Utah Phillips died late in the evening of May 23, asleep, at home in his bed beside his wife. He was 73. He’d suffered from heart disease for a few years, and by last summer was forced to give up touring, though he continued to “perform” via radio and podcasts.
Utah was the most entertaining storyteller that I have ever known. He might start to introduce a song, and ten minutes later you’d realize he’d taken a most circuitous route to get there, telling about some important person in his life, or place he’d been, or experience he’d had – all spun so that the ring of truth had to peal through a few layers embellishment.
His songs certainly stood on their own, but I came to regard them as a respite from the side-splitting laughter that his stories would provoke. Even more serious subjects were addressed with wit, but it was when he drifted into his tall tales that he’d get me grinning from my stomach to my eyebrows. Some folks might remember the radio station WSLE (The Folk Station) out of Peterborough, which gave local audiences a good sampling of a wide range of folk music, and I know that the first time I heard “Moose Turd Pie” was over those airwaves, in the late 1970’s. His first appearance at the Folkway would have been just on one side or the other of 1980. I was there, hanging onto every word – anticipating most of them, but delighted with the new twists and turns he incorporated into that particular telling. He achieved a high level of irreverence and sarcasm, yet still came through with a positive message of hope. I have heard many folksingers over the years who ride a theme of social activism, and with all due respect, by the end of an evening they can get you feeling pretty depressed. But Utah always provided enough of the ridiculous that the evening’s laughter would buoy your hopes for the ultimate goodness of people.
In the early 1990’s the Monadnock Folklore Society sponsored Utah Philips in concert in the Nelson Town Hall. That was probably my third or fourth time hearing him, and I knew he was staying over at Steve Zakon’s house in Sullivan, so after the concert I got up my nerve and asked him if he might consider coming to the Nelson Elementary School the next morning. Now if you’d ever seen Utah Philips, you can imagine that his idea of how to start the day might not be to sit in front of 50 kids who were probably convinced you were Santa Claus. But I had two reasons for asking: I was teaching music there at the time, and we were working on a Western theme. I had taught the kids Utah’s “Goodnight-Loving Trail”, and I thought how great it would be for them to meet the composer. The other was that the school had recently had an addition, which was designed to look like a train. Utah was quite fond of trains, and I think this was the selling point for him – to go to a school that was shaped like a train, and to sing his well known “Daddy What’s a Train”. In any case, he graciously complied, and I think he might have even enjoyed it.
Some time later I ran into Utah at a folk music and dance weekend in northern New Jersey where I was playing with my contra dance band, Fresh Fish. He invited himself to sit in with us for some of the dances, playing guitar, which pleased us all. That same weekend I attended a story telling workshop that he was offering, and it was there that I learned something that turned out to have a major impact on my life. He was talking about a folklorist (from some time ago) who was traveling in Ireland collecting stories from the locals. During the day the folklorist would stroll around the outskirts of town, watching the farmers working in their fields, and making note of which ones were talking to themselves. He knew that they were working on the stories that they would tell around the peat fire that evening, so at day’s end he would call on them, and accepting the spontaneous Irish hospitality, would be welcome to their hearth. Utah then went on to talk about how he worked on the telling of his stories. Of course, even though this was a workshop, and he was (to some degree) being serious, his wit remained active. “My neighbors see me working out in the garden talking to myself, and they say – ‘I guess Utah’s going on tour soon’ ”
Until that time, even though I’d heard him tell some of the same stories over and over again, I had never realized how much effort went into perfecting every nuance, and into continuing to evolve stories so that they remained fresh. Though my own story telling is usually limited to social functions, I now spend considerable time “rehearsing” tales (occasionally in the garden, but more often in the car) in anticipation of an opportunity , and I have sometimes rehearsed a pun for years just waiting for the right setup. But beyond stories, Utah’s lesson to me was about the importance of preparation – having a solid foundation. My goal in daily life is to be as good at whatever I do as Utah Philips was as a storyteller. And if life seems a little overwhelming at times, it’s nothing a good slice of Moose Turd pie won’t cure. Thanks Utah – we will miss you.
For more information, including links to his podcasts) please visit the official Utah Philips Web site.
For several years the Monadnock Folklore Society made use of the Sunday of Father’s Day to sponsor a “Father’s and Son’s (and occasionally daughter’s) Concert. The tradition is being revived this year by making this the theme of the MFS bi-monthly coffee house. This will be on Sunday, June 15th. Contra dance musician Andy David of Brattleboro will be joined by his son Arthur as headliners for the evening. I’ve had the honor of participating with my son Spencer since he was around 12 years old. Now at 20 he’s still up for a song or two, so we will be contributing to the evening as well, along others yet-be determined. While the emphasis will be on father/son performances, the coffee house is open to anyone for songs, readings, and other forms of creative expression. Please contact Lisa Sieverts if you’d like to participate – a performance spot cannot be guaranteed for those just showing up.
Looking ahead, there will be a concert on Saturday, July 27th, with Canadian Celtic fiddler (and more) Troy MacGillvary, Then coming up on Sunday, August 10th, we’ll be treated to a concert by Irish fiddler Denis Liddy, joined by Elvie Miller on accordion and piano.
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