By my reckoning, there are tons of truly remarkable people breathing air within America’s borders, but how many of them could be classified as bona fide national treasures? Now I know any list would totally be subjective and would likely differ from person to person, but I have a few folks that’d likely make such a list. Lalo Guerrero and Harry Belafonte are two I can think of right off the top of my head, and a third would be Utah Phillips. Though he’s best known for his infamous “Moose Turd Pie” story, made popular by the Dr. Demento radio show, Phillips was a bit more than the teller of off-color tales of vengeful Gandy dancers. While it’s true that he was a folk singer well versed in once-ubiquitous songs that most couldn’t even pretend to know these days, he also was self-described anarchist, a Wobbly, a labor organizer, and former candidate for the U.S. senate, trainhopper, and a myriad of other things—and yes, he was one helluva fine storyteller, the kind that could spin a tale about folks familiar and obscure and leave you feeling like you’d known ‘em your whole life. This release, recorded at a 1999 Free Speech Teach-In, is a fine example of what Phillips did so well. Interspersed between songs not “learned from books or records, but from sitting in front of live people and saying, ‘Sing that again,’ until I finally got it,” as he explains in the album’s liner notes, are tales of people who lived the essence of the First Amendment—Emma Goldman, Mother Jones, and Ammon Hennacy, to name a few—and of long-ago strikes, massacres, and moments when common men stood up and used their right to free speech to demand something more from those who were trying to give them less. Inspirational, smart, funny as hell, and always engaging, Making Speech Free serves as a fine example of why Utah Phillips was an American treasure: When he passed on in 2008, decades of stories, histories, songs, and life experience went with him and, though he left many fine recordings, nothing can replace the loss of the man.
–jimmy (PM Press)