Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Utah Phillips -- Making Speech Free; Various Artists -- Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce “Utah” Phillips

Utah Phillips and Mike Regenstreif (2005)
Bruce “Utah” Phillips (1935-2008) and I were friends for a long time. I met him in 1971 when the Smithsonian Institution held a series of folk music concerts in Montreal at the American Pavilion at Man and His World, the remnant of Expo ’67, and they engaged Bruce to MC the series for a couple of weeks. I was a 17-year-old folk music enthusiast anxious to soak up whatever I could and he took a liking to me that blossomed into friendship and our working together often.

In 1972, when I started my first concert series at Dawson College in Montreal, I tracked Bruce down and invited him to perform a concert.

“I’ll do it on one condition,” he told me over the phone from San Francisco. “That Malvina Reynolds comes with me and it’s a double bill.”

That’s how I got to produce the only concert the great folk songwriter Malvina Reynolds ever did in Montreal.

I went on to produce many concerts with Bruce in various halls and at the Golem, the Montreal folk club I ran in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Some were solo concerts and some were double bills with Rosalie Sorrels.

I hung out with him a lot over the years in Montreal, of course, and at the Philo studio in Vermont where he had a caboose, in Saratoga Springs, and a bunch of other places. I once spent a week driving him and Rosalie around New England, New York State and finally up to Montreal when Bruce was running for president of the United States on the Sloth and Indolence ticket.

And I got an education-and-a-half walking around skid rows with Bruce in Montreal, Boston and Vancouver as he picked up stories from the folks there.

In the ‘90s, Bruce developed congenital heart failure and wasn’t able to travel much anymore. Chances to spend time with him became rare occasions. Our last time together was in 2005 when he performed and I MCed at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in Vermont. We recorded a great radio interview and his participation was a highlight of the annual songwriters’ workshop I ran at the festival for many years.

These two albums, a live set of Bruce recorded in 1999, when his performances had become relatively rare due to his congenital heart failure, and a tribute album, organized by his son Duncan, by folk music artists from Utah, have triggered a lot of fine memories of time spent in Bruce’s company and watching and listening to him perform.

Making Speech Free
PM Press/Free Dirt Records

Making Speech Free documents a 74-minute live concert set that Bruce gave as part of a free speech teach-in in San Francisco in 1999. Although much of the set seems tailored to the theme of the teach-in, the songs and spoken word pieces were quite typical of the sets he was doing in the later years of his career. I suppose any Utah Phillips set could be seen as a free speech teach-in.

A good half of the performance was devoted to Bruce’s spoken stories about the labour movement, in particular to the I.W.W. – the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies – and labour heroes like Joe Hill and Mother Jones, and about the brand of anarchy that Bruce picked up decades ago from Ammon Hennacy: “An anarchist is anyone who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.”

As with any performance Bruce ever did there are moments of great hilarity that may mask the fact that they are also carefully-planned history lessons. The songs, mostly, are labour songs, or songs of social conscience, gathered from Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie, Maurice Sugar and James Oppenheim.

Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce “Utah” Phillips
Waterbug Records

This tribute featuring various folksingers based in or around the state of Utah was organized by Duncan Phillips, Bruce’s oldest son. I remember hearing Bruce talk about Duncan when he introduced the song, “Daddy, What a Train?” a song written for him. It was 40 years ago when I first heard those intros to that song.

With three exceptions – Kate MacLeod, who also produced the CD, Anke Summerhill and Hal Cannon, who told me in an e-mail exchange some time ago that he took guitar lessons from Bruce and Rosalie – I wasn’t previously familiar with most of the Utah-based artists who contributed to the album. But I sure know the songs. Most of them date back to Bruce’s early years and include such gems as “Eddy’s Song,” sung by Paul Rasmussen, a tribute to Eddy Balchowski, a concert pianist who lost an arm as a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War; “The Telling Takes Me Home,” a lament for the dying west, sung by Dave Eskelsen; and “Jesse’s Corrido,” a powerful song written in protest of a death sentence handed to a Hispanic young man in Utah for a prison murder, sung by Gentri Watson.

Among my favourite tracks is certainly Kate MacLeod’s version of “Nevada Jane,” a song Bruce wrote about the deep love Wobbly organizer Big Bill Haywood had for his wife. Bruce based the tune for “Nevada Jane” on the version of Stephen Foster’s “Gentle Annie” that Kate McGarrigle used to sing. I hear something of Kate McGarrigle’s singing in the way Kate MacLeod sings the song.

Another favourite is Duncan Phillips’ own song, “Long Gone,” a tribute to his father that doesn’t shy away from the long years that father and son spent searching for a way to find each other.

All in all, Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips is a worthy tribute from a folk music community inspired by one of its greatest. By the way, these songs were recorded using the big old Guild guitar that Bruce played on stage for almost his entire career. He's holding that guitar in the picture of the two of us at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival in 2005.

Here is a link to my review of Singing Through the Hard Times, an earlier tribute to Bruce “Utah” Phillips.

--Mike Regenstreif

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