Interview with Utah Phillips

by David Kupfer

Utah Phillips is a legend on the folk music circuit. A great storyteller and an unapologetic activist, Phillips sings about both current events and the old days of labor unions, hobos, trains, and tramping. Phillips, sixty-eight, has produced twelve albums and has appeared on seventy-three audio anthologies, doing both music and spoken word. One of his most recent efforts, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, is a collaboration with the younger feminist folksinger Ani DiFranco. They met while both were boarding together in the same house in Philadelphia early in DiFranco's career. As her Righteous Babe Records company flourished, DiFranco asked Phillips to send her his material. "I want my younger audience to hear these stories," she said.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, into a family of radicals in 1935, Bruce Phillips and his family moved to Salt Lake City in 1947, where he learned to play the ukulele. He hopped his first train as a teenager, and after serving three years in the army in Korea (where he says all that he learned was how to be a pacifist), he continued to roam the nation via the rails. Phillips found both inspiration and kinship from the hobos and Wobblies he encountered in his travels, and he morphed the stories and poems he learned into verse. He took on the nickname U. Utah Phillips as an homage to one of his favorite country singers, T. Texas Tyler. The son of labor organizers, Phillips was active in labor and leftist politics in conservative Utah during the 1960s and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. He garnered more than 6,000 votes but was blacklisted. Unable to find employment because of his radical views, he left the state in 1969 and hopped freight trains to get to his coffee house and campus gigs.

Phillips lives with his wife, Joanna Robinson, in Nevada City, California, where both are still active in the local peace movement. On March 20, they were arrested, along with forty others, for blocking a road and unlawful assembly in the largest peace action ever held in Nevada County. I met with the bearded, silver-haired Phillips at his home, a comfortable cottage filled with books. Looking somewhat like a rabbinical Kris Kringle, he is full of vim and possesses a great sense of humor, despite a heart condition that has severely curtailed his once-active performing schedule.

Question: What is the risk of folk music being commercialized?

Utah Phillips: Folk music isn't owned by anybody. It is owned by everybody, like the national parks, the postal system, and the school system. It's our common property. There is nobody's name on it. Nobody can make money on it. It's not copywritten.

A song has many different versions as it is passed through the generations. But this deep well of our people's tradition loses songs at the bottom. They are irrelevant. They are forgotten. Nobody knows how to sing them. So the well is going to run dry unless people are adding songs at the top to our common treasury. But you have to have the courage to take your name off it, to give it up, to give it a life of its own.Folk music deals with every aspect of human existence, political, religious, moral: dying dogs, old ships, an old rocking chair, the mystery of the number five, the lightning express, rack and ruin, death, earthquakes, and train wrecks.

Q: People used to learn about culture from their elders, and this knowledge was passed down in an oral tradition. Now in this electronic age, this passing-down method has changed. How do you feel about that? What have we lost?

Phillips: Joseph Campbell, late in his life, said, "All we really want is to be completely human and in each other's company." Everything in this country is unilaterally against that--our best and most natural selves.

The world I created for myself, and it was deliberate, was a world made out of speakers and listeners. Many times, going to the missions, going to the flop hotels, I'd get a line from some old Wobbly, some old communist, some old socialist, some old person living on short money, a lot of time alcoholic. I'd start asking questions. The first thing I'd ever get was suspicions. Because these old workers, the only question they'd ever been asked was how come you are late or how soon can you get out. I found thoughts and feelings and ideas and experiences that had been locked inside their heads for years. Once I overcame their suspicions, and they realized I was really interested in what they had to tell me, it opened up like a floodgate. So that's why I created my world, speakers and listeners, because it makes the country that I love so much so rich. The wellspring of my fascination and the endless carnival of America are the voices of people who will share their lives with me.

I don't write. You see this house is full of books, but I keep them in their place. I've made it my task to seek out my elders and learn things to help me get through the world with some sense, some panache, some style, some grace, some courage. In your life, sooner or later, you've got to say what you are going to authentically inherit and what you are going to put into the world.

Q: Is there one event or defining point in your life that precipitated you taking on your life's work?

Phillips: The oral history started out purely as curiosity when I heard [philosopher] Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca say that reading and writing are a technological intervention in the natural thought process. Bingo, I said!

My pacifism came after I joined the army and was shipped over to Korea. There was a little one-room orphanage there called Song-do. There were 180 babies in there, and they were GI babies. The U.S. government would not acknowledge this, and the Korean government had nothing to do with them. They were living on a 100-pound bag of rice a month. Some of those kids, when they were old enough, would go out and shine shoes. They would show up at the gate of our compound to shine shoes, and you'd swear they were looking for their fathers. In the winter, when the paddies were drained, it was the coldest winter I ever experienced in my life. The kids living outside would scatter and go camp by the dikes. They would dig little holes. I would get duty in the guard tower, and I would spot their fires. And in the morning, I would take my canteen cup out full of cocoa to the kids to give away. One morning, I found one of the kids had froze to death, and I carried him back in, and our Non-com said, "Give him to the Koreans." So I took him over to the Korean barracks, and could see the way they looked at me, how much contempt they had, how much they hated me. Even though they were allies, they hated me.

So I get back from Korea really pissed off, and I didn't want to live in the country anymore. I got on a freight train, rode for a while, made up songs I will never sing again, and came back to Salt Lake to make my stand. I was working in a warehouse. There was an old guy picketing in front of the post office where I would deliver packages. He was protesting war taxes. That was Ammon Hennacy from the Catholic Worker. Dorothy Day, a founder of Catholic Worker, had sent him out there to establish a house of hospitality for transients, homeless people in Salt Lake. "Love in action," she called him. So he started the Joe Hill House. I worked at the Joe Hill House for the next eight years.

Q: What effect did Ammon Hennacy have on you?

Phillips: It was Ammon Hennacy who took over my life, told me that I really loved the country, that I couldn't stand the government, taught me why I needed to be a pacifist and taught me why I needed to be an anarchist, and taught me what those things really mean.

Ammon came up to me one day, and said, "You have a lot of anger in you, and you act out, you mouth off, and you wind up getting in fights, into brawls, here in the house, and you're not any good at it. You're the one who keeps getting pushed through the door, and I'm tired of fixing the damn thing. You've got to become a pacifist." And I asked, "What is it?" He said, "Well, I could give you a book by Gandhi, but you wouldn't understand it." He said you got to look at it like alcohol. Alcohol will kill an alcoholic, unless he has the courage to sit in a circle of people like that, and say, "My name's Utah and I am an alcoholic." Then you can accept it, you can own it, have it defined for you by people whose lives have been ruined by it, and it's never going to go away. You're not going to sit in that circle sober for twenty years and have it not affect you. He said, "You have to look at your capacity for violence the same way. You are going to have to learn to confess it, and learn how to deal with it in every situation every day, for the rest of your life, because it is not going to go away." And I was able to lay all of that down.

I didn't know what exhausted me emotionally until that moment, and I realized that the experience of being a soldier, with unlimited license for excess, excessive violence, excessive sex, was a blueprint for self-destruction. Because then I began to wake up to the idea that manhood, as passed onto me by my father, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor, my army sergeant, that vision of manhood was a blueprint for self-destruction and a lie, and that was a burden that I was no longer able to carry. It was too difficult for me to be that hard. I said, "OK, Ammon, I will try that." He said, "You came into the world armed to the teeth. With an arsenal of weapons, weapons of privilege, economic privilege, sexual privilege, racial privilege. You want to be a pacifist, you're not just going to have to give up guns, knives, clubs, hard, angry words, you are going to have lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed."

He died in 1970 and is still a headache. If there is one struggle that animates my life and why I do what I do, it's that. I am still at it. That is what pacifism means to me.

Q: Who are some of your other heroes?

Phillips: Pete Seeger, because he invented my trade--what we do, going from town to town to perform. Pete Seeger's gift to my life is my life. And Daniel Berrigan saved my bacon. I had a very important question for him. Johnny Cash had called me and wanted to record an album of my songs. I said no, I eschew the entertainment industry. But friends urged me to take that money and give it to some cause that can use it. I asked Berrigan, and he said, "Yeah, they'll always tell you how much good you can do with dirty money." Dorothy Day once told me, "Fame corrupts the health of the soul." I found out, as I matured in the trade and was taken in by this enormous folk music family, that I don't need fame, I don't need power, I don't need money, I need friends. And that's what I found: deep, abiding friends, like Judi Bari [Earth First! organizer who was severely wounded in a suspicious car bombing and later died of cancer], who was full of joy, full of life, and laughed incessantly in the direst of circumstances. She was a consummate organizer and understood that it was essential to bring the environmental movement and labor movement together.

Two other great organizers who were also heroes of mine: Fred Thompson, who edited Industrial Worker newspaper, and Miles Horton of the Highlander Center. And I always admire Joe Hill. In 1915, when he was about to be executed by the state of Utah, he wrote to Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who was raising funds for a new trial, "They've got me, and they are going to kill me whether I'm in jail or out of jail, so stop spending money on me. Put that money into the work, into keeping the presses rolling or getting workers into a fighting union." He wrote himself off. We don't have leaders like that.

Q: What do you think about the way labor history is taught in schools today?

Phillips: It is a shame and a crime that a young person can graduate from high school not knowing what a scab is, not knowing workers have the absolute right to collective bargaining, to form a union, to join a union. Why? Because the boss doesn't want them to know this. Who is on the school board? Who is in charge of the curricular process? Who owns the textbook company? The boss does. The boss wants young people to come trained with the answers but not asking questions. Every good educator knows that true teaching is to teach kids how to ask the right questions.

These kids are coming in untrained in fair labor practices. For the most part, most of them are not going to own the tools they work with, they are not going to own the workplace, they will simply be selling their own labor energy and trying to get a decent deal for it so they can get by. Some of them are going to go to college, going to go to community college, they are going to apprenticeship trade school to enhance their labor energy so they can make a better deal, and live better. It is still the same; you are a wage worker. How do you control the condition of your labor? How do you make a deal on a job that isn't going to kill you? Where you are adequately compensated? How are you going to make sure that when you get sick that you are just not out on the street? Or if someone in your family gets sick that you are not out on the street? What do you do about health insurance? What do you do when you are too old to do the work? None of that is taught in school. The district labor councils absolutely have to get to work teaching this in the public schools to make sure that our true history is taught to our kids.

These kids don't have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don't have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that.

It's a heroic, passionate, beautiful, richer, and more useful history than any history they are getting from the history books right now. The gift from my elders. I never got that history before I talked to people who lived it. That is one of the missions of my life: to make sure kids know these things, and respect the dignity of other people's labor. If you talk to people working on the job, and you ask them what is the most important issue, as a wage worker, you know what comes out first? Respect. We need to respect the wage workers. They contribute more to my quality of life than I do to theirs. I have to respect and honor that. I want to make sure that those tasks that enhance the quality of my life are done well. That the people doing that work are happy. They shouldn't have to worry about a sick child or an elder getting properly cared for, or job security, or proper retirement benefits. There is nothing unreasonable about that. I want people to go out and ask their garbage person for an autograph.

Q: What has your friendship with Ani DiFranco provided you?

Phillips: My access. She knew it was going to happen; she has a ferociously powerful intellect. She is a visionary. When posters go up for my shows, we get not just veteran folkies, but a whole new generation of music lovers, who would never have turned out were it not for my relationship with Ani. She has given me access to young people, and they are ready. I always hang out in the lobby after my shows, and young people come up to me and they are really bright and intelligent. It isn't the X generation, it's the Y generation, because everybody is asking why.

Q: How would you describe your life's purpose?

Phillips: I'm here to change the world, and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time.

Q: What can people do to defend their civil liberties?

Phillips: I'm a pacifist, but the most American thing you can do is to dissent, and the most un-American thing you can do is to stifle dissent. When you feel threatened by the suppression of your liberties, you exercise them to the nth degree, you scream your head off every chance you get. You talk to people you don't agree with. Really good advice: Every day, talk to at least two people who don't agree with you. It's the only way it is going to get done.

Here in Nevada City, where I am kind of marooned (due to my congestive heart failure, I can't travel nearly as much as I used to), we sent seven buses down to the recent anti-war demo, and afterward, I said, "Let's do a debriefing meeting." But my real idea was to have a continuing peace presence in our county and start a peace center. Everybody lit up. Now we have a peace council and working committees. We are involved in the schools. There is a high school peace organization, the young anarchists, who are tabling. We have brought in combat Vietnam War vets in the classroom. We've been in local parades like the Fourth of July. We are working very vigorously here. I honestly believe that if you can't do it where you live and work, where are you supposed to do it?

You know, every city, every town I go to, for the past forty years, big or little, I have found cooperative child day care, an organic food store, alternative medicine services, all of the interventions, none of which existed when I was in high school. Anywhere. Now they are everywhere I go. Taken together, that is a massive amount of energy. A tremendous amount of energy! That is why I am so optimistic. There are too many people doing too many good things for me to afford the luxury of being pessimistic. I'm like Desmond Tutu says, I am a prisoner of optimism. I cannot betray that kind of optimism.

© 2003 David Kupfer

David Kupfer is a writer whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Whole Earth Review, Adbusters, Diva, and Earth Island Journal. He lives and works on an organic farm in Northern California.