The Common Good
March-April 1997

Questioning the Way Things Are

by Nicki Nelson | March-April 1997

Ani DiFranco and Utah Phillips build a bridge to the future.

If you asked young people to name some folk singers, most of us would probably think of those who professed political dissatisfaction and social revolution in the ’60s and ’70s—Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, and before them Woody Guthrie, singers of an earlier era. But a new young singer who is making a place for herself in the contemporary music scene is self-proclaimed folk singer Ani DiFranco. Beginning in 1990 with her self-titled album, she now has produced eight albums and brings her punk alternative folk sound to sold out shows and fans primarily made up of young hard-core feminists.

DiFranco recognizes the debt owed to earlier artists. One contemporary folk artist receiving attention from DiFranco is 61-year-old storyteller and political activist U. Utah Phillips. On the recent release The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, Phillips’ stories, words of wisdom, and political commentaries mix with DiFranco’s musical talent to create a powerful combination. Much more than background music, DiFranco’s musical accompaniment of hip-hop, funk, and folks styles follows the mood and tempo of Phillips’ stories and creates a single work out of two people’s ideas.

Phillips’ material comes from 20 years of traveling and learning as he shares his experiences from the Korean War, his anger and bitterness afterward, and his ideas about the current political system. Though a ’70s folk singer, his opinions are as relevant today as they were then.

On the track "Anarchy," Phillips shares his realization that to be a pacifist means not only giving up violence but also giving up the "weapons" that a white male in 20th-century America is born with, the weapons of privilege. He reminds us that our bodies themselves and everything that comes with them can be used as weapons against humanity.

On the cut "Natural Resource," Phillips warns college students about becoming America’s most valuable resource: "Have you seen what they do to valuable natural resources?...They’re going to strip-mine your soul, they’re going to clear-cut your thoughts for the sake of profit, unless you learn to resist...." We’ve got to get out while we still can.

As the album title suggests, the past didn’t go anywhere. But Phillips and DiFranco bring it to the present. The first track, "Bridges," demonstrates the importance of knowing how our history relates to our present. This connection is one reason why DiFranco sought out Phillips for this project: "He’s not all that old, but he’s been to the mountain and he’s seen the valley." Bringing his work to a newer audience bridges the past with the present and shows us that it’s all one thing.

Even though The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere is not a DiFranco solo album, it still follows the path and style that she created for herself in earlier releases. With the powerful words of Phillips, this new album treats many of the same issues that DiFranco addresses, but with a whole new perspective. With the music to round it out, each song forces us to question the way things are and to decide if we want to keep them that way.

DIFRANCO’S LATEST SOLO album, Dilate, is as hard hitting as her earlier efforts. But apparently not everyone thinks so. "I had an interview with someone today," she told the crowd at the Madison, Wisconsin show I attended. "[The interviewer] said, ‘Now, your new album Dilate...sounds a little softer.’" She laughed out loud, and we in turn laughed along with her in a conspiring way. Then she wondered aloud, "Are you listening to the right folk singer?"

And folk singing is what DiFranco does as she takes it to another plane. She acknowledged such "important people" as Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, and Leadbelly. In a beautiful tribute to Guthrie, with her amazing voice that ranges from gritty to airy to melodic, she sang "Do-Re-Mi," letting us know how much of a folk singer she is and that she, too, does not hold false illusions about the way of the world.

On her current tour, DiFranco is playing songs from not only her newest solo release, but off many of her other albums. She garners a response; it seems you either like her or you don’t. Every song and album hits hard—questioning and confronting the norms and status quo. She’s struck a chord in people that’s either got them running toward her or running away.

Her whole style and operation avoids the normal and mainstream way of doing things. Take for example her record company. At the age of 18 she paid approximately $50, got the necessary papers, and opened up Righteous Babe Records in Buffalo, New York, where she is now the CEO. With this grassroots operation, she has artistic and managing control over every aspect of her company, from album cover design and album production to touring decisions. As a result she also ends up making more money per album sold and receives a higher percentage of profits from her concerts than most other musicians who are on major labels. She’s not playing their game...and she is still winning.

NICKI NELSON is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Past Didn't Go Anywhere. By Ani DiFranco and U. Utah Phillips. Righteous Babe Records, 1996.

Dilate. By Ani DiFranco. Righteous Babe Records, 1996.

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