Friends come together to help Utah Phillips
By Blaise Schweitzer , Freeeman staff
When bad things happen to great activist folk singers – like the cardiac problems that have laid Utah Phillips low these last few years – activist folk singers like Pete Seeger and Dar Williams rally to help.
The Rosendale Recreation Center is the locus of a Hudson Valley fundraiser for Phillips, a renowned hobo-folkie. Currently in cardiac rehabilitation therapy, the 72-year-old Phillips is known for singing and railing against oppressive governments, union-busting employers, polluters, wars and even National Public Radio’s business-program “Marketplace.”
Upon learning of Utah’s plight, organizer Sarah Underhill pitched the idea for a fundraiser to Seeger, Williams, and a few hundred of her closest friends. Seeger and Williams immediately agreed to be the headliners and the event itself gained so much momentum that it jumped the tracks. Originally slated for the Rosendale Café, the event has been moved down Route 32 a ways to the much larger Rosendale Recreation Center.
Reached by phone at his Beacon home, Seeger said he had to help.
“Utah is a hero to thousands of us, maybe hundreds of thousands of us,” Seeger said, lauding Phillips’ integrity and ability to make people laugh.
Seeger, who is 17 years Phillips’ senior, recalled how Phillips came to him for career advice a few decades ago.
The encouragement Phillips received was salted with reality.
“I said, ‘Well you don’t get rich but you meet the best people in the world and you sing for all sorts of people that can’t afford to pay you anything,'” Seeger said. “‘You’re lucky if you get the gasoline money to drive there or train fare,'” Seeger recalled.
And no, folk singers seldom get health benefits, Seeger acknowledged, hence Sunday’s benefit.
Reached by cell phone as she was working in the garden of her Beacon home, Williams recalled that it was at a fundraiser for another cause that she met Utah in 1999. They were both performing for free to support a string of liberal radio stations.
During that performance, Williams said her admiration for Utah grew when she learned he had passed on a well-paying gig in order to support the cause. So a few weeks ago, when she learned that she could be there for Utah now that his finances are in trouble, she stepped right up.
“As soon as I heard that they wanted me to do something for him … I said yes,” Williams said. “There are some things you do reflexively. And that’s one of them.”
She had heard that across the United States other organizers had put on similar concerts to help out Phillips, but this was the first one she was invited to join.
Many of Phillips’ performances, including the one eight years ago at the Bardavon Opera House in Poughkeepsie, often involve as much talk as music, as he regales audiences with memories of riding the rails during his hobo years.
Williams said she’s heard quite a few of Utah’s anecdotes, but hungers to hear more.
“He’s just filled with stories. They’re really important parables for us,” she said, comparing Phillips to Seeger and John Lennon. “I think all of them have the vision. They see a world where people do honest work and honest work gets rewarded and honest work gets culturally valued.”
Bardavon head Chris Silva, who said he’s going to try to attend the Rosendale event, said Phillips brought the house down during his Bardavon performance, part of a solstice concert where he went off on a tangent deriding Christmas consumerism.
“His 15 minutes got a complete standing ovation of the entire house,” Silva said. “The audience was screaming for him to come back. … He’s such a lefty, such a hobo. He’s such a man of the people and it was so sincere.”
Expect plenty of mutual admiration at the Rosendale event. In addition to their appreciation of Phillips and his work through the years, Williams is a big Seeger fan and vice versa.
Seeger credited Williams with helping extend his career. He’d pretty much hung up one of his favorite songs, “Turn, Turn, Turn” because he had trouble hitting the high notes, he said, until Dar spent some time with him.
“With my old voice I couldn’t sing it high anymore, and I’d stopped singing it,” Seeger said. “Dar said ‘put it way down there’ and all of a sudden now I’m singing it again.”
Williams’ memory of the song is a strong one as well, she said. “We sang that together on the Conan O’Brien show,” she said.
Williams, who is 41, is doing well enough as a singer-songwriter that she actually has health benefits, but just.
“I can barely pay for it right now. It’s a real pain,” she said, laughing at a question about whether she may need to call in any favors if she falls on hard times.
“Usually I do fundraisers for groups that can’t raise money for me, so I don’t know if that’s going to happen,” Williams said.
Seeger and Williams will be joined at the event, by Norm Wennet, Redwood Moose, the Flames of Discontent, Jude Roberts and Lily McCabe and Sarah Underhill with the High Meadow Larks.
IF YOU GO
What: Concert to benefit folk singer and activist Utah Phillips
Who: Featuring Pete Seeger, Dar Williams, Sarah Underhill with the High Meadow Larks, Norm Wennet, Redwood Moose, the Flames of Discontent and Jude Roberts and Lily McCabe.
When: 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Rosendale Community Center, Route 32 Rosendale.
HOW MUCH: $20