Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Revolutionary Song

Utah Phillips, folksinger, raconteur, hobo & anarchist passed away back in May (that’s Utah in the pic). This was a real loss to all of us who appreciated his repertoire of old songs about trains, & workers, & the west, who guffawed at his wry & often ribald humor, & who valued his “take” on practically everything.

I had the privilege of seeing Utah perform once, along with his band of other hobo musicians, “The Rose Tattoo,” at Noe Valley Ministry in Baghdad by the Bay. Eberle was more fortunate, as she had the chance to hang out with Utah amongst a group of folks back in the old McCall days at Lardo’s, (a McCall, Idaho eatery & long-standing institution).

Anyway, one thing it seems Utah Phillips always insisted on at his live shows was audience participation. You had to sing along to at least one song—he’d threaten folks with sending Mormon missionaries to their home unless they joined in. He’d also say:

“In a mass-market economy, a revolutionary song is any song you sing yourself. Welcome to the revolution.”

This is a pretty profound, if apparently simple, concept. It does seem that with our cult of celebrity (& hey, I like celebrities as much as the next person, but…) we’re easily seduced into certain ideas: we don’t look right, we can’t sing, our lives aren’t interesting, etc. etc. Someone with a deeper understanding of marketing & capitalism & all sorts of related economic concepts might argue that these ideas make us all potential suckers for the right sales pitch—“there’s a sucker born every minute; you just happened to be coming along at the right time….”

Although I grew up playing the piano (& even had brief & less successful introductions to the sax & sousaphone), I pretty much gave up playing music in early adulthood (or at least what passed for that chronologically), & spent a number of years as someone who loved to listen to music, but convinced that creating music was what other people did—I was never “that great” at the piano, I wasn’t a great singer, I probably couldn’t learn another instrument well enough because blah, blah, blah….

It wasn’t until the approach of middle age that I rebelled against this & took up first the guitar, followed later by most of the stringed & fretted instruments I could lay my hands on. Am I a great guitar player?—no, not by a long shot. & I’m still not a great singer. But you know, that doesn’t really matter, because playing & singing is fun & a great outlet for lots of things, whether done alone or with others, & whether just playing for yourself or in front of an audience.

So the only thing I’d change about Utah Phillips’ statement is this: “a revolutionary song is any song you sing, or play, or compose yourself.” Bearing that in mind, how’s about getting out that old guitar, or that uke or banjo, or sitting down at the 88’s, or just belting out your favorite tune? Welcome to the revolution.

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