Thursday, September 11, 2008
Utah Phillips (1935-2008)
Utah Phillips died earlier this year. I was checking his Wikipedia page and instead of the familiar "May 15, 1935 - [blank]" there was a "May 23, 2008" filled in. I listened to a lot of Utah earlier in my life, when I held more radical ideas about politics and society than I do now, but after hearing of his passing I fired up "Fellow Workers" (one of the discs he recorded with Ani Difranco) and it remains fresh. More than a radical, Utah represented continuity with forgotten pieces of American history. He was sort of like a human version of Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States, providing a documentary link to interpretations of history and events that have fallen out of favor. You can agree or disagree with Utah's politics, and at this point I substantially disagree, but his recordings are powerful like Steinbeck's In Dubious Battle is powerful. Utah told the stories of American radicalism, from the perspective of the radicals, and connected those stories to contemporary struggles. However, using the word "radical" seems like misplaced emphasis. I think the best word to describe his music would be "history" and more specifically "the threads of history that connect us to the past."