party. It’s called the Sloth and Indolence Party, and I am running as an anarchist candidate, in the best sense of that word. I have studied the presidency carefully; I have seen that our best presidents were the do-nothing presidents: Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding…. When you have a president who does things, we are all in serious trouble. If he does anything at all—if he gets up at night to go to the bathroom—somehow, mystically, trouble will ensue. I guarantee that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out, shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing. Which is to say, if you want something done, don’t come to do it for you; you’ve got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves. Is that a deal?

— Utah Phillips (1996), Candidacy, on The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (recorded with Ani DiFranco).

I spend a lot of time these days going to demonstrations and vigils, talking to people who support the war. They can be pretty threatening. But I always find there are people there–and I don’t mean policemen, but there are people there who will protect you. I don’t go there to shout or to lecture, but to ask questions. Real questions. Questions I really need answers to.

When I joined the Army, it was kind of like somebody that I had been brought up to respect, wearing a suit and a tie, and maybe a little older, in my neighborhood. Think about yourself in your neighborhood, and this happened to you. He walked up to me, put his arm around my shoulder, and said, See that fellow on the corner there? He’s really evil, and has got to be killed. Now, you trust me; you’ll go do it for me, won’t you? Now, the reasons are a little complicated; I won’t bother to explain, but you go and do it for me, will you?

Well, if somebody did that to you in your neighborhood, you’d think it was foolish. You wouldn’t do it. Well, what makes it more reasonable to do it on the other side of the world? That’s one question.

Well, now hook it into this. If I was to go down into the middle of your town, and bomb a house, and then shoot the people coming out in flames, the newspapers would say, Homicidal Maniac! The cops would come and they’d drag me away; they’d say You’re responsible for that! The judge’d say, You’re responsible for that; the jury’d say You’re responsible for that! and they would give me the hot squat or put me away for years and years and years, you see? But now exactly the same behavior, sanctioned by the State, could get me a medal and elected to Congress. Exactly the same behavior. I want the people I’m talking to to reconcile that contradiction for themselves, and for me.

The third question–well I take that one a lot to peace people. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity going on around here, with the peace people who say, Well, we’ve got to support the troops, and then wear the yellow ribbon, and wrap themselves in the flag. They say, Well, we don’t want what happened to the Vietnam vets to happen to these vets when they come home–people getting spit on. Well, I think it’s terrible to spit on anybody. I think that’s a consummate act of violence. And it’s a terrible mistake, and I’m really sorry that happened. But what did happen? Song My happened; My Lai happened; the defoliation of a country happened; tons of pesticides happened; 30,000 MIAs in Vietnam happened. And it unhinged some people–made them real mad. And what really, really made them mad, was the denial of personal responsibility–saying, I was made to do it; I was told to do it; I was doing my duty; I was serving my country. Well, we’ve already talked about that.

Now, it is morally ambiguous to wrap yourself in the flag and to wear those ribbons. And it borders on moral cowardice. I don’t mean to sound stern; well, yes I do, but what does the Nuremberg declaration say? There’s no superior order that can cancel your conscience. Nations will be judged by the standard of the individual. Look, the President makes choices. The Congress makes choices. The Chief of Staff makes choices. The officers make choices. All those choices percolate down to the individual trooper with his finger on the trigger. The individual private with his thumb on the button that drops the bomb. If that trigger doesn’t get pulled, if that button doesn’t get pushed, all those other choices vanish as if they never were. They’re meaningless. So what is the critical choice? What is the one we’ve got to think about and get to? And, friends, if that trigger gets pulled–if that button gets pushed, and that dropped bomb falls–and you say I support the troops, you’re an accomplice. I don’t want to be an accomplice; do you?

And I don’t want to dehumanize anyone. I don’t want to take away anybody’s humanity. Humans are able to make moral decisions–moral, ethical decisions. What do we tell the trooper who pulls the trigger, or the soldier who turns the wheel that releases oil into the Persian Gulf, that they’re not responsible–just following orders, just doing their duty, have no choice–bypassing them, making them a part of the machine, we deny them their humanity, their responsibility for their actions and the consequences of those actions. Look, I’ve been a soldier. I don’t want any moral loophole. I need to take personal responsibility for my actions. And if we don’t learn how to do this, we’re going to keep on going to war again, and again, and again.

— Utah Phillips (1992): from The Violence Within, I’ve Got To Know

There I am in Spookaloo, city of magic, city of light, ensconced upon my front porch in broad daylight — long about noon, my rising time — drinking something of a potable beverage, playing my guitar, long after everybody else in the neighborhood has packed up their lunchbox and gone off down to Kaiser Aluminum to put in their shift. This enrages my neighbors. One in particular across the road, little retired banker fella, has been known to cannonball his rotundity across the road, and stand there and publicly berate me for my sloth and indolence.

Why don’t you get a job? he says. Lot of you heard that, I’ll bet.

Now, me being hip to the Socratic method, fires back a question. Why?

Why? he says, taken aback. If you had a job you could make three, four, five dollars an hour.

I said Why? I asked, pursuing the same tack.

He said, Hell, you make three, four, five dollars an hour, you could open a savings account, save up some of that money. I said, Why?

He said, Well, you save up enough of that money, young fella, pretty soon you’ll never have to work another day in your life.

I said, Hell, that’s what I’m doing right now!

—Utah Phillips (1984), in the middle of his performance of Hallelujah, I’m a Bum! on We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years

Mutual aid for Utah Phillips: a benefit show in Minneapolis, December 15 at 6:00 PM

Sad news to report today. Utah Phillips — folk singer, anarchist, pacifist, and Wobbly story-teller — has been forced to retire from touring by a severe heart condition. The Wobblies in Minneapolis-St. Paul are organizing a benefit concert to help him live a decent life and defray his overwhelming medical bills. Here’s a press release with the details. Spread the word, especially to anyone you know in the Twin Cities.

The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest has a bum ticker:

U. Utah Phillips, a former NPR host who was blacklisted in the state of Utah after an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom party ticket can be described as a raconteur extraordinaire, a radical historian well-versed in the sorrowful details of the bloodiest social justice struggles of the last century, a hobo, and one hell of a musician whose songs can break your heart and bring your blood to a boil.

Sadly, Utah Phillips has recently been forced to quit performing because of Cheyne-Stokes - a respiratory condition that causes severe disturbances in breathing and debilitating heart irregularities, leaving him with no means of support.

So on Saturday, December 15th, come join friends, admirers, and kindred misfits at the Eagle’s Club (2507 E. 25th St) at 6 PM for a benefit concert featuring:

  • Duluth’s own favorite son, Charlie Parr (6 PM sharp)
  • alt-country rocker Bernie King
  • the sad folkie from North East, Gabe Barnett
  • fiddle player Mary Dushane
  • the mustachioed man who can tell you a story whilst entangling you in a lasso, Pop Wagner (& friends)
  • the Joan Baez of the Twin Cities, Maureen McElderry
  • a couple who actually hung out with Bob Dylan and aren’t just making it up to sound cool, Judy Larson & Bill Hinckley
  • classically-trained guitarist gone folkster, Phil Heywood
  • the pit bull of folk, Paul Metsa
  • who’s-your-daddy-Papa John Kolstad
  • the mysterious bearded man who plays so well that it requires a different Hawaiian shirt each time, Dakota Dave Hull
  • and Peter Lang whose talent needs no corny bi-line in a press release.

So come on down to the Eagle’s and give a little back to a man whose part in the struggle for justice and whose gifts as a story teller and musician have kept the oral and musical traditions of resistance alive and kickin’!

This event is sponsored by the Twin Cities General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Utah Phillips can be contacted through No Guff Records. He has a podcast available through his website. CDs of his songs and stories can be ordered through CD Baby or directly through No Guff Records. (Either way you order, most of the money will go directly to Utah.) If you’re not already familiar with Utah Phillips’s music and stories, I especially recommend We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years and his two collaborations with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere and Fellow Workers.