The first folk music event my future-wife and I went to occurred one summer during the early 1970s. It was the Middletown Folk Festival in southern New Jersey.
It was probably the only time I have ever been to a festival and knew not one of the performers. We were greenhorns then and I think the only folkie names I would have recognized were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, Paxton, and Guthrie (Arlo, not Woody).
Parts of the show were great and some were not so much, but the highlight came when the MC came out and said: "We had this performer here a few years ago. We think we've recovered enough to have him back. Here he is, a rumor in his own time, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, U. Utah Phillips!" And out came an old guy with white pony tail and beard under a cowboy hat, arms stuffed with muscles and tattoos.
Ha, The old man was younger then than I am now. But if I have lived longer than he had at that point, let's admit that he had lived wider and deeper.
I don't remember every song he did. I know he sang his tribute to a cattle drive cook, "The Goodnight Loving Trail," and accompanied it with one of his bizarre tall tales about Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, the true-life pioneers who created that trail.
By the time his set was over I was a committed, lifetime folkie.
In those days it seemed that he sang mostly about trains and hobos and the West. His Wobbly songs and more overtly political material came later. As he aged he would put more talking and less playing into each show. I think this was partly because his hands hurt and partly because he had so much he wanted to say.
What a songwriter. What a storyteller.
The last time I saw him he filled the brand new Seattle Opera House at Northwest Folklife. I remember him strolling onto the stage and looking around the magnificent hall. "We used to have a place like this where I live," he said, "in Nevada City, California. We tore it down and put up an old Indian graveyard."
That same night he talked about all the good news he heard as he travelled around the country - and how none of it made the mainstream media. "We could be winning and not even know it!"
On the first album I bought of his, "Good Though!" he had a song called "Old Buddy Goodnight," about finding a hobo who froze to death in a freight car. The last verse ends:
"Give him a line in your paper and here's what I want you to say. There's still some things worse than dying alone. One of them's living that way."
Bruce Phillips died on Friday, with his wife by his side.
Utah Phillips lived surrounded by friends, fans, folkies, and fellow workers.
His songs will live a long time, if this crazy world manages to keep going. And if it does, he's one of the people we have to thank for it.
I usually bicycle to work but last week I had a medical appointment and had to drive my car. While I cruised around the campus, sharklike, searching for a space for the jalopy, I remembered something that happened about ten years before.
We received a note from my daughter's school inviting us to some parent-teacher event. It was inoffensive until the very end. Then there came a sentence that had me muttering to myself for days. It read: PARKING IS LIMITED, SO...
We'll pause here. How do you think they finished that line?
PARKING IS LIMITED, SO PLEASE CARPOOL.
PARKING IS LIMITED, SO CONSIDER TAKING ONE OF THE FOLLOWING BUS ROUTES.
PARKING IS LIMITED, SO WHY NOT BIKE IT?
PARKING IS LIMITED, SO, PLEASE CONSIDER SAVING THE SPACES FOR THOSE WHO NEED THEM MOST.
No. Here's what my kid's school chose to advise:
PARKING IS LIMITED, SO PLEASE COME EARLY.
Think that one over, okay? Please come early.
I sent them a letter asking them what, exactly, they thought they were teaching my daughter with that letter. Because what I saw them teaching was this:
This world has limited resources. Please don't think about sharing. Don't be considerate. And for heaven's sake, don't try to think outside the box and look for alternative solutions. Just jump in and get your share before someone else takes it.
Maybe that's even good advice, but it isn't what I want the school teaching my kid. I never got a reply to my letter, which I suppose was immediately dropped in the Crank File.
And speaking of cranks, and gears, and handlebars, this Friday is Bike to Work and School Day in Bellingham. Get the ol' Mountain Bike or Racer or Hybrid out and dust it off. On your commute you may pass one of the Celebration Stations where volunteers will provide you with cookies, coffee, juice, candy, coupons, stickers, and tons of moral support. Hope for good weather.