Utah Philips, Black History

It’s Black History month.

Long-time friend, Peter Barus, out in rural Vermont, sent the following along on Feb. 1.  Carve out the 55 minutes to listen to this, while in the midst of all the junk we’re dealing with these days.

I knew of, but little about, Philips.  You can read more about him on-line if you wish.  I listened to the entire link, and found it a fascinating piece of history, and think you will too.

Thanks, Peter.

Peter: This is a link to a file you can download (right click and choose “download linked file”) or just play, of U. Utah Phillips old radio show.

U. Utah was the real thing, a veteran, a hobo, a Wobbly, a follk singer and raconteur, a friend of Pete Seeger and everyone else you could want to have met. He was a good friend of Ani Defranco.

(Sorry, I can’t help imagining a friend introducing him to U Thant, former UN Secretary General: “U., have you met U? U, U.” But Phillips would understand, being also a comic of rare subtlety.)

He brings all these people alive, and plays recordings of their songs and stories and words. Gene Autry singing “The Death of Mother Jones.”

Louis Farrakhan playing Mendelssohn on the violin.

This show is his Black History Month offering, and I, with my intimate memories of the movement, was profoundly moved. Phillips introduces it with the forceful admonishment that white people cannot define “racism”: instead we must listen to those most affected, to learn how it really works.

One thing that stood out for me was the simple ordinariness of the message conveyed by people who had been painted so inaccurately, to this day. Hang together, or hang separately. And we learn about the larger context too: about Abel Meeropol, the Rosenbergs, and “Strange Fruit.”

We learn that the Chisholm Trail was named for a Black cowboy, and another invented steer-wrestling.

Did you know Louis Farrakhan played the violin? He not only did that, but was given a rave review in the NYT. And this was recent.

Mumia Abu Jamal speaks. Old gandy-dancers carry actual rails into a concert hall for their performance of track-lining chants. MLK and Malcolm X speak, and seldom do we hear the words Utah Phillips gives us, somehow sidestepping the media filters and revealing wise, prescient leaders that make the present crop of wannabes cringe and slink into the background.

Worth getting a warm beverage and just sitting for an hour. It will ring through the days that follow, as if you had just stepped out of time into this new reality, and can see the contrasts and samenesses as never before. And get a new purchase on the persistent stupidity that still plagues us all.

POSTNOTE: A commentary in today’s Washington Post seems a relevant fit.  You can access it here.

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