Sharps & flats

Utah Phillips tells Old West tales and hardscrabble anecdotes. But don't call him a folk singer.

By Simon Rodberg
August 25, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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After 11 albums, a stint sleeping in a VW van and a failed Senate campaign, Utah Phillips embodies the rough-and-ready folk singer legend, even if he's not much of a folk singer. You can count on one hand the number of times a guitar appears on his new album, "The Moscow Hold," and any semblance of a melody is even tougher to find.

If folk humorist is a job description, though, it fits Phillips. He fills the album with Old West tall tales and hardscrabble anecdotes, delivered with a deep twang that needles under your skin and twists just as you're getting comfortable. The improbable and the outrageously true are hard to distinguish. Take Phillips' brief career in the wrestling ring. It ended -- he claims -- after he bit himself in the balls to give himself the boost of energy needed to escape from an opponent's particularly deadly grip, "the Moscow hold" of the album's title.


In the populist tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, Phillips' comedy is half ribald and half common sense, full of lighthearted love of the People and a biting scorn for all upper-class absurdities. He is neither singer nor storyteller but that late 20th century equivalent: creator of funny lines. His jokes are the kind that people hear and repeat until they become national property.
"I got myself a Zen acupuncturist," he says. "Wears a blindfold, uses darts."

Phillips infuses several of his stories with swipes at political parties and religious dogma: "Conservatives think that the solution to every problem is punishment: 'bigger prisons, more prisons.' Well, I can understand why the conservative mind would be drawn to penal enlargement ..." And whether he's targeting old-time or newfangled religion, his darts always sting: "Our little Catholic church there, the only Catholic church I know of that has high-fiber, low-calorie communion wafers. They're called 'I Can't Believe It's Not Jesus.'"

Phillips has been a professional folkster for 20 years, and on the road for 20 more as a Utah state archivist, Industrial Workers of the World organizer and perennial losing candidate for
public office. The breadth of experience has given him the ability to keep his stories moving through the one-liners, to pause for autobiographical snippets or to swerve off on a tangent about the reason the crack in your butt is vertical instead of horizontal (so when you go down playground slides you don't make a "thbpthbpthbpthbp" sound).


Most of the punch lines wouldn't work without Phillips' radical politics. Like all tall tales, the stories on "The Moscow Hold" have deeper meanings connected to the unspoken link between the everyday and the heroic. Phillips' waiter -- who protests management speed-ups by cleaning soup spoons with his used handkerchief -- is a direct descendent of track-layer John Henry and his symbolic victory over the train. On "Fellow Workers," Phillips' recent collaboration with folk singer Ani DiFranco, every song was a union song. But on "The Moscow Hold," capital takes a back seat to the wonders of the folk. "In a mass-market economy," he says, "a revolutionary song is any song you choose to sing yourself."

Simon Rodberg

Simon Rodberg is a senior at Yale University.

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