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Posts Tagged ‘Utah Phillips’

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Saul Brody, Brendan Phillips, Terry Leonino, Duncan Phillips, Greg Artzner, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer "Singing Through the Hard Times"

George Stephens, Lisa Null, Dan Schatz, Saul Broudy, Brendan Phillips, Duncan Phillips, Magpie (Terry Leonino and Greg Artzner), Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer “Singing Through the Hard Times” in 2010

When I was a very small child and I needed comfort for whatever reason, sometimes my mother would sit up on her bed and take out her guitar. I would sit beside her and she would sing to me. It didn’t really matter what the song was; I sang with her, and we would make music together. It was closeness and connection, a reminder that not everything had to be hard. There was goodness to be found.

Recently many of us have needed that kind of comfort. The rise of open race hatred, misogyny and religious intolerance in the United States and elsewhere is terrifying. For many it has been a wake up call, bringing new clarity to the work we have before us. There are entire communities at risk, and it is up to each and all of us to be allies to these communities and to one another.  There are principles of human rights, human dignity, and respect for the environment which will need defending.

But it can be hard to get started in that work when the weight of it seems so heavy. After all, the usual day to day events of our lives go on – school, work, getting ready for the holidays, and everything else that fills our attention.  When we combine all of these things with the national mood, it becomes easy to get depressed or defeated, or to turn our attention entirely away from the need that seems so much greater than our ability to help.

That’s where the singing comes in. Several years back, when I was producing a CD to honor the folksinger Utah Phillips, I learned a relatively unknown song of his called “Singing Through the Hard Times,” which eventually became the title of our album. “We are singing through the hard times,” he wrote, “working for the good times to come.” These were exactly the kinds of times he was thinking about when he came up with this verse:

And when the war clouds gather, it’s so easy to get angry
And just as hard not to be afraid.
But you know in your own heart, no matter what happens
You just can’t turn your back and walk away.  

Our “singing through the hard times” may take any number of forms; it doesn’t need to be musical. We might share food, do art, or enjoy conversations with people we love. We might come together in congregations, gatherings or holiday celebrations. Whatever it is that we do, it will be important to keep our spirits whole and strengthen our hearts as well as our communities for the work ahead of us.

Then we do the work.  Bringing “the good times” will take the dedicated effort of a great many people, and we know it won’t be easy. It will be up to all of us together to protect those who are unsafe, speak up for those whose voices are taken away, rebuild broken relationships and begin to create new and stronger ones with all kinds of people. That’s our task, and as daunting as it is, others have done this work before, and successfully. Now it is our turn.

So hand in hand together, we help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it and walk and talk and give it
The world of peace won’t be so far away.

Sing through the hard times. Work for the good times to come.

“Singing Through the Hard Times,” from the Righteous Babe CD, with footage from U. Utah Phillips

 

 

 

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Before the election, I made a personal promise to avoid immersing myself in the results.  This does not come easily for me – not only am I passionate about the causes I believe in, but I’m also a political junkie, born and raised in the Washington DC suburbs.  I follow every horse race and analyze the moves; if any networks would like to bring me on as an occasional commentator, I believe I’d be good at the job.  I’ll even get myself a pair of analo-glasses.

But, given my stands on the issues, I knew I’d probably be mostly depressed by the results of last night’s election, so I told myself I would stay away from the news.

Thus far, I have done a rotten job.  All right, I didn’t watch cable TV, but I did stay up way too late checking results as they came in, dying just a little inside with almost every race.   As a result, I’ve been depressed, impatient, and generally grumpy.  On Tuesday evening I caught myself snapping at people, and the results hadn’t even come in yet.  I’ve tried to keep a sense of humor – Tom Paxton’s Lament for a Lost Election has helped there (warning: not safe for work or children) – but when you’ve worked hard for something and cared deeply about it, it’s not that easy to just let go and accept that sometimes you lose.  Utah Phillips taught us to sing through the hard times and work for the good times to come, but he never said it would be easy.

As we navigate whatever emotional waters are for us tied up in current events, we need to remember that important as these events are, they are not all that is.  Ours is still a world of wonder and beauty no less than hardship and tragedy.  Remind yourself of the beauty.  Let it feed you.  If your soul is dry and parched, return to the well that nourishes you and drink deeply.

Go look at some art.   Listen to good music.  Sing.  Laugh.  Spend time with a child.  Read poetry.  Immerse yourself in spirit-filling prose.  Have lunch with a friend.  Walk into the November air and find the tree that has not yet lost quite all its leaves, but still shines in glory.  Discover the Autumn crocus and carry its image in your heart.  Replenish yourself, and greet the coming snows with gratitude.

There will be a time for the struggle; it has not gone away.  There will be a time to dedicate our energies once again to campaign for what we believe in.  Our work in that time will be far more effective if we come to it as whole people, spirits strengthened by the goodness around us.

Sometimes, the world can be hard.  Love it anyway.

Autumn crocus

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Note – the video doesn’t play directly from the blog, but does from YouTube.  Click the link and watch it; you’ll be glad you did.

Veteran’s Day can be a challenging observation for those of us in the peace movement. As a committed pacifist, I deplore all war. The very existence of armed conflict is, in my view, the most colossal and self-defeating waste of resources ever devised by humanity. At the same time, I recognize the sacrifices of women and men who have gone to war – some voluntarily and some not so. I’ve seen minds damaged and families destroyed by the aftermath of battle. I’ve seen good people walking around with physical and emotional injuries that will never show. And I cannot help but honor these women and men, not because of the injuries, but because of the sacrifices they made out of love of country. I may not agree with the need for those sacrifices, but I surely honor the people who made them.

Utah Phillips once said that the way wars can end is when soldiers start talking about what it was really like. He has said that his time in Panmunjom immediately after the treaty was “absolute life amid the ruins.”

On today’s Morning Edition, National Public Radio’s political commentator Cokie Roberts talked about the effect of fewer veterans serving in Congress. “You see it in debates about taking the United States into military actions where you don’t hear the voices of those very experienced veterans.” I wondered how eager politicians would be to enter wars if more of them understood it better.

I’ve always appreciated A. L. Lloyd’s Seamen’s Hymn. In its brief simplicity it captures both the honor of sacrifice and the cruelty of war:

Come all you bold seamen
Wherever you’re bound
And always let Nelson’s
Proud memory go round.

And pray that the wars
And the tumult shall cease
For the greatest of gifts
Is a sweet lasting peace.

May the Lord put an end
To these cruel old wars
And bring peace and contentment
To all our brave tars!

There are several videos of performances of “The Seamen’s Hymn,” but to my ear this recording from a pub sing captures it best. This is how the song should be sung – by the people, often and loudly.

On this Veteran’s Day, may we honor sacrifices made in war, recognize its cruelty, and join together in prayer for the greatest of gifts – a sweet lasting peace.

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Last night folk music lost one of our dearest friends. On October 24, Faith Petric died at the age of 98. She had been performing up through the last few years. (You can see videos of her performing Geritol Gypsy and You Ain’t Been Doing Nothing If You Ain’t Been Called a Red.) Faith was a mainstay of the San Francisco folk community and a mentor to hundreds, if not thousands, of musicians.  Here’s a link to a lovely remembrance by Stephen Taylor.

At 98, it would be hard to call Faith’s death unexpected, but it’s a huge loss. I met Faith when I was fifteen, producing a benefit concert for the homeless at my high school in conjunction with the People’s Music Network conference that year in Washington DC. Being fifteen, and from the east, I’d never heard of her, but she was invited onstage by the other musicians. She had the most inviting personality of any performer I’d ever seen. Without any artifice, she led us all in Jerry and Bev Praver’s song, “This Old Man Should Go Back Home.” It became a staple of my repertoire for the rest of the Reagan administration.

Years later, Faith donated her beautiful recording of If I Could Be the Rain for a CD I produced, Singing Through the Hard Times – a Tribute to Utah Phillips. She was as gracious and warm as ever.

I was in touch with Faith only a few times since then, but I’ve always felt a warmth, admiration, and kinship with her. The world is a little sadder tonight for her loss.

Goodbye, Faith. It was a pleasure to know you.

Note:  This post was updated with a couple of corrected details on October 31.

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About five years ago I was sitting around with a group of good friends, all of whom were first rate musicians, talking about another musician, Utah Phillips. At the time Utah was ill, and folksingers around the country were putting benefits together to help pay his expenses. I’ve always like that about the folk music community – it may be a tough way to make a living, but it’s a real community, and we take care of each other.

I floated the idea that maybe we could put together a CD of some of us singing Utah’s old songs, and within about 30 minutes we had our first seven tracks spoken for. Over the next year, I spent much of my spare time working with dear friends Kendall and Jacqui Morse, engineering wizard Charlie Pilzer, and the good folks at Ani Difranco’s Righteous Babe Records to put together a two CD set honoring the life and music of Utah Phillips – Singing Through the Hard Times.

Utah never lived to see the final product, but he knew it was happening and was grateful. His death that May left us all in tears, but it was a comfort that he left the world knowing his music would continue, and grow, even after he was gone.

One of the good friends at that gathering was Will Brown – one of the best and most unassuming musicians and human beings I know. Will prefers to work with other folks when he sings, so he asked Cindy Kallet and Grey Larsen to join him in the most beautiful and haunting version of Utah’s “Going Away” I have ever heard.

Last week I discovered Will’s recording had been made into a video, and with Will’s permission, I share it with you. It’s a beautiful piece of work, simple and elegant – just like the song and just like Will’s arrangement of it.

You may want a hankie for this one. It’s a thing of beauty.

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