Interview with Utah Phillips

by | May 30, 2008 | Clown

I was saddened, like many others, to hear of Utah Phillips passing. The warmth of his gravely voice rides deep in my heart. In June of 2002 I interviewed him backstage at the Kate Wolf festival on the Black Oak Ranch in California. We had crossed paths numerous times at folk festivals. I was aware of his connection to old time Vaudeville, and new time Vaudeville. I wanted to ask him about clown, how the profession was regarded in Vaudeville days, and his thoughts on humour. I received a lot more than that, including an in depth discussion of how he worked the stage. I would like to share his words with the world at large. Here is the interview that I recorded :
Moshe: What I’m looking at is funny. What’s funny, what does funny mean to people and do people relate clown to funny. I’m also interested in a historic perspective, specifically did you go to see vaudeville when you were young?

Utah: Yea let’s start with vaudeville and let’s examine it. My father, I was adopted when I was five by Sid Cohen and moved into a Jewish neighborhood. My father very briefly managed the last vaudeville house in Cleveland called the hippodrome. That was the end of vaudeville, that was right after the second world war 45-46 and then it was a few decaying vaudeville acts and then Nat King Cole trio, whatever else he could find to book there. Then we got to Salt Lake of course the lyric theater was still doing vaudeville. Probably a pale form of it, maybe two nights a week, no matinees that I recall. Gosh I loved that too. My father really worked hard to get live entertainment on the stage. The theaters in Salt Lake were big vaudeville houses, 1500 seats, in Salt Lake City because that was the end of the Pantages circuit. They could fill those houses.

So he looked at them, saw the 74 foot catwalks, for hanging your backdrops, the dressing rooms most of which had caved in…there were all these old posters down there of the playbills. He really brought live music, live theater, live entertainment back to those houses because that is what they were built for, they weren’t built as movie palaces.

Moshe: Your father was doing that in Salt Lake City?

Utah: Yea, but I dug into vaudeville and there came up at that Vaudeville Nouveau conference that Jeff Razz put on in San Francisco the difference between vaudeville and vaudeville nouveau and that’s where I come into it. I’m certain of this that the vaudeville nouveau was defined as funny. That if you are not making people laugh or go “cho” (exclamation of being impressed by a marvelous feat) that you’re not doing well.

Vaudeville had the monologists, vaudeville had people singing ‘ the Baggage Coach Ahead’ and ‘Mother, Queen of my Heart’ and ‘Daddy, Come Home with me Now’,; it had people weeping, from sentimentality and feeling heroic with the great monologues. That’s what was missing ( in vaudeville nouveau) that was the difference, you still had the comedy, you still had the song and dance but there was this full play of human emotions. I guess the reason that I was invited to that conference is because some of the vaudeville nouveau people saw that I was doing that : that in the characterization that I create known as Utah Phillips, that I was doing things with some passion, stories with some passion and definitely story-telling, but that there was pathos connected with it.

I could sing ‘The Blind Boy’s Dog’ or ‘The Drunkard’s Son’ and at the same time talk and sing with great passion about Everet massacre, the Centralia massacre, these enormously powerful events in American labor history, just American history-the part that never gets talked about much. After that I always felt invited in to that circle. Paul Maggid, from the Karamozovs’ said you’re included in this because he understood. That’s the way he understood it the same.

The live part of it, is the part that I like the best. Call it accessibility, the difference between the trade and the industry. I work at a sub-industrial level, I have nothing to do with the entertainment industry because it’s isolating and alienating and it robs you of control over your creative process. In the trade, you make all the rules, you’re completely in control of what it is you create. You take a stiff price break for it, you know. You make an honest living but you don’t make a killing and that’s fine with me as long as you can be free but you got to work at it you know. You’ve got to work at it more because you don’t have people in the front office hustling you.

That’s why I learned pretty early, that with marginal vocal and instrumental skills, I was going to have to do other things. That’s where the stories happen.

But also I was going to have to do things like come into town early and beat the streets: go to the organic food store, go to the battered women’s clinic, go to the local union headquarters. Arrange in advance to go visit those people and find out what was going on in this town. I always had the local newspaper sent to me a week before I got there so I could read the want ads, see what people were selling. Get some place names, hooks to hang things on. People needed to understand when I got to their town I wasn’t doing the same show I did the town before. That I really knew where I was and who I was with. Really paying attention to them and who they are and if there was a hold-out line, and in later years there got to be hold-out lines, even in the dead of winter I’d go out and stand in line and kind of make jokes about this schmuck….you know “Who is this guy?” for the benefit of people who didn’t know who I was and to amuse who did, and that way I had done my warm-up by the time I walked on stage- (voice of a spectator)”That was that guy!”…see cheap theatrical tricks.

The idea was that the performance didn’t begin when I hit the stage and when I left the stage. It began when I hit the city limits and then when I left the city limits. And that’s the way that I would work it. I would read about each town, the demographics. I want to be boarded, not in a hotel, I want to be boarded. I would make sure people would understand this, people who were booking me; somebody who is familiar with the politics and the culture and the authenticity of the town and it’s history. That can take me around and show me this stuff so I can ask questions, like being paid to go to school. And that gives me the substance of songs and the substance of stories-it’s got to come form somewhere.

I learned this really early when I got into the trade when I left Utah where it was a habit of people who were doing $25 a night, sleeping on floors-we’d all get together in a bar and sing until sunrise until it was time to move onto the next town. I might as well stay in the same town if I am doing that . I am not learning anything, I’m not getting enough to make the stories, the make the songs out of. It got to a point, finally, and I only learned this when I had to stop touring because of the congestive heart failure that some other folks decided that the stories stood by themselves, so I was invited to storytelling festivals-it felt really odd to tell the stories and then not have a song, just kind of leave, really peculiar but that seemed to work OK. People asked me see, feel like making a record of just the stories? We want just the stories. They were probably music critics, and so I did that.

Now I feel that the stories are really working better, and I would rather do that than sing. I feel a strong kinship with old vaudeville, that the work that I am doing now was possible then and that the only medium that it is possible now is in the folk music world.

Moshe: Right, I don’t really see a circuit for what I do in today’s culture. I guess vaudeville just kind of disappeared really.

Utah: Well vaudeville got killed, it didn’t just pass away. It was killed off by the depression, by motion pictures, by people…part of vaudeville was that people could go there and sing. The latest song that the publisher was flogging from bar to bar would show up on stage. You wanted to take that song, that was hot off the presses, sheet music; people would go into every bar and get somebody to sing it, then soon it is going to show up on the ‘vaud’ stage and the whole audience is going to sing it, then you’re going to sell sheet music. That whole thing collapsed with recorded music and with radio.. It was no longer the piano with the sheet music n the living room, people singing those songs.

Vaudeville was killed essentially by technology. And isn’t it true that the role of the clown back then was much broader than it is now. That today people say kids….

Moshe: Right. Birthday parties.

Utah: Yea, stuff like and that is really unfortunate because it demeans the trade.

Moshe: Right that is what I was going to ask you about. Back then clown meant something else. What did it mean back then. Were there performers in the vaudeville circuit doing non-verbal comedy?

Utah: Oh yea, sure, there were also the tableaus which were a unique kind of mime. Did you ever see those?

Moshe: no

Utah: Oh that is where you would take the sinking of the battleship Maine and the curtain would open and there would be a tableau of living human beings and props and it would be there for about five minutes and people would look at it and study and the curtain would close and that would be it.

Moshe: and it wouldn’t move the whole time?

Utah: No, it was like a three dimensional painting, and then it could be something else, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The curtain would open, it would be a whole, people in every attitude.

Moshe: Were people laughing when they saw this?

Utah: No, no , you could have Willie the Weeper who was pathetic. And a clown-he would be called a clown but he wasn’t making people laugh, he was making people cry.

Moshe: Clown, just like you were saying, it can cover the whole spectrum.

Utah: Well the whole range of human feelings. I think that if a clown isn’t studying to do that, isn’t trying to do that, I’m not saying that it is mandatory, but I think that you are missing a whole lot if you are not trying to move people in every possible way. That’s the way I feel about it when I’m on stage. I want to move people in a variety of different ways and laughing a part of it.

Moshe: In those days there would be performers in the vaudeville circuit who would be called clown or considered clown?

Utah: Yea

Moshe: So that was a term that meant somebody…so like Charlie Chaplin in those days, I mean he was a clown as far as I can tell-I mean much more he was a wonderful great spirit. I mean would people call him a clown?

Utah: I think so, that he was clowning around.

Moshe: That he was clowning around?

Utah: You see clowning around was part of what he did.

Moshe: So hold out line, does that mean people who couldn’t get into the show because it was sold out?

Utah: People just waiting to get in, because see you’ve sold out the house, and so you know there’s a hold-out line and some people aren’t going to get in. I might go out, if I know there are people who aren’t going to get in, I might go out and sing a song just to say hi, to say I’m sorry that you can’t get in.

Moshe: You were on the bill solo then?

Utah: Yea, oh yea. I’ve worked the single and after some years moved it away from the bars, and into the concert setting. For me that is a two act play called “Utah”. I do act 1 and act 2 with an intermission.. Each half is a little better than an hour. I do a long show. Everything is strung together in a very specific way. Can I describe that to you?

Moshe: Sure if you feel like it.

Utah: Sure, it’s an interesting process, and I think that a ‘vaud’ act is constructed in a somewhat the same way although of course in vaudeville you are talking about 12 minutes of boff material and here I am talking about two hours so I have a little more time with it. OK here is a pure vaudeville concept.. Max Sennett, who was in vaudeville before he made movies. Here is the Sennett formula, the Sennett formula was used by Jack Benny, by Fred Allen, the great radio comedians; but he (Sennett) was using it in vaudeville.
You’ve got four kinds of laughs. You got a chuckle, a guffaw, a belly laugh and a boffo. A chuckle just ripples through an audience, a guffaw is so absurd that everybody just gets it at the same time so that the laugh curve is blup blup (Utah’s hand rises straight up in the air and then straight down). A belly laugh goes off like flash bulbs. You wait for a while because it is going to ripple through the crowd and then as soon as that dies you use the laugh that kills, the boffo, that takes all the energy out of the audience and you start over again with your chuckle because you can’t build energy unremittingly-you know this –you’ve got to start over again.
So, the Sennett formula I ran into listening to Myron Cohen in Las Vegas. My father used to take me down there in his old Buick when I was a kid just to listen to Myron Cohen, my who was my idol. Myron Cohen was the one said to me when I asked him how he chose stories, he said I only tell stories that have no victims, because I don’t want to hurt anybody, that’s not what I ‘m getting paid for. He said’ I’d hear these dumb bar jokes and these dirty jokes, I hear racist-he didn’t call them racial jokes you know-I hear these Negroe jokes. I take out what is funny, the comic value and I reshape it into another story that is more benign, that has no victim. Unless the victim is myself he said, I make fun of myself.
That is a good lesson too. So how do you know what you’ve got? If I come across a line, hear somebody use a line, if a line occurs to me or I hear a whole story, how do I know whether that’s a chuckle, a guffaw, a belly laugh or a buffo? Well you work it out socially. My friends always know when I am going to leave town ‘cause they say “Oh God, he’s doing it again”….you try it out socially so you can put them in the right place. Having done that, you’ve got your material and you know what sequence it is supposed to be in, how do you time your audience?
Well there about four different audiences. Say, the New England or eastern seaboard is really authority over conscious, they respond to anything done with a modicum of authority. Then there is the mid-western audience who really don’t care how you get there. You see the west coast audience is full of refugees from authority, so they want You, they want to know more about you when you leave the stage then when you walk on. That’s why I know people like the great Gamble Rogers who didn’t work well in California, because they didn’t know more about him…he was great but he was the same, they knew the same when he went off as when he came on. There is that, that I am dealing with three types of audiences, one that avoids intimacy, one that embraces intimacy, and the middle one who doesn’t care how you get there.
But then given the evening and the condition of reality, the news, how is this particular audience time. You see me at the beginning do a song, “Railroading on the Great Divide” and I am going to do three stories in-between the verses, and those stories are going to time that audience, so I can adjust the timing through the whole program you see.
Now I want to get people to laugh and to sing together who are friends. There is nothing more lethal than an evening of political music. Now I am going to give myself in a six song set, I do two six song halves; I’m going to give to myself two songs right towards the end, the fourth and fifth song to do what I am there to do, politically. That window, that intense thing, and then I am going to come out of it. And we’re going to sing and we’re going to laugh some more. That’s the only way the politics take. Because it’s like I say, unremitting tension, you can’t do that you know. You’ve got to break the tension so you can build it again. And that’s essentially how it is constructed. Through the intelligence I get through the newspapers, through asking questions, through studying the town I’m going to, working the line, the hold-out line, timing my audience and then creating windows when I can deal with them seriously.

Moshe: That sounds great! It brings up a thought-I’m thinking about a conversation I had this morning with a woman from adult camp (Winnarainbow) whose wanting to take this character out on the street and play it. It is a parody of a military figure and she is very upset, not upset, but angry about the war, the supposed war on terrorism-the shift that the country has taken in terms of repression of expression or encouragement to tow the line and not break it. I brought up the thought that you can go into certain venues where you are preaching to the converted, not in a negative sense-that that is a negative thing to do –but if that image if you are trying to change the minds or at least affect the minds of the people who aren’t going to go into those venues, and you at the same time you don’t want to piss them off, and you want to reach through to them, well humor you can try to bring it to them through humor rather than trying to tell them off or tell them that this is the way it should be…do you have any comments about that?

Utah: That’s my whole game. I never, in fact I’ve resisted vigorously, being typed as a political singer, I want to be a folk singer. I want that general folk music audience, I want people who’ve been working all week and say ” Honey let’s go see this guy” or “we’ve heard this guy’s pretty good.” I want to make friends with them, first, and then I’m going to deal with them seriously, yes! Over time people have turned around some and said “yea, that’s worth thinking about” or “I’ve rethought that some.” I’ve seen that happen. It’s a slow careful kind of surgery.

People have to change their own minds, you can’t change people. They change their own…you just give them the tools to do that and the time and the space to do that. And then change is going to happen. Beatin’ people over the head or saying you’re wrong, yelling at them, I see that doesn’t work. I want a general audience, the mainstream folk music audience out there, Manisty, Michigan or whatever, the folk society of Columbus, is right in the middle, or a little bit to the right. (Those are the) People I want. The worst times I have, in fact the worst organized concerts I have are done by political people because the political people treat me like an organizing tool and not an American worker, and then I have to yell at them. You know: ”here’s my union card, now treat me like a human being”; and they’re the worst audiences as far as that goes because everybody expects me to do their political agenda. I know people who can do that like Fred Small, I can’t. So, I avoid that kind of situation.

Moshe: that’s wonderful to hear you talk about that. It sheds some light.

Utah: OK. Well I’m going to go find my wife and my dog. Hey thanks a lot for getting that out of me. I don’t talk about that much.

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