When I was 13, my kidneys failed. I survived, after dying to this world briefly, but was on bed rest for five months while my body recovered. Those who know me are aware of my lifelong habit of staying occupied if I can. This period, and the one following a second kidney failure two years later, was no exception.
I collected folk songs, sitting in my bed and surrounding myself with books, my recorder, music notation paper and three-ring school paper, creating notebooks with hundreds of songs copied out from song books old and new.
I loved singing the old songs, and started with a book of Cecil J Sharp’s English and Scottish ballads collected from my own Kentucky hills. I then branched out into the ballads collected by Francis James Childe in the nineteenth century in England and Scotland. From there, the sky was the limit! I dove into Alan Lomax’s Folk Songs of North America. I came up breathing in Woody Guthrie’s and Pete Seeger’s work, along with all of the politics and verve of the Wobblies unionizing movement and the search for freedom, equality and justice of that heady time.
Along with those two fine folk singers and political activists, I met one U. Utah Phillips. Like Woody Guthrie, he was an itinerant folksinger, traveling the rails, or the rods, as he called them, giving his concerts wherever he was welcomed. Every concert was also a union-organizing meeting. For over forty years, Utah was a powerhouse, talking union, especially the I.W.W. As he put it in “Top Faller’s Song”,
I hear that the union is coming to stay;
We’ll clean up the camps and raise all our pay;
We’ll build one big union all over the land,
And I know just where this top faller will stand.
A faller, by the way, is a logger, a person who cuts down trees for a living.
Now U. Utah was not born with that handle. He was born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935. His parents were both union organizers, so he cut his teeth on unionizing. He got the handle of “Utah” in the army during the Korean War, nick-named because he was the only man in his unit from Utah. The extra U. was added by him for color. He figured that if T. Texas Tyler could do it, so could he! Utah loved color and story-telling and he single-handedly preserved a great deal of hobo and railroad lore doing his much acclaimed radio series, Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind. I am happy to say that those CDs are still available: bug your public radio station to play them!
George Mann wrote of him, “Phillips is a truly unique American treasure. Not just a great folksong writer and interpreter, not just a great storyteller, Utah has preserved and presented the history of our nation’s working people and union movement for audiences throughout the world. His recorded work keeps these songs and stories alive. He has spoken up against the injustices of boss-dominated capitalism and worked for peace and justice for more than 40 years.”
During his long career, Utah recorded sixteen albums, beginning with Good Though! in 1974 and concluding in 2005 with Starlight on the Rails. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his work with Ani DiFranco in 1999. Emmy Lou Harris recorded his “Green Rolling Hills” and Tom Waits made Good-Night, Loving Trail“ into a folk classic.
Phillips died on May 23, 2008. His obituary says, “Phillips credited [Ammon] Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his “elders” with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow. ‘He made me understand that music must be more than cotton candy for the ears,’ said John McCutcheon, a nationally-known folksinger and close friend.”
His music was country bluegrass, and his rich voice caressed the lyrics he collected and wrote with an inimitable style all his own. He thought about the rails he rode and the company of fellow hobos. These lyrics are from “If I Had a List” –
He might have been Shorty, a feller I knew;
We bunked in the empties when the season was through.
You know, I’ve been thinking, it sure is a shame
I never did ask him his name.
We always abandon the old for the new,
And second-hand people get thrown away, too;
I know it won’t help, but still it explains
Why no one remembers their names.
He would try to stay home, but he always ended up back on the road. About his wandering, he wrote in “Starlight on the Rails”
I think about a wife and family,
My home and all the things it means;
The black smoke trailing out behind me
Is like a string of broken dreams.
A man who lives out on the highway
Is like a clock that can’t tell time;
A man who spends his life just ramblin’
Is like a song without a rhyme.
And he fearlessly spoke out against the bosses of this world. A boss, spelled backwards, he noted, was “a double S-O-B.” Here are his lyrics from “The Two Bums”
As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.
Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!
In a side note to “Power in the Union” he wrote, “I started out singing about rootless and homeless people going West with nothing but bad memories and very limited prospects for the future. Every place they went, they created wealth through skill and sweat, only to find out they didn’t own that wealth, that it belonged to somebody else.
“A fellow would find out that he was just left to boom on down the track to the next job. And when that job ran out, he’d just have to boom on again. These people gradually began to understand that they were being had, that they were being robbed and swindled. They started to get together and form unions so that, through their organized strength, they could begin to get back the wealth they created. I think that began a process, and that process is still going on.”
If you would like to look further into his life and achievements, I would suggest you go to the Democracy Now website to listen to a wonderful interview of him by Amy Goodman on May 5, 2008.
When Phillips died, his family was left destitute and singers who loved his work got together to record a tribute album at Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Studio. The resulting CD, Singing through the Hard Times, features interpretations of his songs by Emmylou Harris and Mary Black, Pete Seeger, Rosalie Sorrels, Tom Paxton, Jean Ritchie, John McCutcheon, Magpie, Gordon Bok, Emma’s Revolution and Ani DiFranco. Go to www.righteousbabe.com to get some fine bluegrass music, support Utah’s family and enjoy his unique gifts to American lore.
It is not fashionable these days to be a union sympathizer. Companies often fire organizers. Currently, Starbucks is involved in a lawsuit for having done just that. Go to www.iww.org to catch up on the Industrial Workers of the World. From time immemorial, corporations and nations have used the “little guys” of the world as poorly paid workers and cannon fodder units. Utah Phillips was a one-man army fighting for pacifism and justice, peace and equality. He cared. And he created from that caring a legacy of good bluegrass music, fine story-telling and the feelings of hope and joy.
Q’uo said, in an L/L Research channeling session recorded on April 3, 2005,
“The same creative wind blows for all and on that wind lie melodies, themes, motifs and other avenues of intelligent expression of the fire of spirit. The
energies of suffering and learning catch the facets of personality uniquely for each unique entity.
“And as an entity awakens within incarnation to the truth and beauty of its own being, possibilities open up in this and that way, unique to each entity. One entity may express creativity by growing a family and helping the young souls within that family to flower. Another entity may hear the call of a certain kind of expression of devotion and become a guardian of truth, an upholder of justice, or an agent of the healing power of human love.
“All professions call with the song of the muse to those entities whose personalities are shaped so that those structures hold their passion and give them avenues of expression. Every artist catches the wind of spirit and finds ways to draw images that catch the light and share the vision. Every musician hears those melodies that are drifting from angelic essences embedded within the inner planes and responsive to the winds of the times and the energies of the generation now alive.”
U. Utah Phillips truly caught the light and generously shared his vision. I celebrate him!
I open my arms and embrace your spirit! May we all find our authentic selves and follow Utah Phillips down the rail line of our lives, singing our own songs of suffering and triumph with authenticity, love and passion.