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Utah Phillips/Ani DiFranco: Fellow Workers

Now for something completely different

By Fred Choi

What is there to say about Ani DiFranco that hasn’t already been said? She is a woman of innumerable talents and titles: a CEO, a songwriter, a poet, a wife, a political activist, an outspoken bisexual, an articulate champion of the right to abortion, and a folk singer. The last of these, a self-given name, has been the cause of more than a few discussions, especially given that some of her albums have strayed from her previous folk influences into rock and funk. Even The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, DiFranco’s first collaboration with renowned folk singer-writer Utah Phillips, was more rock than folk.

Thus it is somewhat surprising that the ever experimental DiFranco’s latest album, her second collaboration with Phillips, is not just folk-influenced, but for the most part die-hard folk music. As enjoyable as the new album is for hard-core DiFranco fans, those expecting the sound of the popular albums Little Plastic Castle and Not a Pretty Girl will be disappointed. However, Fellow Workers is an album that all people should listen to for what it is -- an untold history communicated through compelling, humorous, and emotional stories and traditional songs.

Fellow Workers is a folk album focusing on the early 20th century American labor movement. For the previous Ani/Utah collaboration, DiFranco added funk and rock-influenced instrumental tracks to existing tapes of Phillips’ stories culled from 100 hours of recordings. She described the project as “acoustic trance-dance hiphop with a dusting of grandpappy rap.”

Although this album features the same concept -- DiFranco adding musical backing to Phillips -- it is much more collaborative. Their most recent effort adds DiFranco’s fantastically adept touring band, including the astounding Julie Wolf on organ and keyboards, Daren Hahn on drums, Jason Mercer on banjo and bass, and Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum making a guest appearance on solo trumpet during the gorgeous “The Long Memory.”

Most of the songs are traditionally arranged, such as the tender ballad “Joe Hill” and the Baptist hymn-styled “Pie in the Sky,” while the others, such as “Bread and Roses” receive a more contemporary treatment. The songs are all pleasant, but only after repeated listenings will those unfamiliar with folk music find themselves really appreciating both the songs. Also, it takes some time to get used to Utah Phillips’ gruff voice, although it is full of expression and conviction.

Even though the songs are moving and rousing, the bulk of the album’s strength lies in its stories, told with conviction by Phillips. He lends them an air of authenticity and immediacy by describing the people behind them. He tells stories of injustice and triumph centering on real people who worked, suffered, and sometimes died for the things that we take for granted today. He points out that textbooks are full of “the history of the ruling class...the generals and the industrialists and the presidents who didn’t get caught...the history of the people who owned the wealth of the country, but none of the history who created it.”

He tells of Mary Harris Jones, “Mother Jones,” who Theodore Roosevelt called “The Most Dangerous Woman in America” -- when she was 83 years old -- for her efforts to help miners. While the men were organizing the miners, Mother Jones lead the miners’ wives, and “armed with mops and brooms they drove the scabs out of the coal pits.” Because of her work, the 8-hour work day law was finally enforced.

Some of the stories are painfully poignant and arouse strong emotions, such as “Lawrence,” which recounts how workers and their families starved because of a factory strike during a harsh winter. In that tale, a girl held a sign on the picket line that said simply but eloquently, “We want bread, yes, but roses too.” The slogan lent its name to the strike and gave the song the timeless lyric: “Hearts can starve as well as bodies, give us bread, but give us roses.”

The album was recorded in front of a live audience in New Orleans, adding excitement and spontaneity. Although some of the tracks include flubs, the energy of songs like “Why Come?” and “Direct Action” more than makes up for minor imperfections. The only stylistic element that I was unable to appreciate was the superfluous impromptu vocals on “The Most Dangerous” and “Why Come?” Although some fans may dislike this radical divergence in style, those with an open mind should enjoy the combination of DiFranco’s music and Utah Phillips’ enlightening stories and songs.