By Karl Abrams
Famous folk singer U. Utah Phillips blew into town recently and met with Beachhead Collective members. The following is an account of his visit and his performance at McCabes Guitar Shop.
I was blown away â€“ permanently. Barely getting a back row seat, at the last minute, into the packed house at McCabes Guitar Shop,
I was able to hear a rare performance of the legendary folk singer Utah Phillips. The crowd was mesmerized. I was engulfed in joyful goose bumps that will never really go away. I became a part of history in that audience, and wept in folk song rapture. Who was this timeless patriarch poet who inspired and affected so many people, of all ages, so thoroughly and dramatically?
U.Utah Phillips was born Bruce Phillips on May 15, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio. Utah is a well-known folk singer and story teller.Â As the â€œGolden Voice of the Great Southwestâ€ his songs reflect his lifelong influences as an anarchist and socialist, pacifist and poet, labor organizer and social activist, historian, philosopher, hobo-tramp, and Wobbly (as members of the Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW, are called).
This much I had learned, for the first time, from an interview with this charismatic earlier in the afternoon. before his standing ovation performance.
Each of his stories carefully detailed the struggles of labor unions; each emphasizing the power of optimism and grassroots â€œDirect Action.â€
Utah has been around for years, performing tirelessly across the country for almost a half century. His calling is multidimensional.
To express his views and philosophies,Utah once hosted a weekly radio show called â€œLoaferâ€™s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind.â€ He recorded a variety of musical albums–among those were several about the idyllic era of Steam Locomotives, inspired by his numerous travels on the railroad. â€œMoose Turd Pieâ€ and â€œQueen of the Railsâ€ are among some of his more famous songs.
Inspired by his anger with the first Gulf War, he wrote in 1991 the song â€œEnola Gayâ€ about the US atom bomb dropped on Japan.
He is presently Grand Master of the Mythic Fraternity of tramps, hoboes, and nare-do-wells known as The Rose Tattoo. Made up of those who travel by freight trains and carry a tune, they might be recognized as having a special rose, tattooed somewhere on their body.
Utah Phillips was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance and a Lifetime Service Award from the American Federation of Musicians.
Is Utah some kind of reincarnation of Walt Whitman? How did it all begin?
Utah left home as a teenager, riding the rails and bumming with tramps. Teaching himself guitar, he wrote songs about the Hobo life, supporting himself in any way he could:
â€œMy stepfather moved our family to Utah where my mother raised her children to recognize racism and sexism at an early age. As a young man, newly married with no skills, I was assigned to the needs of the army and in 1954 was pipe lined for Korea. I went to radar school, fried some very expensive equipment, and ended up carrying a rifle in Korea. My learned sensibilities towards recognizing racism showed me I was the wrong person to be in this war.
I had seen the emaciation of Koreans and the racism towards them. I ran away from the base a lot on a bike and saw the Sea of Ruins and the crying babies. That made me mad. Were we their friends or enemies? I knew I didnâ€™t want to live in America anymore. So I hit the freight trains again, made up songs and got back to Salt Lake to make my stand.â€
Utahâ€™s experience in the Korean War convinced him that nonviolence was the only way to live. After serving for three years, he joined Ammon Hennacy from the Catholic Worker Movement.
â€œIt was there in Salt Lake that I met Ammon, a pacifist anarchist. I worked with him at a newly-founded mission house of hospitality called the Joe Hill House, set up for transients and migrants that were mainly World War II veterans.
Ammon, in his 70â€™s at that time, was a one-man revolution who taught me how to be a truly peaceful anarchist. He wouldnâ€™t even take a job if there was any withholding tax. Ammon was a moral bedrock and lived in poverty. Whatâ€™s anarchy? I once asked him. He said it was when you â€˜didnâ€™t need a cop to tell you what to do…â€™
He also told me I was too angry and brawled a lot, that I needed to work everyday and completely on being a true pacifist and anarchist.â€
Working at the Joe Hill House for the next eight years greatly influenced Utah Phillipsâ€™ sociopolitical thinking and helped shape his life and future work. Ammon Hennacy had served time at the Atlantic Federal Penitentiary for objecting to World War I and consequently spent many months in solitary confinement. Ammon was, like Utah became, a one-man revolution who took Utah under his mentor wing. Utah still believes that the Catholic Workers Party probably saved his life. Political action and grassroots direct action are â€œtwo hands of the same bodyâ€ he told us.
â€œI was still angry a lot and had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Every place I went I carried my anger. Angry at the State and those painful images in my mind of what Iâ€™d seen that wouldnâ€™t go away. I knew that what I had learned from drill sergeants and field commanders was all lies. Ammon would tell me how I was born into 20th century industrial America armed with the weapons of economic and racial privilege.Â If you want to be a pacifist, put down your knives and angry words. Ammon, to be sure, was a cultural compulsion, and an involuntary cohesive combination of individual self-governing. I learned from him that if we can all agree to take what we need and put back what we can and not hurt anybody, we can get the Work of the World done…without the bosses.â€
Utahâ€™s tireless efforts includes much that he has been awarded for and much that just kind of happens on its own. He ran a full campaign on the Peace and Freedom ticket for Utahâ€™s US Senate in the late sixties. He worked and organized in the basement warehouse of the State Capitol Building, got 6,000 votes and lost the election.
â€œI had run out of moves in â€˜69, so I left Utah with 75 bucks and headed East. I became a story teller and song writer. I met other singers who took me in and have been a part of it ever since.â€
As a former warehouse man in Salt Lake, Utah learned â€œyarningâ€ from his boss Earl Lyman, and elder Mormon who told anecdotes of early pioneer days. It was here that he learned the art of story telling as a â€œway to avoid workâ€. Along with his conversations with hoboes and cowboys, Zuni Chants and Navajo songs, poetic lore from Father Liebler, a San Juan Priest, Utahâ€™s overall philosophy began to mature.
â€œYou see, outside events create the songs, stories introduce them. Theyâ€™re about tramps and Socialism and the International Workers of the World. No passive humanism, but Direct Optimism instead. I agree with Woody Guthrie. You never put other people down. People should feel better when they leave the show.
â€œLike Martin Luther King, I have been a devout prisoner of optimism because wherever I go, I see new and great things. You know, thereâ€™s a Colossal amount of Socialist Energy beneath the radar.
â€œI used to do 120 cities per year. Now just once in awhile. I donâ€™t need any congratulations for what Iâ€™m doinâ€™ at all. Iâ€™m simply going to do it. That, too, is anarchy.â€
We asked Utah about Bush and what the next generation might do to continue his tradition of telling the truth.
â€œWe donâ€™t need to understand Bush. We need to understand economic analysis and Corporate Capitalism and Corporate Fascism and how it divides the Working Classes through deregulation, privatization, and the use of an imperialist army at public expense. We need to resist from the bottom up! You guys need a radio station here in Venice, round the clock. Kids donâ€™t know what a Union is or what class consciousness is. We need to understand the labor movement, direct action and political action. We need to let the bosses know that weâ€™re not in their pocket. OK, I gotta get some sleep nowâ€
After the performance at McCabeâ€™s that night an entire audience woke up. We all knew, it seemed, that all of us had more to do in contributing to getting â€œthe Work of the World done.â€
This article originally appeared in the Free Venice Beachhead (March 2006 #294).