DiFranco and Phillips Bridge Folk's Generation Gap

"Time is an enormous long river," Utah Phillips explains during "Bridges."

"My elders were the tributaries... every struggle they went through...

and

every poem they laid down flows down to me. If I take the time to ask...

I

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.

It

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.

His

stories are that of the grandfather, the one who's been to hell and back

and

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

and

crushing the cultural order to a fine powder, one which can be reshaped

but

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

of

water and a blanket, sits on the bank of the Inijun river and waits to

die.

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,"

the

recurring theme of elders flowing with the river -- literally or

figuratively. At the same time, Phillips reveals his common ground with

the

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

and

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

of

his children, to whom he is a constant source of bewilderment and

embarrassment. For instance, in "Mess with People," Phillips discusses

his

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

seen

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

to

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

of

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

of

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

evil

twin, Phillips' "bum on the plush." DiFranco peppers the songs with her

own

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

is

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

we

have ever known; he has fought wars, spent time among the rich and the

poor

(and vastly prefers the poor), loves children and old people and has made

a

livelihood out of turning people's ideas upside down. Utah Phillips for

President? I haven't heard such a good idea in years.