“Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.” - Bruce “Utah” Phillips 1935–2008
I love this quote. Jim Nunally & I will be joining Duncan Phillips & Erin Inglish, Misner & Smith, and other friends at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Wednesday, January 14th for a tribute Utah Phillips, a benefit for a documentary about his life and labor organizing. I appreciate and am inspired by his activism, his gifted songwriting and storytelling. I did not know Utah Phillips personally and since Duncan invited us to perform, I’ve been researching him. Parts of his life resonate with me – war, veterans, the underdog, labor, homelessness, violence transformed into pacifism, rage against injustice. My family history and life stories crisscross this same terrain.
I believe in Memory and Tradition and feel that our lives carry forward a thread from our ancestors. Music and storytelling wake us up to this connection, and breathe soul into our lives in this fast-paced, numbing, technologically ever-evolving world. I agree with what I believe Utah Phillips stood for – engage with the world on timeless terms (not the values of mass marketing, unquestioning patriotism, pop culture), seek to right wrongs, help the underdog. Make a difference.
At the Intersection of Life and Music
Everything moves so fast these days. Trying to reflect AND engage in today’s world is not that easy. Last week, with modern speed, I left my new little house on San Pablo Bay and flew to Gulf Breeze Florida, straight into 250 years of family memories. My sister and I spent several days helping Mom pack and move to a new place, smaller but with better accommodations and services for folks getting up in years.
My mother is the genealogist in our family and has filing cabinets full of very old letters, family tree diagrams and notes, photos, and mementoes. I am so glad I had the job of going through them with Mom. We visited our past, our ghosts.
We unearthed a passionate love letter from a teenage boy to my mother dated 1950. I touched fine crochet doilies from my great-aunt Sudie. Looked at photos of great-grandmother Birdie Vann and John Hoke Perkins, of my mother holding onto the skirt of her mother’s long dress. Letters from Daniel Robinson 1841-42 of Brooklyn CT who fled the grief of losing his wife and children to the flu, and traveled by train around Europe. (My mother researched the references in those letters and has published a beautiful political and social history tied to those letters and Daniel’s travels.) I found a letter from “Santa” (my great-grandfather Will Robinson) to his daughter, my Grandma Nell, circa 1910. And a letter from a Union ancestor writing his Confederate son after the Civil War, concerned, sad, wanting to re-establish connection.
There is a priceless (to me) 1964 tape recording of me and my brother from Okinawa, where my father was stationed in the Air Force, telling our grandparents that our baby sisters had been born (surprise! Twins!).
We packed, we sorted and categorized KEEP, STORE, TOSS, DONATE. So many memories passed through my fingers, over my tongue, through my head, I feel their residue even now several days later. Despite being at home in California, I do not feel at home. Perhaps because the speed with which I had to make the transition from being embedded in family and memories to this place I have lived without blood kin for 35 years – that 8 hours of planes and cars somehow separated me from myself.
Or stretched my life across the country and like a rubber band it will stretch and stretch but eventually come back to center (ouch!). Or not. As Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “Man’s mind, once stretched by a new idea, never regains its original dimensions.”
I had a carton of old, mostly handmade Christmas ornaments that got destroyed in a water-heater fiasco this past Fall – at a time when I was so wanting to hang onto tradition, to feel “at home” in a new house and life. I was heart-broken – but just for a minute, because even in the turmoil that I am in right now, my heart actually stirred with the idea of creating new traditions. Mom and I talked about that. At 80 years of age, she is looking ahead and imagining the new things this move will bring to her life.
Mom and her husband Leon are giving up so much to make this move. They know and we kids know too, that there are new traditions still to be created and enjoyed, and challenges that keep us moving forward and growing and that make up our daily lives. Yet the past stays alive in us also. Thank goodness for music and stories, which do the seemingly impossible task of helping us remember where we came from while looking forward to who we want to be.