Many of the usual suspects will grace the red carpet at the 2010 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles in January: Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and the Black Eyed Peas. But there will be new faces in the crowd, too, including the Rev. Dan Schatz, the minister of the BuxMont Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Warrington, Pa., who also received a Grammy nomination this year.
Schatz, along with his two co-producers, has been nominated for the Best Traditional Folk Album for the two-CD set “Singing Through the Hard Times—A Tribute to Utah Phillips.” The CD, which features performances by Pete Seeger, Ani DiFranco, Tom Paxton, Emmylou Harris, Rosalie Sorrels, Gordon Bok, Schatz, and other musicians, celebrates the music of Utah Phillips, an iconic folk singer and storyteller—and also a Unitarian Universalist—who died in May 2008.
A folk singer himself, Schatz conceived of the project as a way to honor and raise money for Phillips, who was suffering from congestive heart failure. He proposed the idea to his fellow musicians Kendall and Jacqui Morse at a musician’s gathering in Maine in February 2008. The three became co-producers of the project and began contacting folk musicians who might contribute tracks.
“Everyone we talked to said, ‘Yes,’” said Schatz. “It just grew organically. It’s very grassroots.”
Performers sent in their tracks. Schatz helped complete the final mastering of the 39-song album on his sabbatical from the BuxMont UU Church in late 2008 and early 2009. The album’s executive producer is recording artist Ani DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe record label released the album in February 2009. A devotee of Phillips, DiFranco had recorded two albums with the folk singer in the 1990s. All proceeds from “Singing Through the Hard Times” are donated to Phillips’s family.
Bruce “Utah” Phillips was a fixture on the folk-singing circuit from the late 1960s until his death. He jokingly called himself the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest.” His songs and stories were both political and humorous. Phillips had served for three years in the Korean War. His disillusionment with the war turned him into a pacifist and an anarchist. When he returned to the United States, he became a hobo, riding trains, and began to craft his talents as a singer and storyteller. Phillips settled into a Salt Lake City homeless shelter run by activist and anarchist Ammon Hennacy, who became a guiding force in Phillips’s life and beliefs. Phillips joined the Industrial Workers of the World, or “Wobblies,” union, and became an outspoken labor advocate. After losing a bid for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Ticket in 1968, Phillips devoted himself to folk singing.
“He loved all of life,” said Schatz. “Utah was a poet who lifted up the stories and the voices of the poor and the dispossessed and made them human in a way that is very powerful.”
On “Singing Through the Hard Times,” Schatz performs “Queen of Rails,” a song about a hobo’s dog, who waits for his master in a railway yard. Schatz also performs in the ensemble song and title track, “Singing Through the Hard Times,” along with Magpie, Greg Artzner, Emma’s Revolution, Cathy Fink, and Marcy Marxer.*
“He was a hero to all of us,” said Schatz.
Though he was a self-described anarchist, Phillips belonged to a Unitarian Universalist Church. He attended the UU Community of the Mountains, near his home in Nevada City, Calif., in the foothills of the Sierra Madres.
“He was a fascinating church member, kind of a reluctant church member,” said Meghan Conrad Cefalu, minister of the church. “But he loved the community.”
Speaking once at a service at UU Community of the Mountains, Phillips said, “This is a spiritual family, which I have chosen, and this is a family which will not and does not make rules for me. This is the family, which says to all of us—enjoins all of us—to think with the mind that we have, and not the one we're supposed to have.”
Cefalu said that Phillips was inspired by the congregation’s commitment to social justice and by the people in the congregation. Phillips helped found the Nevada City Peace Center and Nevada City’s Hospitality House homeless shelter.
Cefalu presided over Phillips’s family graveside service. The family had printed memorial cards with a picture of the singer and a quote of his: “There are too many people doing too many good things for me to afford the luxury of being pessimistic.”
Phillips wrote the song “Singing Through the Hard Times” to mark the founding of the Nevada City Peace Center, according to Schatz, who has hopes that one day the song will be included in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. In the course of producing the CD, Schatz spoke with Pete Seeger, legendary folk singer and friend of Phillips. Also a UU and a longtime member of the Community Church in New York City, Seeger sings one of his own songs, “Or Else! (One-a These Days)” on the tribute CD. Schatz sang a verse of the little-heard song “Singing Through the Hard Times” to Seeger over the telephone one day.
Hand in hand together
We help each other carry
The light of peace within us every day
And if we can learn to live it
To walk and talk and give it
That world of peace won’t be so far away.
We are singing through the hard times,
Singing through the hard times
Working for the good times to come.
Schatz says that Seeger listened, then paused, and simply said, “That’s beautiful.”
Cefalu hopes that the CD and the additional attention it is receiving because of the Grammy nomination will bring the life and work of Utah Phillips to the attention of a new generation. “He has a fascinating life story, and a lot of us are too young to connect with the life of riding the rails and the IWW,” she said. “We can continue to learn from him and from his stories. I hope that if people listen to the CD, then they’ll listen to more of his stories.”
The 2010 Grammy Awards will be held on January 31 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Schatz plans to attend, along with his wife, Geeta Shivde, and his co-producers, Jacqui and Kendall Morse.
This spring, Schatz will release his third album, “The Song and the Sigh.” Schatz says that the CD combines his music and his ministry. “All the songs are relevant to the life of the spirit,” he says, and the liner notes include written reflections to accompany each song. “Some are songs of social justice and peace,” Schatz says. “Some are songs that deal with grieving and loss.” And in the tradition of Utah Phillips, some are about finding hope in difficult times.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed Marcy Marxer. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.
- Singing through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips. 2-CD set featuring Emmylou Harris and Mary Black, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, John McCutcheon, Rosalie Sorrels, Gordon Bok, Ani DiFranco, Magpie, Jean Ritchie, Dan Schatz, and more. Nominated for a Grammy award. (UUA Bookstore)
- A Tribute to Utah Phillips. Description of CD on Righteous Babe Records website. (righteousbabe.com)
- Dan Schatz’s website. (danschatz.com)
- Utah Phillips Tribute video. (youtube.com)