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 ...in 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?....."