Sunday, June 8, 2008

I first saw Utah with Rosalie Sorels at the Cherry Tree Music Coop
in Philadelphia. Second date with my singin' partner of 35 years in 1973.
We looked forward to all the times we saw him again.

The first time we spoke together was between two terrific sets at the Old Towne Crier
in Beekman, NY. (I think it was in 1981.) Utah was trying to interest the little ones in the crowd about the yo-yo he had carved. They weren't interested, but I was.

When he went out to take the night air on the front porch, I started up a conversation, which eventually centered on exactly why writing is so hard. It's the beginning, he said. It's always been that way. I felt the same, that after the train started leaving the station, chugging faster and faster, the words came out of the pen so much easier.

Why was it so hard to begin? Was it the teachers who put all those red marks on the page to "correct" us? Was it fear that it wouldn't be so good? Were we just plumb lazy? We concluded nothing, but it was a fruitful thing for me -- I wrote songs more consistently after that discussion than I had before.

When I met him again at the Bear Mt. Festival in 1982, he looked like a tanned slimmed-down version of himself. I hoped he remembered me, and he did. He looked at me and my 2-year old daughter riding in a backpack, and said, "Hi, good to see you. But what's that horrible growth on your back?" Talked about how he was trying to eat right and get healthy. He sure did look like he was trying really hard!

My daughter Sara (soon to be 28) barely remembers the night she inadvertently got him back for the gibe at her. We took her to the Towne Crier to see Utah. She was dancing in the center aisle with her arms raised, interacting with the grownups; we were trying to get her to sit down. Utah was tuned, seated on the stage and ready to begin, and the li'l upstart was stealing his thunder. I could see steam coming from his ears like a freight train engine's stack as it roars into the station. He leaned forward in his seat with an imperious look on his face, and addressed the little squirt: "Hey! ... Are you a kid, or are you standin' in a hole?"
Sara didn't understand him, so she turned around towards the crowd, cocked her head, and drew a gale of laughter, which stole even more thunder! He laughed, waited for us to grab her, and gave all he could give to the crowd. Great show.

This Friday night, we'll sing a passel of Utah's tunes, and we'll continue to all our lives. He's touched us in ways no other person ever did. I'm gonna sing "Daddy, What's a Train." It's Utah's song, so by way of introduction,
I'll start with these lines:

"He sat down on a stool, a guitar in his land
He told us of the characters he's met throughout this land,
He sang a song he'd written a dozen years before,
About the trains he knew so well that rode the tracks no more.

Spoken: Y’see he used to ride the rails the windy rain and hail
A drifter spinnin’ tales along his way.
His son is now all grown, has a family of his own,
But when he was small, old Utah heard him say.

"Daddy what's a train?....."

Fair Winds,
Steve Kaplan

1 comment:

Yvonne said...

I met up with Utah and Rosalie at SSU in Springfield, IL, October, 1977. I'll never forget him. I was 27 years old and nearly 8 months pregnant, sitting with my husband and friends pretty much in the second row from his improvised stage in the basement of Sangamon State University(now U of I-Springfield.) He kept looking at me between songs. Finally, while tuning up and spinning tales, he paused long enough to fold those bushy eyebrows together and point his guitar pick my way.

"Lady, I sure hope you're not intending to have that kid tonight cuz I hate it when people interrupt my songs." Then he smiled and laughed.

Later at the break, he was strolling around the table where his tapes were layed out. He saw me and asked when I was due and how I was feeling in more of a fatherly way, smiling and nodding his head and that damn fedora he loved to wear. Funny thing was, later on, while Rosalie was singing, I DID have labor pains and we left the show early.

That was the second time I'd seen Utah Phillips and I've never forgotten his voice, his mannerisms or his delivery. He was a unique human being whose message is coming around again stronger than ever. The Earth was blessed by his voice, his compassion, his wisdom. He was the last of an interesting breed of folk-singers. He is missed.

But I hope by now he's found there's pie enough in heaven for him and his "boys." Sing on, Utah, sing on!