In Praise of Utah Phillips
I was watching my baby daughter sleep in her carseat outside of the Sacramento airport about ten hours ago when I noticed a missed call from Brendan Phillips. He’s in a band called Fast Rattler with several friends of mine, two of whom live in my new hometown of Portland, Oregon, one of whom needed a ride home from the Greyhound station. I called back, and soon thereafter heard the news from Brendan that his father had died the night before in his sleep, when his heart stopped beating.
I wouldn’t want to elevate anybody to inappropriately high heights, but for me, Utah Phillips was a legend.
I first became familiar with the Utah Phillips phenomenon in the late 80’s, when I was in my early twenties, working part-time as a prep cook at Morningtown in Seattle. I had recently read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and had been particularly enthralled by the early 20th Century section, the stories of the Industrial Workers of the World. So it was with great interest that I first discovered a greasy cassette there in the kitchen by the stereo, Utah Phillips Sings the Songs and Tells the Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World.
As a young radical, I had heard lots about the 1960’s. There were (and are) plenty of veterans of the struggles of the 60’s alive and well today. But the wildly tumultuous era of the first two decades of the 20th century is now (and pretty well was then) a thing entirely of history, with no one living anymore to tell the stories. And while long after the 60’s there will be millions of hours of audio and video recorded for posterity, of the massive turn-of-the-century movement of the industrial working class there will be virtually none of that.
To hear Utah tell the stories of the strikes and the free speech fights, recounting hilariously the day-to-day tribulations of life in the hobo jungles and logging camps, singing about the humanity of historical figures such as Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was to bring alive an era that at that point only seemed to exist on paper, not in the reality of the senses. But Utah didn’t feel like someone who was just telling stories from a bygone era — it was more like he was a bridge to that era.
Hearing these songs and stories brought to life by him, I became infected by the idea that if people just knew this history in all it’s beauty and grandeur, they would find the same hope for humanity and for the possibility for radical social change that I had just found through Utah.
Thus, I became a Wobbly singer, too. I began to stand on a street corner on University Way with a sign beside me that read, "Songs of the Seattle General Strike of 1919." I mostly sang songs I learned from listening to Utah’s cassette, plus some other IWW songs I found in various obscure collections of folk music that I came across.
It was a couple years later that I first really discovered Utah Phillips, the songwriter. I had by this time immersed myself with great enthusiasm in the work of many contemporary performers in what gets called the folk music scene, and had developed a keen appreciation for the varied and brilliant songwriting of Jim Page and others. Then, in 1991, I came across Utah’s new cassette, I’ve Got To Know, and soon thereafter heard a copy of a much earlier recording, Good Though.
Whether he’s recounting stories from his own experiences or those of others doesn’t matter. There is no need to know, for in the many hours Utah spent in his troubled youth talking with old, long-dead veterans of the rails and the IWW campaigns, a bridge from now to then was formed in this person, in his pen and in his deep, resonant voice. In Good Though I heard the distant past breathing and full of life in Utah’s own compositions, just as they breathed in his renditions of older songs.
In I’ve Got To Know I heard an eloquent and current voice of opposition to the American Empire and the bombing of Iraq, rolled together seamlessly with the voices of deserters, draft dodgers and tax resisters of the previous century.
In reference to the power of lying propaganda, a friend of mine used to say it takes ten minutes of truth to counteract 24 hours of lies. But upon first hearing Utah’s song, "Yellow Ribbon," it seemed to me that perhaps that ratio didn’t give the power of truth enough credit. It seemed to me that if the modern soldiers of the empire would have a chance to hear Utah’s monologues there about his anguish after his time in the Army in Korea, or the breathtakingly simple depiction of life under the junta in El Salvador in his song "Rice and Beans," they would just have to quit the military.
Utah made it clear in word and in deed that steeping yourself in the tradition was required of any good practitioner of the craft, and I did my best to follow in his footsteps and do just that. I learned lots of Utah’s songs as well as the old songs he was playing. Making a living busking in the Boston subways for years, I ran into other folks who were doing just that, as well as writing great songs, such as Nathan Phillips (no relation). Nathan was from West Virginia, and did haunting versions of "The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," "Larimer Street," "All Used Up," and other songs. In different T stops at the same time, Nathan and I could often be found both singing the songs of Utah Phillips for the passersby.
Traveling around the US in the 1990’s and since then, it seemed that Utah’s music had, on a musical level, had the same kind of impact that Zinn’s People’s History or somewhat earlier works such as Jeremy Brecher’s book, Strike!, had had in written form — bringing alive vital history that had been all but forgotten. With Ani DiFranco’s collaboration with Utah, this became doubly true, seemingly overnight, and this man who had had a loyal cult following before suddenly had, if not what might be called popularity, at least a loyal cult following that was now twice as big as it had been in the pre-Ani era.
I had had the pleasure of hearing Utah live in concert only once in the early 90’s, doing a show with another great songwriter, Charlie King, in the Boston area. I was looking forward to hearing him play again around there in 1995, but what was to be a Utah Phillips concert turned into a benefit for Utah’s medical expenses, when he had to suddenly drastically cut down on his touring, due to heart problems. I think there were about twenty different performers doing renditions of Utah Phillips’ songs at Club Passim that night. I did "Yellow Ribbon."
Traveling in the same circles and putting out CDs on the same record label, it was fairly inevitable that we’d meet eventually. The first time was several years ago, if memory serves me, behind the stage at the annual protest against the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. I think I successfully avoided seeming too painfully star-struck. Utah was complaining to me earnestly about how he didn’t know what to do at these protests, didn’t feel like he had good protest material. I think he did just fine, though I can’t recall what he did.
Utah lived in Nevada City, and the last time I was there he came to the community radio station while I was appearing on a show. This was soon after Katrina, and I remember singing my song, "New Orleans," and Utah saying embarrassingly nice things. I was on a little tour with Norman Solomon speaking and me singing, and we had done an event the night before in town, which Utah was too tired to attend, if I recall.
Me, Utah, Norman, and my companion, Reiko, went over to a nice breakfast place after the radio show, talked and ate breakfast. Utah did most of the talking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that his use of mysterious hobo colloquialisms and frequent references to obscure historical characters in twentieth-century American anarchist history was something he did off stage as well as on.
I’ve passed near enough to that part of California many times since then. Called once when I was nearby and he was out of town, doing a show in Boston. Otherwise I just thought about calling and dropping by, but didn’t take the time. Life was happening, and taking a day or two off in Nevada City was always something that I never quite seemed to find the time for. Always figured next time I’ll have more time, I’ll call him then. It had been thirteen years since he found out about his heart problems, and he hadn’t kicked the bucket yet… Of course, now I wish I had taken the time when I had the chance, and I’m sure there are many other people who feel the same way.
In any case, for those of us who knew his music, whether from recordings or concerts, for those of us who knew Utah from his stories on or off the stage, whether we knew him as that human bridge to the radical labor movement of yesterday, or as the voice of the modern-day hobos, or as that funky old guy that Ani did a couple of CDs with, Utah Phillips will be remembered and treasured by many.
He was undeniably a sort of musical-political-historical institution in his own day. He said he was a rumor in his own time. No question, one man’s rumor is another man’s legend, but who cares, it’s just words anyway.
DAVID ROVICS can be reached through his website.