Utah Phillips: The Little "Caboose' That Did

I was shocked to find it was still there: the flanger where Utah Phillips lived when he recorded four records for Philo Records. On a rainy July day, I slogged across a muddy North Ferrisburgh, Vermont field populated by bemused llamas to pay my respects to an accidental mentor.

Sometimes we choose our mentors, sometimes they choose us, and sometimes it just happens. With Utah, it could only be the last of these. I don't think there's an adequate word in the English language to capture his special blend of spontaneity, eccentricity, cantankerousness, charm, and free-spiritedness. He could get organized, but mostly he preferred not to. I wouldn't say we were friends—more like casual correspondents who occasionally met at folk festivals and concerts. I suppose he must have planned his touring schedule and I know he had a few publicists, but it always seemed as if Phillips blew into town—even back in 1979, when first we met in Burlington and he was living in that old railroad car about 40 minutes away. This was my introduction to his colorful tales about the "Wobblies," members of the Industrial Workers of the World. 

Much as Samuel Clemens performed Mark Twain, Duncan Bruce Phillips (1935-2008) inhabited the persona of U. Utah Phillips, "the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest." Nice moniker for a guy actually born in Cleveland! He was a master storyteller because his life—though not always easy—was so rich and varied he never lacked for material. At turns he worked in a vaudeville house, did a stint in the military, organized for the Wobblies, and was a hobo of the jumping freight trains variety. He also struggled with alcoholism and nihilism for a time, which turned out to be a good baptism of fire. He eventually drifted into Salt Lake City, where he met Ammon Hennacy, an anarchist activist with the Catholic Worker Movement. Hennacy allegedly asked Phillips if he intended to do something worthwhile or be a cynical bum his entire life. Phillips ended up helping him run the Joe Hill House, a combination shelter, settlement house, and community center. All of this was great stuff for a gravely voiced guy honing his guitar skills, building up a repertoire of hobo and labor songs, and discovering that humor was a more effective weapon than cynicism. By most accounts, Rosie Sorrels (1933-2017) encouraged Phillips to take up the folk music circuit and the two became lifelong friends. 

Sometime around 1968 or 1969—rolling stones seldom circle things on the calendar—Phillips made his way to Vermont, paid $500 for an old rail car from the Central Vermont Railroad, and hauled it into the side yard of what was then Philo Records. It looks like a caboose, but a flanger is actually a retrofitted boxcar. Rolling stones don't tend to collect a lot of excess gear either. Although Utah's flanger has been empty since the 1980s, it never had much in it: clothes, a small wood stove, two berths, a bookshelf, odds and ends….  I always intended to visit him there. When I told him I was most of the way through an MA back in '79 but had never heard most of the stories he related about the Wobs, he volunteered to tell me more—as long as I promised never to call him "Mr. Phillips" again as long as either of us lived!

You know how it goes. Because it could happen anytime, it never did. I learned lots of stories from Utah, but at the aforementioned concerts and festivals, by U.S. Mail, from his records, and (later) email. I was busy as a high school teacher, he was on the road, I was probably a tad too shy, and good intentions never paved the road to North Ferrisburgh. We both moved from Vermont in the 1980s and I simply assumed his "caboose" was long gone. Then I heard of a campaign to raise money to have it moved to California, where his son Duncan hopes to convert it to a Utah Phillips museum. This time I had to see it before it was gone for good.

About the mentor thing: Utah impacted me several ways. As a historian, I learned from him the enormous power of a good tale. Unlike the born-to-embellish Phillips, I tried to make mine true, but I'm not above strategic improvements upon reality. This is especially the case when it comes to using humor. I've had lots of people who taught me more about the discipline of being a scholar, but none who made it as much fun. What's more fun that someone who ran for political office on the Sloth and Indolence ticket? Phillips made me see that those tales, songs, facts, and small struggles that seldom make the history books tell us more about what actually happened in the past than airbrushed official narratives. I wish I had Utah's knack for being simultaneously cranky and funny but, to date, I mostly do them one at a time.

I do not exaggerate when I say that he was one of three people who made me into a labor historian. I've done some things that might be remembered but in my mind, one of the coolest accomplishments is that that both Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger read a chapter of my doctoral dissertation. Maybe that's not much, but—to use the title of one of Utah's records—I'm glad I saw the old flanger and told this tale because "the telling takes me home."

Rob Weir 


Alice Hoffman's Rules of Magic Surpasses Original


THE RULES OF MAGIC (October 2017)
Alice Hoffman
Simon and Shuster, 384 pages
★★★★ ½

When it comes to cultural repetition, sequels get most of the bad press though, truth be told, prequels are far more likely to be awful. Do you know anyone who prefers any of the awful Star Wars prequels to the original? Did you ever hear anyone say they liked Go Set a Watchman more than To Kill a Mockingbird? Have you even met anyone who has read Scarlet or Before Green Gables? One of the many things that makes Alice Hoffman's The Rules of Magic a joyful read is that the prequel to her beloved Practical Magic is by far the superior novel. That's no dig at the original; Hoffman was a good writer back in 1995, but she's even better now.

The Rules of Magic takes the Owens family back two generations—to the childhood and young adulthood of Frances (Franny") and Bridgett ("Jet"), the eccentric aunts who will later raise Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic. In many ways, the two novels are the same story, though Franny and Jet grow up in New York City, not in a Massachusetts town a stone's throw from Salem. Fear not, they will make their way to that crooked Gothic house on Magnolia Street with its garden of herbal delights. There is no escaping the legacy of witchcraft surrounding Owens girls. Or, in this case, Owens children, as Susanna Owens and her husband, psychologist James Burke-Owens, also have a son, Vincent. Try as they will, these children cannot be what their peers consider normal. Franny is taller than most children, has blood red hair, loves Emily Dickinson poems, and possesses animal attraction in both senses of the word.  She is the serious and pragmatic counter to her beautiful, reticent, kind, raven-haired, thought-reading sister Jet, and their reckless, lazy, musically gifted, conjuring younger brother Vincent. (For me, Vincent evokes a young Jim Morrison.) Susanna desperately wants a conventional life for her children and lays down the book's namesake rules: "No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, and no venturing below Fourteenth Street." And there's another: Don't fall in love. Affection bonds are doomed because of a 17th century family curse and an eventual brush with Salem witchcraft inquisitor John Hathorne*—the only judge from 1692 who never expressed regret for the trials.

It gives away nothing to say that Susanna's brood will break the rules. After all, if they don't, we'd have a paragraph, not a novel. The book opens in 1960, the cusp of when bending rules is about to become the new norm. There is also the matter of the heart desiring what the heart desires, plus let's not forget that Susanna has a sister living in Massachusetts who is equal parts witch, social worker, and cranky crone.  Aunt Isabelle plies her nieces and nephew with "tipsy chocolate cake" whenever they visit, and she knows full well that Susanna's desire to suppress her children's essential nature can only come to a bad end. Her rules of magic are simpler: "Do as you will, but harm no one."

If you've already read Practical Magic, you will find tremendous similarity between it and its prequel: animus toward differences, lingering historical fears, curses, spite, white magic, difficult personalities, and the precariousness of all relationships between the enchanted and non-gifted. But Hoffman spreads literary fairy dust to keep us spellbound in the details of how the dramas unfold. Her characters have depth, her prose is graceful, and intersecting stories are well crafted. Fans of Practical Magic will revel in new details about the Owens family, but the best thing about a well-done prequel is that you need not have read (or remembered) it to appreciate The Rules of Magic. The only downfall of reading Rules first is that you might find Practical Magic tepid by comparison. It's pretty clear that Ms. Hoffman has perfected more tricks in the past 22 years.

Rob Weir

Postscript: This novel is not slated to release until October, but orders are being taken now. I read a pre-release copy courtesy of Netgalley.

*Those who have read The Scarlet Letter will know that John Hathorne bore a curse of his own. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the spelling of his surname to disavow his ties to his ancestor.



The Locals: Life in Post 9/11 America

Jonathan Dee
Random House, 400 pages

Recently a college sophomore admitted that she kept hearing the phrase “since 9/11,” but didn’t really understand what it meant. That’s no dig at her; she was two when the Twin Towers fell and the national (in)security state crystallized. But if you wanted to explain to someone her age how the world shifted overnight, Jonathan Dee’s The Locals would be a good start. It’s not a flawless novel, but it’s one of the first good looks at the George W. Bush era. It also manages to delve into social class, robber baron politics, and the erosion of the American Dream by letting internal dramas speak for themselves and resisting the temptation to moralize.

The Locals is bookended by 9/11 and the collapse of the housing bubble. It opens in New York City, where a visitor from Massachusetts, contractor Mark Frith, happens to be in town to meet with a lawyer heading a class action suit to help he and others recoup losses from an investment scam. That very day 9/11 occurred and Frith is bilked a second time by a cynical New Yorker who couldn’t care less about what happened in Lower Manhattan. This sets the stage for a novel that is about self-interest, self-conceit, and seeking shortcuts for financial, personal, and community well-being.

The novel shifts to the Berkshires town of Howland. For most people from outside the Bay State, the Berkshires are a playground for those of means who come to partake of Tanglewood, summer theater, the Kripalu yoga retreat, art museums, tea on the verandahs of old hotels, and dance performances at Jacob’s Pillow. Rich New Yorkers have long summered in places such as Egremont, Lenox, and Stockbridge. Howland is the other Berkshires, the one that makes the county the third poorest in the state. It’s a fading blue-collar town of greasy spoon diners, precarious small businesses, once elegant homes, and citizens who do what they need to get by. Mark lives there with his wife, Karen, and their daughter Haley. It’s also home to his brother Gerry, who has just lost his job as a real estate broker for sleeping with a co-worker; and sister Candace, about to walk away from her substitute-teaching job. We meet a full cast of locals and their collective problems and inequities make Howland seem like a working-class version of Peyton Place.

Hope comes to Howland in the form of billionaire hedge fund manager Phillip Hadi, who moves from post 9/11 New York City and adopts Howland as his own—literally his own. When the head of the town council dies, Hadi assumes his post and proceeds to slash taxes and to bankroll services with his own money. Is he a savior, or the Devil in a designer plaid shirt and khakis? Mark, who oversees the rehab of Hadi’s house, admires his employer and seeks his advice; Karen and Candace are more cautious, and Gerry sets up an anonymous blog to denounce the man who would be king. Most townspeople find it hard to resist low taxes and a guy willing to pick up the tab for everything.

The Locals wrestles with the question of tradition versus change. Karen works at Caldwell House, a former Gilded Age mansion turned into a house museum; and Candace lands at the town library, another relic, but one kept open with Hadi’s money. The book's characters are metaphors for 21st century tensions. Hadi is the outsider who may or may not have good ideas, Mark is the sunny optimist, Mark's occasional helper Barrett is the angry white working-class male, and Gerry the pessimist. The women wallow in the contradictions within varying middle positions. Candace is torn between her anger and her desire to help people, Karen between her admiration for elegance and the gnawing suspicion that she can only hope to visit it, and Haley with being a dutiful child and asking a teenager’s tough (and sometimes prescient) questions about why things must be as they are. Dee raises debates worth considering. Do we prefer democracy or benevolent dictatorship? Is the American Dream still attainable? Can we trust something that seems too good to be true? And there is my student’s question: How has America changed since 9/11?

Ultimately we must decide if The Locals is a cautionary tale or a description of how things work in contemporary America. I would caution readers not to get caught up in the effusive pre-release praise surrounding the novel. Dee is a good writer, but there are plodding passages in The Locals, too many incidental characters, and a sometimes-clunky arc that is slow to reveal what is essential and what's simply filler. Still, anyone who knows the Berkshires will applaud Dee’s chutzpah for revealing what lurks beneath the surface elegance.

Rob Weir