"Time is an enormous long river," Utah Phillips explains during "Bridges."
"My elders were the tributaries... every struggle they went through...
every poem they laid down flows down to me. If I take the time to ask...
can build that bridge between my world and theirs, I can reach down into
that river and take out what I need to get me through this world."
"Bridges" opens Phillips' latest effort, a collaborative project between
the folk legend and his follower, the prolific and feisty Ani DiFranco.
is an appropriate meditation with which to begin their album, the
aptly-titled The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, which combines the eclectic
guitar strummings, drum tracks and production arms of DiFranco with
spoken-word pieces by Phillips, mainly taped from live performances
throughout his musical career.
The project was DiFranco's idea. She contacted Phillips and explained that
she wanted to do a record with him, but didn't require him to write anything
new. "Just send me every live recording of yourself that you have lying
around and give me your blessing to mess with um," she explains of her
request. But what she messed with wasn't his songs -- which are readily
available in any good music store -- but the stuff between songs, the little
stories told to pass the time while retuning, the slapstick and ramshackle
poems and lessons learned from his experiences with friends and strangers.
Then DiFranco curled her own music around the tales, dressing them up in
golden threads and barbed-wire crowns so that folks can find out not only
what Phillips is all about, but from whence true anarchism comes.
Oh, yes. Phillips is soft-spoken and wise, but he does not mince words.
stories are that of the grandfather, the one who's been to hell and back
ain't afraid to tell you about it. Through his storytelling, Phillips
conveys a kind of radicalism more powerful and thought-provoking than any
Rage Against the Machine video or Spike Lee movie night. DiFranco operates
under the basic tenet that words are tools, and Phillips' words here operate
like a jackhammer, breaking up the cobwebbed ideas we have about society
crushing the cultural order to a fine powder, one which can be reshaped
never cemented over.
In "Korea," for instance, Phillips speaks of his duty as an American
soldier in the Korean war. "My clothing was rotting on my body... I wanted
to swim in the Inijun River. But there was a rule against swimming in the
Inijun river. A young Korean... said to me, in what English he had, 'You
know, when we get married here, the young couple moves in with the
parents... When the first baby is born, the old man goes out with a jug
water and a blanket, sits on the bank of the Inijun river and waits to
And we'll roll him down the bank and into the river, and the body is carried
out to sea. And we don't want you swimming in the river because our elders
are floating on [it].'"
The tale works wonderfully as a complement to the segment in "Bridges,"
recurring theme of elders flowing with the river -- literally or
figuratively. At the same time, Phillips reveals his common ground with
men who were supposed to be his sworn enemies in the war but who respect
their elders just as he respects his own. DiFranco's own admiration for
Phillips shines through in her accompaniment, a subtle, jazzy bass line
drumbeat like a melancholy heart thumping.
Not every track on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere contains a tale of
woe; some are loving reminiscences, especially of homeless men with whom
Phillips holed up after returning to the States after the Korean war, and
his children, to whom he is a constant source of bewilderment and
embarrassment. For instance, in "Mess with People," Phillips discusses
constant desire to stir things up. "You've got to constantly mess with
people. They just kind of sink into a cryonic torpor and they're never
again..." After "messing with" a couple of parents in a supermarket, he
explains, "[My daughter] Morrigan starts punching me in the side and says,
'Why can't you be normal?' And old Miss Brownelle rapped Morrigan on her
shin rudely with her cane and said, 'He is normal. What you meant
say is average.'"
While Phillips' stories stand up just fine on their own, DiFranco's musical
accents develop what would otherwise be a simple story-time into a thematic
tome, a fancied-up version of The Gospel According to Utah. On songs like
"Half a Ghost Town" and "Bridges," her acoustic guitar is an instrument
wistfulness, a map to memory lane. The noisy hip-hop interludes throughout
"Nevada City, California," a rant about folk music and new age mentality,
serve as a comic double to Phillips' lightheartedness. The slow meander
the Wurlitzer piano during "Bum on the Rod" calls to mind the dusty train
cars of the "bum on the rod" as well as the upscale lounge music of his
twin, Phillips' "bum on the plush." DiFranco peppers the songs with her
vocals, though these are rarely more than cries or echoes of Phillips'
thematic mantras, as in "Holding On."
It is probably no coincidence that DiFranco included Phillips' diatribe
about presidential candidates on an album which was released just as the
national elections are about to take place. "Talking to a conservative
like talking to your refrigerator... Working for the Democratic party is
kind of like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," he explains.
Within the rap he announces his own intention to run for President. Though
he probably suggested the notion years ago, DiFranco's implication is clear:
Phillips is a man whose wisdom reaches far beyond that of any politician
have ever known; he has fought wars, spent time among the rich and the
(and vastly prefers the poor), loves children and old people and has made
livelihood out of turning people's ideas upside down. Utah Phillips for
President? I haven't heard such a good idea in years.