Warning: this review contains references to unions and other materials offensive to people of a conservative bent. Read at your own risk
Utah Philips and Ani DiFranco have teamed up to release another collection of stories and songs. After the success of their first collaboration, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere I was eagerly looking forward to this second volume. I must admit to being a little disappointed with this follow up effort.
Although Fellow Workers continues where the first album left off with Utah telling stories of people he has known and places he has been their impact is lost by the more direct involvement of other performers. Instead of just having Mr. Phillips telling his tales and venting his spleen with minimal musical accompaniment, he is joined by a choir and an assortment of musicians. Primarily these accoutrements serve only to divert our attention from focusing on what should be the main attraction: Utah and his stories.
But Utah’s power is such that nothing can negate him, so he shines through like a rough cut diamond among zircons. His no nonsense, gruff delivery as he recounts early Industrial Workers of the World Union stories(the I.W.W. or the Wobblies) grabs you by the ear and holds you.
Utah is on a mission to tell the history that has been left out of the history books we read in the schools. He says that there full of the stories of the bosses and the generals, not the people who actually built the land. He’s gone around to the seedy hotels and the flop houses where the old timers have lived out their last days collecting their history so he can preserve it in the only way possible.
They are the stories of the men and women who fought for the right to work only eight hours a day, for safe working conditions, and for the dignity of working men and women across the United States. From the textile mills of Laurence Maine to the lumber camps of Spokane Washington the strikes and personal stories are recounted with reverence and dignity.
He tells us of Mother Jones, who at 83 was named the most dangerous woman in America by Teddy Roosevelt. She spent her whole life agitating for a better life for the miners of Kentucky and all the other coal producing states. We hear how when the Governor of Colorado sent out the militia to disburse the miners she went out on her own to face them down and won.
We learn about the young women who were sold into near slavery in the textile mills of Laurence; girls shipped over from France and the low countries in Europe who could speak no English and who were wedded to the looms. How that during an awful strike they had to send their children away to homes as far off as New York to ensure that they would be fed. That during the walk to the train station they were attacked by the militia in an attempt to break their spirit.
We are told of the attempts to silence Union organizers in the logging camps out in Washington by passing ordinances prohibiting public speaking. And how in response the unions gathered all the workers and lined them up for blocks and each one would climb up a soap box and start to speak only to be arrested. The cost of feeding four thousand workers proved too great so they had to rescind the law.
Utah’s story telling is magnificent, his enthusiasm for the subject matter combined with an imposing gift for narrative make this collection both entertainment and an education. At times the musical accompaniment is appropriate, during the occasional song for instance(“Pie In The Sky” is a hilarious send up of “The Sweet Bye and Bye” and the version on this c.d. is particularly good) but I’d have preferred they had left Utah’s stories to stand on their own.
Those of you thinking to buy this as an addition to your Ani DiFranco collection will be disappointed. She stays in the background arranging the music and allowing Utah centre stage.
Whether you agree with Utah’s sentiment that these histories of the men and women who fought the war’s that guaranteed the rights and freedoms that all of us take for granted, child labour laws, health benefits, and the forty hour work week, are as important as the history we learned in school or not, there’s no denying the quality of his performance.
Fellow Workersis a fine an example of the traditions of storytelling as oral history that you can find on the market anywhere.
If you are an admirer of the old organizers and union members you’ll want to own this disc for the stories. If you just appreciate the ability to tell a story and make it entertaining you’ll enjoy it too. But be careful, you may find some preconceived notions challenged and your mind opened to new realities. Listening is a dangerous business, you never know what your going to hear.