Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips 2CD - Righteous Babe
The late Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips has been given the well-deserved tribute treatment on Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips. Born in the troubled mid-thirties, in many ways Phillips was larger than life: veteran of the Korean War, songwriter, folksinger, raconteur, rider of the rails, champion of the common man, pacifist, anarchist and union organizer. His folk-singing career began in the mid-sixties, supported by longtime friend Rosalie Sorrels, and in the last three decades of his life Phillips released more than 15 solo and collaborative albums. His recordings, as well as his concerts, were generously appointed with his storytelling, a genial mix of homespun humor and leftist politics that were at least half the package. The man was a gifted songwriter, penning such classics as "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" (co-written with Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard), "Goodnight Loving Trail," and "The Telling Takes Me Home," but just as importantly he was a fine interpreter of tradition, keeping alive union rallying songs all too rarely heard by the general public.
This project began in the closing years of Phillips' life, a fundraiser aimed at assisting him during a time of declining health and mounting medical expenses, but quickly it grew to a labor of admiration and affection for a lifetime committed to social justice and human dignity. Sadly, Phillips succumbed to illness before the record was completed, but I can't help but think he would be very pleased with the results heard on this double disc set. The songs it includes were either written by Phillips or have become strongly associated with him through his recordings and live performances. Many of the contributors, sympathetic folk artists who fly far under the radar, will not be immediately familiar, but there is a remarkable evenness to this disc, which holds covers by Emmylou Harris (a fine re-reading of "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia"), Pete Seeger, singing his own "Or Else! (One-A These Days)", Ani DiFranco (on a rootsy instrumental take on "The Internationale"), and Jean Ritchie with a haunting a cappella version of her "Old George's Square." "Hallelujah! I'm A Bum," "The Popular Wobbly," "All Used Up," and "Dump the Bosses off Your Back," four of Phillips' most well received rallying songs, are present, the latter performed by Si Khan. This set is a touching tribute to Phillips' life work, and succeeds on its own as a folk recording. What goes missing here for me are Phillips' stories. But this is mitigated somewhat by quotes from the man accompanying the liner notes for each track.
By Michael Meade