"People my age find folk music very uncool--its
just terribly, terribly uncool," says Ani DiFranco. With her cropped, green hair,
boys hockey jersey, collarbone tattoo, and spiked leather jacket with a sticker on
the back that says "Mean People Suck," DiFranco hardly looks like most
peoples idea of a folkie--and her edgy, often frenetic music doesnt sound much
like most peoples idea of folk, either. So what is she doing here in Toronto at the
Folk Alliance conference, an annual gathering of the faithful presided over by such
archetypal folksingers as Pete Seeger? DiFranco is here because she has her own definition
of the f word. "Folk music is not an acoustic guitar--thats not where
the heart of it is," she says. "I use the word folk in reference to punk
music and to rap music. Its an attitude, its an awareness of ones
heritage, and its a community. Its subcorporate music that gives voice to
different communities and their struggle against authority."
The fact that DiFranco defines folk by its spirit and intent rather than its sound and
dress code goes a long way toward explaining her connection with Utah Phillips, the
venerable singer and storyteller who sits next to her in this hotel ballroom. From his
fedora and snow-white beard to his repertoire of labor songs and populist anthems,
Phillips is as unambiguously a folksinger as he could be--and as stylistically distant
from DiFranco as he could be. But appearances are deceiving. Just a few hours ago,
DiFranco helped present Phillips with Folk Alliances Lifetime Achievement Award,
citing his gift for entwining humor, entertainment, and politics as an inspiration for her
own music. This is only one of the many traits and passions they share; their connection
is so strong, in fact, that hes the first outside artist DiFranco has brought onto
the roster of her own Righteous Babe Records label.
DiFrancos and Phillips 1996 album for Righteous Babe, The Past
Didnt Go Anywhere, is much more than a unique collaboration between a folk elder
and a rising young star; its a bold and ambitious musical statement, brilliantly
executed. DiFranco sifted through 100 hours of Phillips live tapes and picked a
handful of her favorite between-song raps--the ones that, she says, "made me fall off
my chair laughing or just go off in the corner and cry and mull things over for a
while." She then took those stories--chronicling Phillips desertion from the
army during the Korean War, the mentors who taught him about politics and life, and
various philosophical observations from his years on the road and rail--and holed up in an
Austin studio to layer music tracks beneath them. Primarily using light funk and hip-hop
rhythms, with dashes of guitar and other instruments, DiFranco created a completely
different musical context for Phillips words while preserving their soul--making a
sort of end run around peoples stereotypes of folk music.
"It was a very calculated move on my part," says DiFranco, "because I
can see people around me, people my age, who havent had the experience I have of
being thrown into folk festivals half their lives and coming into contact with all this
crazy, subcorporate music. I think that theyd be people whod see Utah and
think, What is this? He looks like Santa Claus, hes sitting on a stool with an
acoustic guitar, and hes singing, what, labor songs? This has nothing to do with me.
I dont think so. No--see ya. They would never find out that what he has to say
does have something to do with them. So [the album] was taking Utah and putting him
into a different context that somebody my age does have a vocabulary for, and then
getting them to hear what he has to say."
For his part, Phillips confesses that when DiFranco originally proposed the project, he
had no idea what the result might be like. So, did the radically new medium for his
message come as a shock? "I thought it was marvelous," Phillips says. "If I
were to pick stories that I wanted to persist if I werent around, those are the ones
I would pick. Not only that, but she put them in the right order. Thats real
judgment, almost instinctive. I have old folk music friends, older people, who say,
Gee, I wish your voice was louder and the music was softer. I just say,
Hey, this wasnt made for you." He adds with a laugh,
"Sometimes its hard for people to believe that theres something in the
world that wasnt made for them."
The stories collected on The Past Didnt Go Anywhere are amazing
creations-- folksy and literary at the same time, alternately playful, piercing,
mischievous, and nostalgic. A true wordsmith, Phillips is always up to more than he lets
on. "I always believed that what happened between the songs was as important as the
songs," he says. "I put a lot of time into the stories, so that people would
laugh and we would share absurdities together; and I would create this little, narrow
window where I could deal with the labor movement, where I could deal with pacifism,
whatever it was that I was there to do--my agenda--without being ghettoized as a political
"You talked to me in one of your letters about it," he says to DiFranco.
"You said, I understand the use of humor in performance. Youve got to get
people laughing so their throats open up wide enough to be able to swallow something
bigger. That struck me. First of all, its funny, and its a very true
thing to say."
The process by which DiFranco married Phillips words with music was entirely
improvisational. "I would start with the story," she says. "I would find
the BPM [beats per minute] of the story and try to negotiate a rhythm track to it, and
then I would usually start with the bass. Ive got an old Fender P. [Precision] bass.
I would come up with a bass line and then build on top of that." From story to story,
DiFrancos music varies to match the mood. For the lighthearted satire of
"Nevada City, California," she set up Phillips punch lines with
stop-and-start funk rhythms, as in an old Laugh-In sketch. In the elegiac
"Half a Ghost Town," the music pares down to a slow, sad melody played on a
tenor guitar. One of the most haunting moments comes in "Korea," when the sound
of Phillips tuning his guitar--one of the few appearances of his guitar on the
record--becomes a ghostly melody floating above the loping beat. "The sound of him
tuning the guitar became this kind of trance to me," says DiFranco. "I sampled
that bit of tuning and sort of made the melodic structure around that."
~ ~ ~
Its impossible to listen to the words of Utah Phillips without conjuring an image
of him on stage: the raconteur and folk historian, singing and strumming and spinning
yarns for an audience. The tradition of folk music he carries on has a clear public
purpose--its really inconceivable without an audience. This would seem to be a major
difference between him and DiFranco, who was born into the singer-songwriter age, which
values introspection over social commentary and writing your own songs over learning any
tradition. But here, again, appearances are deceiving.
"I dont think with either one of us its either/or," says Phillips
of the contrast between outward-looking and inward-looking music. "It flows back and
forth as a pulse, as a sensibility. Woody Guthrie wrote, When I was walking that
endless highway--theres a lot of I in Woody. Even when he was writing
about someone else, he would still transpose it into the first person, as he took these
journeys into himself. I cant fault that and say thats primarily ego-driven.
What I think youre talking about is music which is ego-driven, what
you would call journal-entry songwriting. Thats not what Ani does, the way that I
hear it. I know thats not what I do, [which is to] let people know that Im
alive and present, and this is how Im authentically perceiving and thinking, but to
expand it to the point where it can take in a lot of what other people are
"That whole introspective singer-songwriter thing has been kind of foisted on
me," DiFranco adds. "Some people perceive what I do in that way because I write
songs through my own experience. But whenever people say, Well, your work is very
confessional, I say, Its not confessional. Im not confessing
anything. I havent sinned. These are not my secrets. This is just my life; this is
the stuff Ive seen, the stuff I did, and what I thought about. There are
different ways of speaking your political perceptions, and it may be [talking about] an
event that occurred in your life or an event that occurred in your town . . . but each is
a valid path to a certain realization. I think that what we both do is very much about our
small, little epiphanies along the way, moments of connection between things."
The introspective tag, DiFranco feels, is often mistakenly applied to the work of women
songwriters. "Women have not been all that instrumental in making and running
governments and businesses," she says, "and when we sing our labor songs,
its like, were at home. In a historical perspective, womens politics
exist more in terms of human interrelationships, which is what weve been assigned to
take care of in society. People look at a chick singing about her abortion or her
relationships and think, Oh, thats hyperconfessional, personal, but to
me its all political. Its all related."
To DiFranco and Phillips, performing music is all about making that connection between
the individual and the group. "When Utahs singing a labor song," she says,
"the people who work in that town are coming up and saying, Yeah, me too. I
cant believe you said that."
"Yeah, you get that too," Phillips responds.
"Absolutely," says DiFranco. "Except for me, Im up there singing
my songs, and who comes up? Its young women in droves: Yeah, I cant
believe you said that. Its the same thing: giving voice to different groups of
~ ~ ~
Utah Phillips takes his role as a community voice very seriously. In fact, hes
made a lifes work of learning music and stories from people, starting back in the
early 50s with a job on a road crew and some songs by Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Snow.
"The guys on the road crew were the ones who taught me to play the guitar and sing
those songs," he says. "But it turned out that the songs werent the
important part--the people who taught them to me were the important part. I cant
remember those songs, but I can remember those people."
When DiFranco was first delving into music as a kid in the 70s, the typical way
to learn was through recordings, copping songs and licks from pop LPs. Was this her
experience? Not at all, she says. "I definitely learned how to play guitar from
people. My parents didnt have a record player, so my whole experience with music was
made by people in the room for most of my formative years. Luckily for me, there were
always a lot of people around playing guitar, and so [music] has always been something you
did, not something you bought. I didnt idolize rock stars, I
didnt have wet dreams about . . . whoever; I just had friends who were teaching me
songs. I never really aspired to that rock-star thing; it was a party."
Perhaps because of her record-free childhood, DiFranco also never adopted the common
belief that recording is the most important work of a professional musician and performing
is a secondary consideration. Phillips notes, "Too many young people are getting that
backward, that somehow a recording history is going to make a living for you. Its
not. What would Bob Feldman from Red House Records tell you, or Ken [Irwin] from Rounder?
Theyd say, For us to put out a record of you, youve got to be doing at
least 100 dates a year. Otherwise its not worth it."
DiFranco says, "Kids come up to me, and they want advice about whats the
magic formula to get the national tours and the distribution. You can see they want, want,
want all these things. And I think, Maybe you should just try to get a gig.
Maybe you should just get a gig, and then maybe you should do that every weekend for ten
years, and then see if youre not on a haphazard national tour that grew organically
and if you dont have some recordings that you made along the way that are
distributed through the people you encountered along the way."
"Whats the work of a poet?" Phillips adds. "To write poetry.
Whats the work of an artist? To paint. Whats the work of a singer? To sing. I
tell them, Fasten totally on the work. Give yourself completely to the work, till
you can do it as well as it can be done, and then people will come looking for you. But
forget the rest of it. That will happen if youre completely fixed on the
That phrase the work keeps popping up in conversation with these two, who hold
an entirely down-to-earth view of what it means to be a musician. "What mass media
have done to the entertainer in this culture is beyond description," says Phillips,
"to the point where you could have a panel of a world expert on nutrition and a
sitcom star next to each other, and they would quote and listen to the sitcom star, as if
their opinion was more valuable than this persons who has spent their life studying
something. Weve really inflated the role of the entertainer in this society, instead
of looking at the entertainer as I think we must look at ourselves: as simply good
carpenters, good plumbers. Who isnt afraid of bad carpentry? Who isnt afraid
of bad plumbing? As artists, were not any more or any less than trying to become
journeymen, journeywomen, at a trade, after an apprenticeship, and then to do that for an
adequate compensation so that we can get through in the world. Why must it be anything
greater than that?
"Thats a very deep mystery to me, how we let that get out control, how we
let that happen. Because in antiquity, even on the frontier in America, people sang and
did poems and dances as an organic part of their lives. You went from the threshing floor
to the dance floor easily. What happened that made those who could play and those who
could sing special people? More than special people--we turned them into idols, turned
them into gods."
~ ~ ~
DiFranco and Phillips may feel that performing is their true calling, and that
recording is a by-product, but theres a rich irony behind that sentiment: their
collaboration would never have happened without recording technology. The Past
Didnt Go Anywhere is a studio-created illusion, a technological bridge between
far-distant musical styles. Plus, individually, they are recording artists;
DiFranco in particular has been making records at a breakneck pace. If, as she suggests,
the fixation on recordings and product is one of the main characteristics of commercial
music that distinguish it from folk music like hers and Phillips, how do these two
deal in the record business without losing touch with the wellsprings of their music?
The answer is unanimous: by maintaining a fiercely independent stance vis-à-vis the
corporate music business. Thats a serious understatement when referring to a man who
is fond of saying things such as, "Capitalism is a criminal conspiracy to divest
those who do the work of the wealth that they create," and a woman who sings (no, screams)
at corporate America, "Im the million you never made" and has become the
poster child for DIY musicians. Still, I decide to play devils advocate and ask
them: Couldnt you deliver the same messages that you put out there as a performer
now while being part of the corporate music world?
"Not a chance," says Phillips. "It would destroy your soul. I would
rather sleep under a railroad bridge than work for these assholes. No, sir, youve
got to own the means of production. Youve got to own what you do.
"If you create it, youre not going to wait around for some big company to
sign you to a label. [To DiFranco] you created a label. Kate Wolf did that when she
created Owl Records. She didnt wait around to be invited to a folk festival; she
created one--the Sonoma Folk Festival. You dont wait around for these people to
acknowledge you. Meanwhile, sure, you make less, you learn to live cheap, you really learn
to find your wants and needs in a sensible fashion. Its like an indentured servant
buying himself out from indenture, from capitalism. But, at a subindustrial level,
you make all the artistic decisions--not the people in the front office, not the people
who try to shape your image--and thats what keeps the material flowing and fresh.
When you give in to their system, when you become a bought person and theyre going
to give you wealth, power, and fame, and the creative decisions are then being made more
and more by the people in the front office, all you can begin to write about is your
personal sense of alienation. You think over the careers of the singer-songwriters of the
60s and 70s, and thats what you hear."
"And what you have to say will become, without a doubt, systematically watered
down to be more radio-friendly and to be more accessible," DiFranco adds. "They
come up with all kinds of convincing arguments about why you should adjust your image or
why you should play this song every time you appear on TV and water down any kind
of political implications in your music, so that you can be accessible and make the
Take control and take responsibility: this credo runs deep in DiFranco and Phillips,
guiding much more than just their careers. Its a philosophy of life that Phillips
traces to his mentor Ammon Hennacy, described on The Past Didnt Go Anywhere as
a "Catholic, anarchist, pacifist, draft dodger of two world wars, tax refuser,
vegetarian, one-man revolution in America." Phillips says, "My body is my
ballot, and I try to cast it on behalf of the people around me every day of my life. I
dont assign responsibility to do things to other people; I accept the responsibility
to make sure that things get done. I love to tell that to people who are frustrated with
the ballot box. How many people do I know who have never voted for anyone who won, ever in
their lives, and are really frustrated? Its not the end of the road. Theres
another way to go, and thats with your own labor, your own sweat, your own body. I
think theres a lot of hope in that."
In the liner notes to The Long Memory, the 1996 album by Phillips and Rosalie
Sorrels, he wrote, "The long memory is the most radical idea in the country. It is
the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts
and events that clarifies our vision, not of where were going but where we want to
go." As a performer, Phillips mission is to be a vehicle for that memory, a
means by which important ideas, stories, and aspirations are passed from generation to
generation. "Im just a folksinger," he says, "but I have a real
thorough understanding of what that means. Growing up, really growing up, means at some
point in your life discovering what you authentically inherit, what you culturally
inherit. You finally recognize that, and thats what you try to put in the world. And
thats what I do now. I find that my inheritance is a wealth of song and story and
poem from my elders--especially the radical elders, who never had that wide a voice in
In creating The Past Didnt Go Anywhere, DiFranco aims to be another link
in that chain. "The pop music realm has a huge disrespect for our elders," she
says. "Its all about worshipping youth. Youth has a lot of energy, and
theres a lot of important shit that goes down in youth culture, but I dont
think that means you ignore your elders or where you come from. People may constantly want
to be inventing the new alternative, which so quickly gets co-opted and turned into just a
cookie-cutter formula, with just a slightly more distorted guitar or something, whereas
they might be ignoring the fact that they could take the same old tools--an acoustic
guitar--and be working in an old, crusty medium like folk music, and do something totally
"Like Utah would say, Shut up and listen to what came before you and see
what use it has."
--Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers