by Devon Leger
Re-released towards the end of 2014 after a long period of being unavailable, the 4 CD set Starlight on the Rails was conceived of by renowned folk singer U. Utah Phillips as a kind of audio songbook. Since folk songs are passed down person to person, Phillips didn’t want to write his songs down on paper, but loved the idea of old publications like The American Songbook. On the cusp of the digital media revolution, he saw which way the winds were blowing and wanted to create an extensive audio document to hold some of his legacy. So with the help of ethnomusicologist Erica Haskell, a young woman he’d known since she was a child growing up near him in Nevada City, CA, and John Smith, who was working at Smithsonian Folkways, he set out to document some of his favorite songs and the stories behind them. For each song, he set down its story and the albums move like this, story-song-story-song. It’s a beautiful and heartfelt document of one of America’s great troubadours, and I was curious to hear more about how it was made and how it relates to Phillips’ time in Nevada City. I grew up there myself and love this small, liberal mining town in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. So I called up Erica Haskell, now a professor of ethnomusicology at University of New Haven in West Haven, CT, who put together this large compilation with John Smith, to see if I could find out more about the project. Phillips passed away in 2008, but his legacy lives on.
Interview with Erica Haskell about growing up with Utah Phillips
When did you first meet Utah Phillips?
Erica Haskell: Oh, my gosh, that’s a good question. I wish I knew exactly when it was. I’m sorry. I was probably 10 years old, sometime in the 80s, the mid 80s. He and Joanna Robinson, who was an old family friend, came to stay with us. Somehow, Utah was in transition as she was as well, and so they stayed in our cabin in Nevada City.
Is your family from Nevada City?
Erica: Yeah, I grew up there. My parents were both “back to nature” hippies. We lived on 10 acres and they built the house out of used lumber. My father is an artist; he makes furniture and my mom was a building inspector. They built the house just below Highway 20 on Haskell Road actually. That’s where I grew up.
Did you see him perform when you were in Nevada City? Would he come over to the house, beyond meeting him that time when he stayed at the house. What was the family’s connection?
Erica: I think they stayed for several weeks. That was my first introduction to Utah. My parents listened to a lot of protest music. My dad had protested during the civil rights era in San Francisco. He actually lived in a house in Haight-Ashbury where Big Brother and the Holding Company rehearsed. I was in that realm of music, protest music, certainly from that era. Utah was someone who I met and we played with. I remember he spent a lot of time with me and my brother playing games. He had children of his own. He was adept at that. Then, I went to concerts of his as well and I think that was around the time when his music came into the home and I started listening to his music.
What do you remember of him from when you were 10 years old. What did your 10 year old self think of him?
Erica: I remember his beard. I remember that we found, on a hike, multi-colored clay coming out of the ground and he decided that we should paint our faces. There are actually images from this, photos that were taken. We pretended to be Native Americans. I remember his expansive imagination. I remember him as a really warm person. At that point, all of his songs entered our home repertoire. “Daddy, what’s a Train”… He has a lot of songs that are accessible to children. I remember not knowing what his song, “The Enola Gay” was really about and only realizing in college what he was singing about. There were a lot of songs that I knew but they became politically impactful later, when I grew up. That’s the best kind of music… that you latch onto but doesn’t impact you, or impacts you at different times or in different ways.
That’s interesting. Do you think he understood that principle that even though he’s singing a song about a horrific event in World War II to a child that maybe it would come back again later in life?
Erica: Surely, I think he knew that. Did you ever meet Bruce?
Erica: Okay. He was a very wise man. I would say that he understood all of that. He understood the impact of his songs in the long term and that’s ... not to turn this to the project, but when John [Smith, of Free Dirt Records] and I started working on this project with him, he was at least aware of the limits of his longevity. He knew that he would die at some point and these CDs, these recordings, were something he wanted to leave to the world. I think for both of us, John would have to speak for himself, but it added an additional weight and also joy to the project. We were more committed than ever to produce something that was interesting, and would also last and have enough information in it and context that it would go beyond his death.
That’s really beautiful. Why don’t you talk about the project of the songbook. What was the genesis for this idea?
Erica: Not to focus it on myself because the center of it is Utah but… I was working in Washington, D.C. for Smithsonian Folkways. I was an intern first and then later they hired me, and that’s when I met John, who was at that point much more successful than I was. Someone interested in music. When he heard that I was from Nevada City, he already knew all about Utah and he asked me if I knew about him.
It was happenstance that I knew him through my family and I knew his music. I wouldn’t say that Utah was famous in Nevada City at that time, it was later when he became more well-known, especially through, and maybe this is nationwide as well, through his work with Ani DiFranco. Years after that, I actually left Folkways and went to work in Budapest where I worked for a company that was selling MP3s on-line which, amazingly, at the time, seemed completely novel. Selling music on-line, really. I know it sounds crazy to say that but… [laughing] A number of people said, “I don’t know. It’s probably not going to work, you shouldn’t leave Folkways.” The company ended up not being super-successful but I had a great 6 months in Budapest. Anyway, it was few years later that I went to graduate school at Brown University for Ethnomusicology and that’s when John and I started the project. I took a few trips back to Nevada City and we met with Utah, we talked to him about what he imagined it would be.
He was very focused on us producing what he called, “a songbook.” We talked a lot about the context, the stories, which are so central to Utah’s performances. You’ve probably seen a video of his shows; it’s almost more story than there is music. Every song is prefaced by some kind of story that explains who is there and why it’s happening and what it means. We talked about doing that in the written form as liner notes. I think he felt that it should be in audio form. Of course, Utah is super aware of oral tradition and the concept of passing on tradition, passing on stories through the oral realm. He really wanted to do that. I think, at first, John and I weren’t sure that would be accessible to the public because you’re producing these CDs and then you have the stories and you have the music and how many times do you want to listen to the stories? You want to listen to the music more. So, we had a lot of brainstorms about how to do that. Should we have some CDs that are only dedicated to the stories? No, Utah didn’t want to do that because then, the stories wouldn’t be directly connected to the particular songs. They shouldn’t be in written form, they should be in oral form. Finally, because of his force and his energy behind it, we landed on the decision to have a story and then a song, a story and a song. This is around when iTunes was allowing one to construct a playlist. We figured that if people were tired of the story, or they just wanted the stories, they could construct their own playlist. So, that was the decision we made. Utah made it really. He was in charge of the whole project. We were just helping out. [laughing]
The idea came from you but he took it on as a project that he really believed in then?
Erica: Sure. I would say he really believed in it. We met with him a lot. A number of the songs, the recordings, were recorded before us, they’re not original recordings. They’re being re-released. All of the introductions or all of the stories were recorded for that 4 CD release. We went into the studio with him and recorded those and then, we also mastered, we changed some of the recordings from before: cleaned them up and we had some live recordings. It was a lot of work, I would say. Not to complain, it was a joy and John is a really great partner. We worked together on this. It was all recorded in Nevada City.
Right. You went into the studio and recorded the stories and some of the key songs that weren’t taken from other sources.
Do you think that he was more comfortable in Nevada City, that that added to it?
Erica: As I remember it, he was less wanting to travel at that point. Yeah, it was very comfortable. We recorded at Flying Whale Studios. He was very comfortable with the sound engineer there. It seemed the easiest way to go. He didn’t record all of the stories at the same time. He would go in and do a few and come out. It was an intense process for him.
Were any of the stories especially hard for him to recall?
Erica: No, they weren’t hard for him to recall. It took a lot of energy and emotion. I wasn’t there during most of the recording of those. I did work on the mastering with John. I remember we spent a weekend together there going through the recordings. John would send me all the recordings. I was in grad school. I wasn’t in Nevada City.
Do you have any good stories from putting this together with Utah when you were planning it? Any good stories of his perspective? Of his behavior too?
Erica: I guess the thing that sticks with me most are those early meetings we had with him, when he explained to us the importance of this. It’s late in his life, and for me, what sticks to me is the idea of passing on information and stories through the oral medium and his real commitment to that, even with the onslaught of digital media because that was something that was happening at that time. He still felt committed to that. He still had his radio show when we were recording this. He was aware of the impact of his voice, the depth of his voice. I think that he understood that he was a medium for information and for political ideas, social ideas. But also, he was a wonderfully self-effacing, modest person. Many artists, I imagine you work with a lot of musicians and artists, some end up taking all of this in their head or to heart and they’re not nice people. This was not a problem for Utah. He was a wonderful person. I know his home very well. Actually, before he and Joanna lived there, another family friends of ours lived there before. I had grown up in the home where they lived, their house where they lived. It’s on Berggren. Do you know Berggren Lane? Just off Boulder Street heading out of Nevada City. I felt incredibly comfortable in that setting and Joanna, his wife, she was my mother’s closest friend when they were pregnant together at the same time. These were very intimate exchanges. I think that Utah understood that we would be respectful and that we would do the right thing. There wasn’t any sense that we were record moguls there to steal his sound. Do you know what I mean? There wasn’t that level of tension because I had grown up there and because we were old friends. That was a wonderful thing.
What was his house like? Can you describe his house? Was it cluttered with antiques and stuff he collected on the road? Or?
Erica: Yeah, it’s a very small house. It’s very modest with huge gardens around it. He has a wonderful dog, I don’t know if the dog was still alive, Bo, really fluffy dog. Also, a modest kitchen, a large stove, a wood stove, not cluttered at all, huge number of books, of course. He and Joanna are both academics in terms of their veracity for reading. It’s a very intimate setting. I think it’s a 1 bedroom house or maybe 2. Very intimate.
I like the idea of it being a songbook. It’s like he was embracing digital technology in a visionary way to create a digital songbook. Can you tell me more about that idea and what he thought of that?
Erica: He was aware that we were beyond the folk musician or the musician songwriter reading music. I think he realized that many musicians were learning directly from digital sound or from recorded sound. I think that was part of his thought about the songbook.
Do you think that it was part of the folk tradition too? The folk tradition is really keen on the idea of oral tradition and passing things along.
Erica: Sure. I think that’s part of it. I’m not aware of many recordings like this, where the story has been recorded as audio as well as the song. I think he wanted them both to be in the same medium, rather than the story being some kind of separate thing that you had to delve into. He wanted it to be upfront as if you were in a concert setting. Of course, he wasn’t going to transcribe all of his songs. That didn’t make any sense to him; that isn’t oral tradition. This was his term, the songbook. This wasn’t something we invented. That’s what he wanted it to be and I assume it relates to the “American Songbook”.
What’s the work you’re doing now? You said you were an academic. Are you in a university, or?
Erica: Yes, I’m an Ethnomusicologist and I did most of my research in Bosnia, in Sarajevo, and I’m very interested in the relationship between music and politics in Bosnia, in the post-war environment. How music and politics and music and re-development are intertwined was my focus. How do they spend money in a post-war environment? What do people need after a war? What does a society need and what’s the role of culture in that situation? That’s what my dissertation’s about.
Let me ask you then, since you have studied this topic so much… what goes into making a good political folk song? There are so many bad political folk songs being created every second. So, in your understanding, what would your advice be to somebody who is crafting a political folk song?
Erica: I don’t know. I don’t want to over analyze your question but your question is, what is good? Are you talking about efficacy? So that it’s effective in the moment? Are we talking about a folk song or a political song that impacts people over decades? What is the “good” that we’re searching for? Because they’re different answers. I would say that the most effective, long-term effective political songs are those that are fairly general in their topic. They leave the possibility for the singers to place their own meaning upon the song. “We Shall Overcome”, right? “We Shall Overcome” is probably the most impactful American song ever. It certainly has gospel roots, religious roots, but that song can be used in any context, for any people. In terms of long-term Impact, it has to be general. You know Pete Seeger died recently, sadly, and so, we know that the ability for large numbers of people (and I still believe this, even with the digital age), the ability for large numbers of people to sing together is important. A tune that is accessible to the masses is part of the success of a political song, if you’re imagining some kind of protest moment and that’s where it’s being used. But Utah’s songs are different from that. I don’t know that many of his songs were used in large protest settings, as Pete Seeger. He was a master at introducing details that emphasized the plight of the individual. If you think of his songs about the hobo, or his songs about the unions, “Lefty” or any number of his songs. You really see the individual and then you imagine how that individual could be multiplied, in terms of the plight of the human.
Do you feel Utah’s songs were too personal? He had so many personal details.
Erica: No, no. I think of songs as fitting into different categories. If I think of Pete Seeger “Where have all the Flowers Gone” category of songs: this is meant for mass singing. I think Utah was wonderfully focused on the individual.
I liked a couple of songs where he talks about tramps versus hoboes. How tramps are the intelligentsia of the wanderers or conscientious malingerers. I felt like that unlocks a key to his music. It’s like he had different aspects of his persona that come out in all of his songs. What would be some other keys to his music that you would hear in the songs? Elements that repeat through his music and help describe who he was.
Erica: I think, on a personal level, his love songs certainly say something about his kindness, his intimacy. Some of his songs make reference to his children and I think his relationship with his children was very important to him. Even when I was a kid, I recognized that he liked being with kids. He valued that. Those are other elementsI noticed. He was wonderfully able to talk about big issues. He could talk about the Enola Gay and, at the same time, everyday issues. “Talking NPR”: this is one of his rants. That was probably the most recent recording that he had made that we decided to include. There was some discussion about, “Do we want to offend NPR? They will be one of the greatest supporters of this album.” And he was like, “Oh, we should put it in!” [laughing]
Erica: “Going Away” is one of the wonderful, for me, one of the wonderful love songs that I like so much. “Room for the Poor,” I remember listening to that as a child and feeling that it really impacted me. Growing up in Nevada City, I didn’t have a lot of experience with migrant labor or homeless people but these songs introduced me to those concepts, which is a powerful thing to be able to do.
That’s interesting. Nevada City really is a liberal bastion. Northern California often, in general. What makes Nevada City special to you?
Erica: I don’t know. I think the sense of community. For me, it’s very powerful to have grown up there and to still go to Victorian Christmas or some event and recognize people and have people remember who you are. I think that’s a very powerful thing. I think that what developed in the 60s and 70s, the arrival of liberal thinking people to Nevada City and my father talks about this, really changed the county and changed the town, changed our education system in Nevada City. It’s pretty impressive that you can go to NU, Nevada Union High School, and then head off from there to Berkeley or Stanford or Harvard or Yale. It’s a wonderful thing that we have such a strong system. You go to the Farmers’ Market or summer festivals; it’s an accepting place. If you look now at all the musical activity that’s going on, it’s wonderful. It’s our generation, right?
If he was still alive today, what do you think he would be talking about? What issues from today, right now, would he be interested in, do you think?
Erica: I don’t know what he would be talking about. Hopefully, he’d still be ranting at NPR. I imagine he might be bringing up the topics of Syria, what’s going on in the Ukraine. I imagine a nice, rantful song about Ebola and protecting only westerners versus the thousands who are dying. I can imagine something like that. And also, local issues. He and Joanna were both very involved in the homeless center in Grass Valley. I can imagine him focusing on those kinds of issues as well. I don’t know if that’s a good answer but… He was very adept at taking present political issues and putting them in his songs. This is the topical song tradition.