Utah Phillips Has Left the Stage
"Utah" Phillips died this week at the age of 73. He was a musician, labor organizer, peace activist and co-founder of his local homeless shelter. He also was an archivist, a historian and a traveler, playing guitar and singing almost forgotten songs of the dispossessed and the downtrodden, and keeping alive the memory of labor heroes like Emma Goldman, Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World, "the Wobblies," in a society that too soon forgets.
Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935, in Cleveland, by his midteens he was riding the rails. He told me of those days in an interview in 2004. By then, he was slowed down by congestive heart failure. His long, white beard flowed over his bow tie, plaid shirt and vest. We sat in a cramped attic of a pirate radio station that was frequently raided by federal authorities. In the early days, he met old-timers, "old, old alcoholics who could only shovel gravel. But they knew songs."
In 1956, he joined the Army and got sent to postwar Korea. What he saw there changed him forever: "Life amid the ruins. Children crying-that's the memory of Korea. Devastation. I saw an elegant and ancient culture in a small Asian country devastated by the impact of cultural and economic imperialism. Well, that's when I cracked. I said: 'I can't do this anymore. You know, this is all wrong. It all has to change. And the change has to begin with me.'"
After three years in the Army, he went back to the state that earned him his nickname, Utah. There he met Ammon Hennacy, a radical pacifist, who had started the Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, inspired by the Catholic Worker movement. Hennacy guided Utah Phillips toward pacifism. Utah recalled: "Ammon came to me one day and said, 'You've got to be a pacifist.' And I said, 'How's that?' He said, 'Well, you act out a lot. You use a lot of violent behavior.' And I was. You know, I was very angry. 'You're not just going to lay down guns and fists and knives and hard angry words. You're going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.' If there's one struggle that animates my life, it's probably that one."
Utah's pacifism drove him to run for the U.S. Senate in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom ticket, taking a leave of absence from his civil-service job: "I was a state archivist-and ran a full campaign, 27 counties. We took 6,000 votes in Utah. But when it was over, my job would vanish, and I couldn't get work anymore in Utah."
Thus began his 40 years in "the trade," a traveling, working musician: "The trade is a fine, elegant, beautiful, very fruitful trade. In that trade, I can make a living and not a killing." He eschewed the commercial music industry, once telling Johnny Cash, who wanted to record a number of Utah's songs: "I don't want to contribute anything to that industry. I can't fault you for what you're doing. I admire what you do. But I can't feed that dragon ... think about dollars as bullets." He eventually partnered with one of the most successful independent musicians in the U.S., Ani DiFranco, who created her own label, Righteous Babe Records. Their collaborative work was nominated for a Grammy Award.
Utah Phillips was a living bridge, keeping the rich history of labor struggles alive. He told me: "The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. You haven't gotten it in your schools. You're not getting it on your television. You're being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. Mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we've been through and trivializing important events. No, our people's history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions." On his radio show "Loafer's Glory," he once said, work on this planet has been to remember."
A week before he died, Utah Phillips wrote in a public letter to his family and friends: "The future? I don't know. Through all of it, up and down, it's the song. It's always been the song."
© 2008 Amy Goodman