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Ho Ho Hobo: Ever notice how you never see Utah Phillips and Santa in the same room?

Phillips' Magna Vox

Yes, we get the irony of referencing a corporate trademark in a headline about old-school anarchist icon and master folk storyteller Utah Phillips. Thanks.

By Steve Palopoli

Let me tell you a little story," says U. Utah Phillips. Now, when Utah Phillips asks you to let him tell you a little story, you let him. This is just what you do. It's like Wolfgang Puck asking if he can come over and make you dinner. Or Alan Greenspan offering to balance your checkbook. Or Evel Knievel asking if you want to go for a ride on his new stunt bike. You just go with it. (Do not, however, let Evel Knievel attempt to balance your checkbook).

How did Phillips get to that level? Well, a lifetime of plying his storytelling trade; a talent for pulling classic American folk songs like "Hallelujah, I'm A Bum" back in the public consciousness; a streak of political orneriness; and that "golden voice of the great American Southwest" have earned Phillips comparisons to Mark Twain and Will Rogers and made him one of America's most essential raconteurs. And as if that weren't cool enough, he has lots of good stories about hobos.

So, like I said, if Phillips asks you to let him tell you a little story, you let him. Right now, he's telling me one about television.

"There was a Peace Corps volunteer," begins Phillips, "working in a small village in Africa with a whole crew of volunteers. When they left, they gave the village the gift of a television set. He came back a couple of years later, and nobody was watching the television. He asked what would be the mayor, the head man of the village, 'Why aren't you watching the television?' He said, 'Because we have a storyteller here.' And the young fella said, 'Don't you think the television knows more stories then your storyteller?' And the head man said, 'Yes, the television does know more stories than our storyteller. But the storyteller knows me.'"

Such is the beauty of a Phillips yarn. Did this actually happen--I don't know, we can only hope Peace Corps volunteers aren't running around distributing TV sets. Does it get the point across? Hell, yeah.

Television in particular and media overload in general are among Phillips' biggest concerns, and they've led him to some very interesting views on the current state of storytelling. While he champions groups like the National Storytelling Association and the People's Song Network that are working to preserve the American traditions of tales and tunes, his biggest fear is not that we're running out of stories--quite the opposite, in fact.

"There are too many stories," says Phillips. "Every TV commercial is a story. These people on Madison Avenue with their motivation analysis have really learned the art of storytelling--that great storytelling, the archetypal storytelling, is really grounded in sex, death and the other, that which is strange or outside of the group. They've really learned how to masterfully use storytelling to jerk people around to get them to buy products."

The issue, then, would be quality rather than quantity--how can we tell better stories for better reasons? Phillips is known for telling some of the best around, which he attributes not to any of that fancy-schmancy book-learnin', but to a lot of footwork throughout his life. He'll be the first to tell you that good storytelling is as much an art of listening as it is of talking.

University of Utah

"I've spent most of my life seeking out my elders," says Phillips. "That's been my university--the old tramps, the old Wobblies, Socialists, activists, mine and mill organizers, people living on short money, sometimes in the skids. And they tell me the substance of their lives, and I find in that the truth of my life and where I came from. That's far more valuable and more beautiful than the best history book I ever read in school."

Thanks to his work with Ani DiFranco and the fact that he's still performing despite "retiring" from touring in 1996, a whole new generation of fans is finding Phillips himself to be more valuable than the best history book they ever read in school--and a hell of a lot more fun to spend an evening with, too. The term "national treasure" has already been put into play. But he'd prefer it if everybody stayed calm.

"I don't like what's happened to the entertainer in this culture, the elevated and exalted position," he says. "I want to be treated like a good plumber or a good carpenter or electrictian. I know my trade and I apply my trade, I do it honestly, and I don't want to be treated with any more special consideration or dignity or praise than a good plumber or a good carpenter. At all."

Plumbers and carpenters, of course, get to pass on their accumulated knowledge to their apprentices, so they have no need for a songbook (well, except for the Carpenters). Phillips, on the other hand, has finally put together his own songbook, with a suitably anarchist twist--it's being released as an audio recording, so that it can be used by musicians who can't read music, and includes the stories of how each song, 61 of them in all, came about.

Fans, however, will be saddened that the new songbook may very well be followed by another milestone in Phillips' career.

"That's about the last thing I feel like I need to record," he says. "There's too much to do. There's got to be an end to some things, and a beginning to other things."

U. Utah Phillips performs Saturday, Jan. 11, 7:30pm, at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $21; call 479.9421.

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From the January 8-14, 2003 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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