Shawn Phillips: A Hip Voice Still Singing

A long long time ago, I can still remember how that music used to make me smile. — Don McLean, American Pie

It’s a shame that the word “hippie” has taken on such a pejorative cast in mainstream society. Although I never completely turned on, tuned in, or dropped out, my sympathies have always been with the ideals of peace and love, man.

In the very early 1970s, when the revolution didn’t seem so far away, and the horizontal world might still have been able to go vertical (in the parlance of science fiction writer Spider Robinson), I returned to the Bulkley Valley in northern British Columbia without a job or much in the way of prospects.

I had just completed a graduate journalism program in Eastern Canada, on top of a degree in psychology. I had decided that running rats in a maze for science didn’t amount to much, and I had too many reservations about my own psychology to presume to want to massage any one else’s. So the idea of learning an actual trade as a reporter or journalist made sense to me, in a kind of romantic airy fairy way. I didn’t realize at that time that janitors tend to make more than reporters on most publications. I might have been discouraged at the meaning of my education.

All my resumes to large daily newspapers, small daily newspapers, regional weeklies, small town weeklies and trade publications had been duly ignored at the end of school and so I returned to the terrain where I grew up: mountains, meadows, snowy winters, and the slender poplars of summer, with their shimmering silvery leaves.

In the little town of Smithers, I finally got a job as a childcare worker and for a year or so, I ran a drop-in centre for teens with chips on their shoulders.

I lived in a variety of houses and apartments, mostly in town, and one very memorable farm on the Telkwa High Road with three other single guys making their way in the world. But that is another story…

In this story, while living in a tiny house in Smithers, my youngest brother turned me on to Shawn Phillips. This brother was closer to being a true hippie than I was, and even today in his fifties as a successful entrepreneur, he still wears beads and bracelets. At that time, he, his girlfriend, and other friends were engaged in trying to develop a community at Pacific, an old settlement only accessible by railroad and canoe on the other side of the Skeena River near Terrace. They were going back to the land, striving to escape the rat race, a common and endearing dream of the times. (My other brother made his living as a range rider, a real cowboy, and then as a logger, but he too always returned to the land as the repository of his dreams.)

seccontrOne evening Morgan asked me to sit down and spend some time with this album by Shawn Phillips, called Second Contribution (1970). Once you listen to “She Was Waitin’ For Her Mother at the Station In Torino And You Know I Love You Baby But It’s Getting Too Heavy to Laugh” (also known as “Woman,” for short), you won’t ever forget that voice.

(For a wonderful video of Phillips in concert singing this song, see this, although the sound is a little scratchy…)

The covers of those early 1970s Shawn Phillips albums are iconic to me. The impact of a memorable record sleeve cover was much more than the same CD image now, just because of the larger size, like a small poster. The cover of Second Contribution with the back of that robed figure on cracked ground, long hair down the back still carries old memories to me as do the covers of Collaboration (1971) and Faces (1972).

collaborPhillips was in on the ground floor of the 1960s. While in Canada he helped Joni Mitchell learn to play guitar. He released a couple albums of conventional folk music, and became a regular in the Greenwich Village folk scene. Then he moved to London where he teamed up with Donovan to write music and roomed with Paul Simon. He wrote the music for Donovan’s Season of the Witch, and probably contributed to many more of Donovan’s songs at that time, especially on the Sunshine Superman album, but was never given credit.

He sang back-up on the Beatles “Lovely Rita” and taught George Harrison what he had learned from Ravi Shankar about playing the sitar. (The first use of the sitar in Western recorded music was probably Phillips on one of Donovan’s songs.)

facesHis multi-octave voice never produced a breakthrough hit on the pop charts, although his albums did appear there, and Second Contribution did eventually go platinum. But Phillips had bad experiences with management and the music industry in general and became estranged from it… so much so that in the mid-Eighties he was down to playing music and panhandling on a pier in California, it is said. But that must have been a very short episode, because over the years until the present day he has recorded 20 albums.

Over the years he lived in Italy, and most recently in South Africa, where he has given many concerts. He has begun touring again and can be seen once more in North America. This year he is touring the American mid-West and South, particularly in Texas, where he was born.

I was reminded of Phillips when I ran across his most recent album, a live recording of concerts in South Africa in 2007. His voice is still there, although perhaps its sharpest, highest edge is a little worn by the years. He is after all, now 65 years young. That live recording also has an accompanying DVD, by the way. He is apparently now more interested in writing classical music, even working on a ballet, but still performs his older, and newer, songs in concert.

There are many of Phillips’ songs that have become favorites. Of course there’s The Ballad Of Casey Deiss about a close friend who was killed by lightning one day in the woods.

Here’s a recent video (from 2010) of Phillips giving a private performance in Indiana with a local jam band called One Side Later of the song Everything She Gives Me.  The musicianship is wonderful.  And I get a kick out of the bass player….

But my favorite is the lovely L’Ballade:

In the consecrated chambers of a mountain’s winter day
I left her at the turning to go on her seeking way

I have found his music to be inspiring, moving and even cathartic over the years.

I wish him well.

…And the moonshine
moonshine
moonlight halo gonna tell about a coming rain

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11 Comments on “Shawn Phillips: A Hip Voice Still Singing”

  1. griffinsky Says:

    very instersting..the wow factor….one is most ixcited when one relly finds his or her self….

  2. suburbanlife Says:

    An amazing range in his voice – but the nasal passages really bring back memories of much of the vocal sound of the 60s and 70s. There were some remarkable singer/musicians back then, music made that transported one to another place entirely. Thabks for this travel! G

  3. fencer Says:

    Hi suburbanlife,

    Yes, so many talented musicians from that time, many unheralded now… the music scene now seems so much more fragmented, and without radio as an important component of introducing new acts and new sounds, music doesn’t seem able to propel the culture the way it once did…

    Thanks for dropping by!

    Regards

  4. Rick Matz Says:

    Shawn Phillips. Man does that bring back memories.

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Rick,

    Yes, a blast from the past…

    Regards


  6. I’ve pulled the album off iTunes-beautiful, especially L’Ballade. Thanks for introducing me to it. In a more contemporary vein, have you heard David Broza? Check out Painted Postcard, if you can. He does beauty to Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “The Art of Losing,” and especially listen to “In Snow,” a musical interpretation of my teacher Liam Rector’s poem. As always, you’re a gift.

    Best,
    Mary

  7. fencer Says:

    Hey, Mary, so nice to hear from you…

    Glad you enjoyed Shawn Phillips. I’m pleased he is performing and active again, and introducing himself to a new generation.

    I have never heard of David Broza. I will certainly check him out, though…

    Regards

  8. forestrat Says:

    dude,

    I had not heard of this guy before so I watched the YouTube clip. Very cool.

    I can tell that he has the chops to hang with any of the more well known performers from the “hippie era”, but it seems that he chose to go another way with his music than what typically got a lot of air play.

    I know what you mean about music no longer able to “propel the culture”. I’ve often thought to myself throughout the Iraq war – “Where are the protest songs?”

    I read an article the other day that Neil Young created an entire protest album and got the rest of the C,S,N, and Y group to tour it. It seems that the reaction from fans was overwhelmingly negative – real real negative. I guess nowadays you have to stick to accepted politically correct themes which I think puts a damper on creativity and expression.

    MDW

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi forestrat,

    A whole different climate now… I think about what happened to the Dixie Chicks.

    And people do like to revisit and relive their favorite songs… that makes many people not very receptive to new directions or enthusiasms from the artists they’ve always known.

    You’re right on about what happened to Shawn Phillips… he insisted on going his own way for better or worse.

    Regards

  10. qazse Says:

    feeencerrr… interesting post/discussion. I had forgotten about Shawn Phillips. He was there in the middle of it all.

    Today’s musical styles seem to support a more raspy voicing versus the clear and pure. I remember singers such as Lightfoot, Colin Blunstone, Judy Collins, Ann Murray, Stevie Wonder… beautiful voices gracing the collective airways with melody. Then it seemed everyone wanted to sound like Springsteen, then Cobain, and on into metal core. It seems to fit their music better. It is hard to imagine Shawn singing Tourette’s.

    I consider the Kinks and Neil as grandfathers of punk- born of realism and raw power but still embodying hope. I find it sad that much of what I hear today is devoid of hope. Perhaps it is truer than we thought, music reflects our collective psyche. We are surrounded by calamity and the art reflects it.

    Best

  11. fencer Says:

    Hey qazse,

    Seems like that clear and pure poured out of the folk tradition… those you mention, and Joan Baez springs to mind too, but too much clarity of anything isn’t artsy and funky enough, I guess. Although I often like a good raspy voice too… I hadn’t thought of that continuum.

    There is something missing in contemporary music… maybe hope, or a larger vision of some kind. May help explain the great expansion of Christian rock, if you can believe it…

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    Regards


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