Ani DiFranco
& Utah Phillips,
Fellow Workers
(Righteous Babe Records, 1999)

Ani DiFranco is the name that will get copies of Fellow Workers into people's homes and into their stereos. But it's Utah Phillips, her grizzled partner on this album, who will keep the CD playing.

Not having heard DiFranco's previous collaboration with Phillips, the 1996 release The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (also released on DiFranco's own Righteous Babe label), I had no idea what to expect from this new release. A few spins of the disc, however, and I've decided their earlier album is worth seeking out.

Fellow Workers isn't an album of alternative rock or folk pop by any stretch. Rather, it's a musical stage on which Phillips tells stories of the American workers' plight and their struggle for rights as the nation developed. And it's a bloody powerful tale he tells, shot through with hardship and death, corruption and plain dirty dealing, and the indomitable spirits of the American men and women who refused to bow down and take less than they deserved.

Some he tells in straight storyteller fashion, with DiFranco and Phillip's Mensabilly Band providing a musical backdrop. Others he sings, sometimes alone, sometimes with a harmonic accompaniment by DiFranco and others in the band. Believe me, when Phillips first opened his mouth for a sing-songy chant called "Stupid's Song," I was prepared to dislike this album immensely. But then he launched into the story of Mother Mary Harris Jones, the miners' friend, who at age 83 was labeled by President Theodore Roosevelt "the most dangerous woman in America" -- a fiesty champion of underground workers across the country, driving scabs from the coal pits with a broom and singlehandedly facing down a militia.

And I was hooked.

The Phillips/DiFranco story-song "Direct Action" combines an amblin' melody and rhythm section with the story of the Spokane Free Speech Fight in 1910, when workers flocking to the silver mines and logging camps found a unique solution after being denied their rights to public speech. The music keeps the story moving as Phillips tells the history in an animated lecture style. It's one of several fascinating tales on the album and it leads directly into the traditional Joe Hill ballad, "Pie in the Sky," which disputes the notion that people should give all they have now and starve so they can get all they can eat in the afterlife. This one is sung by Phillips and friends in a perfectly mocking Baptist choir style.

"Shoot or Stab Them," again a Phillips/DiFranco collaboration, is another story, this one about Lucy Parsons, a black woman from Texas who married a Confederate lieutenant and moved to Chicago, where they got involved in the movement for labor rights. Her advice, given in the 1930s in Chicago's Haymarket, is a nasty, but spunky, bit of social redefinition.

The album's 18 tracks were recorded in front of a live in-studio audience and, while it's a given they're already on the side of the performers, the crowd's reactions give the recording the feel of a folk benefit and workers' rally. Phillips' down-home style of singing and talking is a treat to hear, and little touches -- like when, in "The Saw-Playing Musician," he is diverted from one story to tell another and forgets where he was in the first -- add to the live, you-were-there feel.

The musical additions to the stories and traditional rallying songs are an unusual but highly effective accent that make the album even more enjoyable. DiFranco and a half-dozen accompanying musicians never step into the spotlight and detract from Phillips' words.

But listening to Fellow Workers isn't all a pleasant experience. It's not meant to be. Phillips gives listeners a cold dose of reality, a generous helping of American history we're rarely served. Not everyone will have an appetite for those lessons, but we should all digest it just the same. As educator/writer Howard Zinn explains in the liner notes, Phillips and DiFranco have collaborated "to bring a message of defiance, disobedience, and solidarity ... (and) remind us of a history that we were not taught in schools and colleges. They tell us of people who, like us, seemed to be powerless before the might of corporations, but who struggled and fought back, and changed their lives."

It might even inspire a few reactions to current conditions, which still aren't all bread and roses for every worker in America. The rockin' conclusion to the story "Why Come?" asks that very question, pondering why young people today aren't moved to do what their predecessors did generations before them.

Phillips and DiFranco incite even more with the brief, dissonant song "I Will Not Obey," which is sung and played to strike a few sour chords -- a purely intentional choice.

A lot of great American folk music was inspired by adversity, and this album is a new treasure of that tradition. Phillips provides the real wealth in Fellow Workers, and DiFranco adds glitter and polish to the sound. This album is well worth repeated listening.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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