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Archive for the ‘Utah Phillips’ Category

Years ago, on a sun-drenched afternoon at the Vancouver Folk Festival, folk singer Utah Phillips was talking about his life. Having just returned from the Korean War, he was working in Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, and had decided he was a pacifist and an anarchist. Then his mentor told him, “Renouncing violence isn’t enough. You have to give up all the privileges that your life has left you with.”

I’m sure the tale grew in the telling – after all, who in the 1950s talked about privilege? But Utah was a storyteller, and probably would have admitted as much if cornered. But, despite such doubts, the comment stuck in my mind, and became the foundation of my thinking of what it means to be a male feminist. You can’t just announce that you believe in feminist principles or send a donation; you have to try living by your beliefs as well.

What do I mean by that? In some ways, I can more easily explain what I don’t mean. I don’t just mean ruefully admitting the truth of The Male Privilege Checklist. Nor do I mean a Gandhi-like renunciation of your normal life. Still less does it mean somehow a feminization of your thoughts and your actions (whatever that means), neutering yourself, or wallowing in guilt.

Instead, what I am talking about is a final act of maturation. Broadly-speaking, growing up is a gradually increasing awareness of other people and your responsibilities towards them – a journey away from egocentricity. You learn, for instance, to take turns, and not to interrupt others when they are speaking. You learn (or should) that little bits of politeness help people to get along.

Trying to move away from your male privilege might be called the last step in this process. A male feminist needs to rethink his way of interacting with people – especially women. He needs to learn not to be the first to speak when someone asks for suggestions, knowing that social conditioning makes many women slower to express opinions. He needs to learn to listen to women, and not to take charge automatically. He needs to realize that he is not automatically the center of attention, that he won’t always dictate the topic of conversation, or that women will view his concerns as paramount over their own. In general, he needs to learn a sense of restraint, and to extinguish the egocentricity that male gender roles encourage in him.

In particular, the male feminist needs this responsible attitude in matters of sex and gender. He needs to stop assuming, as catcallers on the street do, that, because he is interested in a woman, she will be automatically be interested in him, and that he has a right to impose his attention on her. He needs to learn that, while nothing is wrong with appreciating that a woman is attractive, something is very wrong with expressing that appreciation in any way that makes her uncomfortable. He needs to accept “No” as an answer, and to pay attention to the subtler signals of human sexuality that indicate whether attraction is mutual and might progress. If he misinterprets, he can never retreat into claiming that “I can’t help myself” or “Men are just following their biological imperative,” because he has chosen  to be personally responsible for his behavior.

This rethinking has to be extended to every aspect of his life – even small ones like how he occupies social space. What’s more, he needs to keep his choice constantly in mind, because most of his upbringing and experience tells him to do exactly the opposite of these things. Often, he will fail to meet his own standards, or over-compensate to the point that he looks or feels ridiculous.

Other times, both men and women will give him privileges he hasn’t asked for, listening to him while ignoring a woman, or hiring him in preference to a woman. He may never be sure that is what is happening, but the possibility will haunt him. Sometimes, he may be able to turn his male privilege to an advantage, such as advising that a woman be hired, but that will be qualified satisfaction at best. Most of the time, he won’t be able to do even that.

No question, renouncing your privileges as a man isn’t easy. Nor is it completely possible in our current culture. But it’s one of those things that’s worth trying despite its impossibility. After all, the alternative is to wallow in self-centeredness. And who wants to remain a child all his life?

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For the past two years, I’ve been digitalizing my music collection. Considering I still have music I bought in high school, it’s a staggering assortment of LPs, EPs, cassettes, and CDs, and I have at least another year before I finish. Probably the only reason I haven’t abandoned the project is the certain knowledge that, if I do, in the near future I’ll be unable to play some irreplaceable music. But the project has led me to rediscover music that I haven’t listened to in years, and taught me something about my musical tastes.

In particular, among the 7200 tracks I’ve digitalized so far, there are some artists to whom I listen far more than others. Putting aside classical favorites for another blog, most of the ones I keep returning to fall into the category of folk rock. Most, too, either have intelligent lyrics, a strong beat, a sense of showmanship (in the sense of how to build excitement in a show or on an album), or all three. Many are English or Scottish.

My fifteen favorite are:

Battlefield Band

One of the two classic Scottish folk groups (the other is Silly Wizard), Battlefield Band has released dozens of albums, and a constantly changing lineup over several decades. Its music always includes a large number of instrumentals, and original lyrics about contemporary or historical Scotland. My favorite album from the group is Celtic Hotel, whose memorable cuts include “The Roving Dies Hard,”a look at the restlessness of Scots over the centuries and “Seacoalers,” a hard, unsentimental look at the bottom of the mining industry.

The Mollys

A Tex-Mex band whose heyday was the Nineties, The Mollys were the front for song-writer Nancy McCallion, whose persona might be described as a milder, female version of Shane McGowan. They did comical updates of standards like “Mershkin Dirkin” and “All Around My Hat,” but also strikingly original songs like “Don’t Wanna Go to Bed,” “Cash for Gold,” and “Yer Drunk Again / Polka Diablo.” And who else would dare to entitle a live album “Wankin’ Out West”?

Richard Thompson

Whether with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, Fairport Convention, or solo, Richard Thompson seems unstoppable, putting out album after album of memorable lyrics backed by equally memorable guitar work. I can’t begin to list the number of classic songs he wrote, but they include, “Down Where the Drunkards Roll,” “I Wanna See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Pharaoh,” “When I Get to the Border,” and others far too numerous to list. Amnesia is his most memorable album.

The Corries

The Corries were Roy Williamson and Ronnie Browne. Starting in the mid-1960s, The Corries showed a new generation that folk music didn’t have to be stiff and boring. For many people, especially in The Society for Creative Anachronism, they were the first introduction to Scottish standards like “Johnny Cope” and “PrestonPans.” In-between such set pieces, they were also known to write parodies of Top 40 favorites. Ronnie Browne also wrote “Flower of Scotland,” which many people believe should be Scotland’s national anthem.

Maddy Prior

Best-known for her work with Steeleye Span, Prior is one of England’s leading folk singers, writing and performing modern songs and even reviving ballads and hymns from the eighteen century, as well as medieval religious ballads. Her original compositions include “The Sovereign Prince,” which compares Elizabeth I to jet-setting modern young women, “Commit the Crime,” “After the Death” and countless others. The Momento retrospective is probably the best sampling of her range, although her Silly Sisters albums with June Tabor are also worth tracking down.

Michelle Shocked

Michelle Shocked was introduced as a naif singer with The Texas Campfire Tapes. Then, shortly after her third album, she disappeared in a decade-long struggle to gain control of her own recordings. Recently, however, she has re-emerged, in control of her own music, releasing it the way she always wanted it to be heard, and proving herself as versatile, sly, and politically engaged as ever. Her best-known song is “Anchorage,” which was a minor hit, but almost anything she does is worth listening to. In one of her more recent songs, “I Think We Should See Other People,” she likens her relationship to the United States to that of a woman with an abusive husband. Short Sharp Shocked, Captain Swing, and her most recent album, Soul of My Soul, are among her most memorable albums.

Garnet Rogers

The younger brother of the better-known Stan Rogers (see below), in the years since his brother’s death, Garnet Rogers has carved out his own niche as a singer-songwriter. Although self-described as a Hulk Hogan lookalike, Rogers is known for intelligent, often heart-wrenching songs like “The Beauty Game,” “Small Victory,” “Frankie and Johnny,”and “Sleeping Buffalo,” many of which are chunks of life reminiscent of his brother’s best work without being in any way derivative. Unfortunately, none of his albums capture his on-stage banter, but Summer Lightning and Night Drive are good places to start.

Steeleye Span

Someone once compared Steeleye Span to a bus that people are constantly getting on and off. But whichever of its half dozen incarnations you happen across, it’s worth hearing – especially if Maddy Prior happens to be with them. Years ago, Steeleye Span showed that traditional songs were compatible with modern pop with songs like “Thomas the Rhymer,” and, if recent versions of the band are less well-known, they are equally worth listening to. You can start anywhere, but Live at Last and Storm Force Ten are typical of the group’s early days, while The Journey is a capsule history.

June Tabor

Nobody can compress a sense of suppressed melancholy and anger into a song like June Tabor. Now she is in her sixties, she has lost some of the range you can hear on the early Airs and Graces, but her ability to put across a song is stronger than ever on Ragged Kingdom, her newly-released collaboration with Oysterband. Listening to her, you get a sense of someone who has suffered emotionally and emerged stronger from the ordeal, leaving an undefinable sense of sadness and anger. Tabor doesn’t write her own material, but shows her exquisite taste in such pieces as “The King of Rome,” a song about a racing pigeon; “Aqaba,” which concerns the last moments of Lawrence of Arabia, and “Hard Love,” a love song about not expressing what you are feeling. Tabor isn’t always easy to listen to, but she’s always unforgettable. “Aqaba” and “Angel Tiger” are two of her strongest albums.

Ray Wylie Hubbard

Ray Wylie Hubbard is best-known as a Country and Western outlaw, due mainly to his early song, “Up Against the Wall, You Redneck Mothers.” The fact is, he is considerably more complex, mixing rock, the blues, and country into something strikingly unique. Who else would do a song like “Stolen Horses” about reincarnation and horse-stealing? Or a Southern Gothic like “This River Runs Red”? His other songs include slices of life like “Dallas After Midnight” and “Mississippi Flush.” Some of his most complex work was produced by Gurf Morlix, including the albums Growl and Eternal and Lowdown.

The Pogues

This is as close I get to popular music. The Pogues are Irish folk gone punk, with dozens of original songs, ranging from the upbeat “The Sick Bed of Cuchulain” to the surprisingly sentimental “A Rainy Night in Soho.” Much of their magic was due to the song-writing genius of Shane McGowan, but, sadly, his lapse into incoherence on stage also spelled the end of the group as a creative force; these days, they tour, but reocrd nothing new. Red Roses for Me, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash, and If I Should Fall from Grace with God are among their standout albums.

Stan Rogers

Frequently considered the greatest of Canadian folk singers, Stan Rogers became an instant legend when he died prematurely in a plane crash, apparently while trying to help other passengers. His songs are slices of Canadian life, explored region by region, boomed out in his strong baritone and – thanks largely to his brother Garnet – wonderfully arranged. His “Northwest Passage” is almost an unofficial Canadian anthem, while his “Barrett’s Privateers” is believed by many to be traditional. “Live in Halifax” gives a sense of what his concerts were like, while some of his best work can be found on From Fresh Water, Northwest Passage, and Fogarty’s Cove.

Utah Phillips

If you are interested in labor history as expressed through songs, you don’t need to look any further than Utah Phillips. Without him, songs like “We Have Fed You All For A Thousand Years” and “Where the Fraser River Flows” would be all but lost. His own songs, like “All Used Up,” “Eddy’s Song,” and “Enola Gay” are equally powerful. A strong voice in telling the forgotten labor history of North America, Phillips was also an unparalleled story-teller, as collections like The Moscow Hold and The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, his collaboration with Ani DiFranco, clearly show. The four CD collection, Starlight on the Rails is the perfect place to become acquainted with his work.

Leon Rosselson

Imagine Flanders and Swan with leftist political beliefs, and you have a dim idea of what Leon Rosselson is like. With anti-monarchist songs like “On Her Silver Jublilee” and the anti-Christian “Standup for Judas,” Rosselson constantly expressed views that were far from mainstream, attacking hypocrisy with comic exaggeration and a strong sense of the ridiculous. Songs of his like “That’s Not the Way It’s Got to Be” and “The World Turned Upside Down” have become activist anthems (in fact, you can hear them being sung by the Occupy supporters). Much of his best work was done with Roy Bailey, and can be found on his just-released retrospective, The World Turned Upside Down.

OysterBand

Originally a dance band, Oysterband are known today for their consummate live performances and strong song-writing abilities. Their sensibility is definitely left wing, but their music comes first. Having recently celebrated their thirtieth anniversary together, Oysterband has over thirty albums to their credit, ranging from the hard rock sound of The Shouting Edge of Life to the acoustic sound of Deep Dark Ocean. Their collaborations with June Tabor, Freedom and Rain and Ragged Kingdom, are memorable as collaborations that are more than the sum of their extraordinary parts.

If I expanded this group to thirty, I could include many other artists to whom I frequently listen – to name a few, Attila the Stockbroker, The Men They Couldn’t Hang, Pete Morton, Kirsty MacColl, Lorenna McKennitt, Sileas, and Tommy Sands.

But the fifteen I mention here are the ones I return to most often. Over the years, they have relaxed and sustained me, relaxed and entertained and moved me. Without them I wouldn’t be who I was, and, looking at them, you can get a sense of exactly who I am, should you happen to care.

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Railroading on the Great Divide,
Nothing around me but the Rockies and sky,
It’s there you’ll find me as years go by,
Railroading on the Great Divide.

– Traditional

Reading The Globe and Mail a couple of days ago, I learned that folk-singer Bruce “Utah” Phillips had died on May 23. He had been ill since last summer, so the news wasn’t exactly a surprise. And with his unkempt gray beard, he had always looked a decade or two older than he was, so I had been expecting to hear of his death for some years. But I suppose that one of the consequences of growing older is that you have to watch your heroes die off one by one. And Utah Phillips was certainly once of mine.

As we come marching, marching, marching, unnumbered women dead
Go crying through our singing their ancient cry for bread.
Small art and love and beauty their drudging spirits knew.
Yes, it’s bread we fight for — but we fight for roses, too.

I first heard Utah at one of the early Vancouver Folk Festivals. In fact, except for a concert or two, most of the places I heard him play or talked to him (casually, and so little I would have been surprised to hear that he remembered me) were at one Vancouver Folk Festival or another. He was never the greatest guitar play – no one came to hear him on the guitar, Kate Wolf is supposed to have said when she coaxed him out of retirement when his fingers were stiff – and his voice was never more than adequate. But he was one of those people who know how to put a song across. There was a sincerity and passion in his voice that was infectious. Just hearing it could inspire you.

We have fed you all for a thousand years,
And we hail you still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth,
But marks the workers’ dead.

Another part of his appeal was his material. Few people today know or perform the old Wobbly songs – the material used by the Industrial Workers of the World in their agitation. But, to the extent that anybody does know or perform them, they do so because of Utah Phillips. Often reworkings of popular hymns (“so they made more sense,” as Utah liked to put it), and inevitably attributed (often dubiously) to Joe Hill, they were a glimpse of the past outside the one provided by official history, and often wickedly humorous. “The Popular Wobbly,” “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years” — there was a time when those were the songs I played several times a week, whose words I memorized and whose tunes I went around humming.

I spent my whole life making somebody rich,
I busted my back for that son of a bitch,
And he left me to die like a dog in a ditch,
And he told me I’m all used up.

Occasionally, these forgotten songs would be joined by Utah’s own compositions, such “Enola Gay” “All Used Up” and “The Goodnight Loving Trail.” No doubt influenced by the material he was keeping alive, they were examples for me as a young man of the attitudes I needed to survive and think well of myself. For better or worse, I am who I am today in some part because of Utah Phillips’ songs.

What will I say when my children ask me,
Where was I flying up on that day?
With trembling voice I gave the order
To the bombardier of Enola Gay.

Then there were the stories that he came to tell with increasing frequency as he grew older. Some were tall tales with a hilarious, sometimes political point to them, but the best were stories about his life on the road. Early on, I inferred that Utah was not a natural anarchist or pacificist, but that he had done his best to reshape himself into something like the man he wanted to be. Not being naturally those things myself, I was fascinated to hear the bits and pieces of his life story that he had worked into stage material.

I have lead a good life, careful and artistic,
I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic.

I remember, too, the outrage at one folk festival, when Utah’s children concert involved stories about how to get meals for free at a restaurant. Somehow, I’m sure that he delighted in shocking the trendy leftist parents as much as he enjoyed talking to the kids.

Hallejuah, I’m a bum, hallejuah, bum again
Hallejuah give us a handout to revive us again.

For about a decade now, whenever we tired of the second and third rate poets and dub artists that the Vancouver Folk Festival seems determined to inflict on us in the name of attracting a younger audience, we could always count on one of Utah’s sessions to provide both solid entertainment and inspiration.

Are you poor, forlorn and hungry,
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.

That’s gone now, but that’s not why we’re not going to the festival this year. The reason we’re not going (or one of them) is that we can’t stand the thought of the mythologization of Utah that will undoubtedly be going on. In the process of remembering him, the festival officials are likely to try to turn him into a kindly old eccentric, and, while I can’t say I knew him well (or even at all, really), I know that he was more than that. He was an original, and someone who tried to live what he believed, and he deserves to be remembered with all his human imperfection. I’d like to remember him as he was, so I’ll leave others to the creation of comforting lies about him and remember him by putting on one of his old LPs instead.

I dreamed I saw Joe Hill last night
Alive as you and me,
Says I, “But Joe, you’re ten years dead,”
“I never died,” says he.

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“I have led a good life, careful and artistic,

I will have an old age, coarse and anarchistic” 

– Utah Phillips

When I was younger, I worried that I would become more conservative as I got older. However, thanks to the main trauma in my life, that hasn’t happened. Instead, I continue to hold similar views to those I developed in my teens, but in a different way – less singlemindedly, and more skeptically.

I consider my social and political positions open to revision at any given time. However, here’s how my world view looks as I serve my time as a curmudgeon-in-training:

  • Having people in authority over others is the easiest and quickest way to organize society, but generally lapses into an abuse of power. Finding alternative power structures is difficult, but creative – as well as an absolute necessity for personal quality of life and for alleviating long-term social problems. Meanwhile, questioning and minimizing authority is the best way to prevent abuse of power. Sometimes, though, the only short-term relief available is throwing out those in power and replacing them with new ones. Eventually, though, we have to do throw out the new ones, too.
  • What everybody knows or does is always worth questioning. Rather than observing or making an effort to understand the situation around them, most people rely on explanatory principles to make sense of the world. For instance, they say that all men watch sports and all women love to shop without ever examining these assumptions. While you may not get answers by questioning common assumptions, you will always get a better rounded view of the issues by going beyond the explanatory principles.
  • Fashion is a pseudo-culture. A culture is supposed to sustain daily life by giving people a set of values and community. Consumerism promises to deliver these same benefits, but, because it depends upon frequent changes and abrupt reversals of preferences, what it actually creates is a deep sense of insecurity – the exact opposite of culture. Fashion is to culture as junk food is to nourishment.
  • Sloppy thinking is everywhere. One of the most common fallacies is an appeal to authority, although where once we used to consult religion to settle arguments, we now use biology (never mind if we misrepresent or misunderstand the biology, or over-apply it). In North America, the either/or fallacy – the insistence that everything is one thing or another, and never anything in between – is almost as common, leading to over-simplification and distortion of just about every public issue you can name. Often, either/or thinking reduces issues, not to questions of rights or wrong, but a choice of half-truths, neither of which is very satisfactory.
  • To get more of the truth, find the untold stories. Official explanations and histories – including the canons of art — always leave out some events and people, sometimes deliberately and sometimes in unconscious self-justification. What the official versions leave out is sometimes lost, but, despite Orwell’s fears in Nineteen Eighty-Four, some fragments of the unofficial versions survive. These remnants often explain the inexplicable in the official versions, or give new insights entirely. For example, aside from the social changes, one of the most valuable contributions of feminism’s second wave was the rediscovery of previously overlooked writers such as Aphra Behn.
  • As Utah Phillips said, a long memory is the most radical notion in history. Consumerism and the egos of those in power encourage a foreshortened version of the present, in which it is cut off from everything that has gone before. It is true that history never repeats itself, but, as a source of parallels, analogies, and causation, the past is still one of the best ways to understand the present.
  • Most of the time, the average person gets lost in everyday concerns and ignores the larger ones, including those that might give them more control of their lives. For instances, in our culture, it is generally true that you would get more people out to a rally to resist talk of closing the stores on Sunday than to get a large corporation to reduce its pollution. Although exceptions to this trend exist, they are brief and rare.
  • Holding these thoughts is necessary for thinking clearly about society, but can be unhealthy. You need to remember that people can oppose you and still be the kind you would like to meet socially, if you are honest. You also need to avoid excessive cynicism, or, even worse, a negative identity, in which you define yourself solely in terms of your opposition to certain issues and people. Don’t forget, too, that, despite all the difficulties described her, art and clear thinking still manage to emerge. For instance, although marked as just another consumer product, the popular music and the science fiction of the 1960s are still cultural high points. Similarly, the consumer-driven rise of the popular computer led to the existence of the free software community, in which people are trying to think clearly and gain control of their work and lives.

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