Today we raise a fist in tribute to folk singer, anarchist, activist, historian and storyteller extraordinaire, Utah Phillips, who died five years ago on this day aged seventy-three. A Mark Twain-meets-Howard Zinn with a guitar, Phillips dedicated himself to unearthing and preserving in song and tale America’s hidden history that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. An itinerant for much of his adult life – a proud member of America’s Travelling Nation community of hobos and railroad bums – Phillips’ songs of working-class struggle were recorded by Emmylou Harris, Tom Waits, Joan Baez and Waylon Jennings. A collaboration with feminist-folk/punk icon Ani DiFranco earned him a Grammy nomination. But Phillips was leery of the music industry, always more comfortable amongst the people he was singing about; he habitually arrived for engagements at least a day early in order to meet locals, learn their lore and tailor his performance to the history and industry of the area. A lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, no one in recent years did more to keep the Wobbly spirit alive than Phillips. His countless performances were in effect rallies for the cause of labour, unions, anarchism, pacifism and the Wobblies. A keeper of tales and prolonger of oral traditions, Utah Phillips was among the last of a dying breed of troubadours. “Yes, the long memory is the most radical idea in this country,” he declared. “It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going, but where we want to go.”
Born Bruce Phillips to labour organiser parents, he ran away from home as a teenager and took to the roads and rails. At a financial low point in 1956, Phillips enlisted in the Army and was sent to Korea for three years – an experience he would later describe as the turning point in his life. “What I really learned in the army,” he said, “was how to be a pacifist.” His radicalism grew alongside that of other Americans in the 1960s, and he was introduced to anarchism by left-wing Catholic priest Ammon Hennacy at Salt Lake City’s Joe Hill House – a shelter for tramps and itinerant workers. Henceforth, Phillips vowed to lay down “the weapons of privilege” and to take personal responsibility each day for making the world a better place. In the folk music community of Saratoga Springs, New York, he discovered “a dignified, ancient, elegant trade, one where I could own what I do and never have to have a boss again,” and adopted “Utah” as his stage name. With his unique mix of story-telling, rich baritone and self-penned songs like “I Will Not Obey”, “The Telling Takes Me Home”, “The Miner’s Lullaby” and “Hobo’s Last Ride” as well as interpretations of IWW “Little Red Songbook” classics, he hit the coffeeshop circuit and built up a loyal grassroots following.
In 1968, Utah Phillips ran for the U.S. Senate as a candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party. In 1976, he ran for president as an anarchist in the Do-Nothing Party. He lost on both occasions. Thee only time he himself ever voted was in protest against George W. Bush in 2004. As his son Duncan Phillips recalled:
[Utah] said he cast a vote every day he went out in the world and did something. If you want to make change, go out and actually do it yourself. He didn’t need to hand over any responsibility to politicians.
Right the fuck on.
He gave us forty years of songs, stories and activism. By anyone’s reckoning, that’s a damned noble life. And so, on this fifth anniversary of his passing, let’s keep the flame alive of this keeper-of-the-flame. To Utah Phillips: we salute you!