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Utah Phillips Interview

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Mark Ross 19 Sep 03 - 07:01 PM
Deckman 19 Sep 03 - 07:32 PM
kendall 19 Sep 03 - 07:34 PM
Amos 19 Sep 03 - 07:35 PM
GUEST,pdq 19 Sep 03 - 07:40 PM
open mike 19 Sep 03 - 09:40 PM
Deckman 19 Sep 03 - 09:44 PM
Mark Ross 19 Sep 03 - 10:09 PM
Mark Ross 19 Sep 03 - 10:11 PM
open mike 19 Sep 03 - 10:36 PM
Mark Ross 20 Sep 03 - 12:32 PM
kendall 20 Sep 03 - 03:13 PM
katlaughing 20 Sep 03 - 05:15 PM
Amos 20 Sep 03 - 05:18 PM
Art Thieme 20 Sep 03 - 10:00 PM
Mark Ross 21 Sep 03 - 08:55 PM
Mooh 21 Sep 03 - 09:01 PM
Reiver 2 21 Sep 03 - 09:23 PM
Mark Ross 22 Sep 03 - 01:34 PM
Fortunato 23 Sep 03 - 01:29 PM
Brían 23 Sep 03 - 02:45 PM
GUEST 23 Sep 03 - 06:10 PM
open mike 24 Sep 03 - 06:20 PM
Naemanson 25 Sep 03 - 02:00 AM
katlaughing 16 Aug 07 - 12:43 AM
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Subject: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 07:01 PM

This just appeared in the last issue of The Progressive. Thought that I'd pass it on.

Mark Ross

Utah Phillips
by David Kupfer
The Progressive Interview
September 2003 Issue

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.


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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Deckman
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 07:32 PM

Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this! Bob

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: kendall
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 07:34 PM

Man,I am so lucky to be able to call this man "Friend"
I don't have many heros, but Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger are at the top of a very short list.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Amos
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 07:35 PM

I am a prisoner of optimism. I cannot betray that kind of optimism.

Ya gotta love this guy. He is saturated with calloused and wrinkled grace of the best kind.


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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: GUEST,pdq
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 07:40 PM

Great to see people who are positive, and that ain't no Moose Turd Pie!

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: open mike
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 09:40 PM

Yes we are lucky to have such a wonderful role model, and elder
in our tribe. He lives just a couple of hours from here and I
have listened to his radio show for years on KVMR-now re-played on
KPFA, i think. Loafer's Glory - the Hobo Jungle of the Mind.
Words of wisdom. He is going to be on prairie home companion
on oct 18.
here ishis web site
he sometimes sings in a collection of characters who go by the name
does anyone know of the story behind this name?
When i look for them i only find a roch and roll group by that name
and that is not the one! It is also not the 1955 movie about the
Italian widow in teh bayou country...still looking....
here is a site with info onhis health and appeal for help for him.
and here:
ok that is enough links now...

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Deckman
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 09:44 PM

open mike, now I have yet another eason to PM you. Bob

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 10:09 PM

OPen Mike,
         The Rose Tattoo is a loose amalgamation(some say aggravation)of friends centered around Utah, who ride, or work on the trains, and sing and write about them. The core group is Utah; myself, Mark Ross(Smokestack)from Eugene, Oregon; Kuddie, The Feather River Kid from North San Juan California; Haywire Bruce Brackney from Victoria BC; Larry Penn(Cream City Slim)from Milwaukee;
Bob & Diana Suckiel(Boomer Bob & Mama Pipes)from KC, Missouri, Rik Palieri(Totem Pole)from Vermont; and various and sundry others scattered around the North American continent. Check out the Rose Tattoo page on Utah's website.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 10:11 PM

Oh, I forget to mention that we all have a rose tattooed somewhere on our persons.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: open mike
Date: 19 Sep 03 - 10:36 PM

where?(the tatoos i mean)
any pix of these?
yes i know north san juan..
our first born was born there..
home a friend's home.
and i looked up Cuddy and Kuddy...
knew how to pronounce his name,
but not spell it. (Kuddie)
unfortunately the Story Telling
festival that uised to be held
at the old school house there
was not held this year...Utah
was one of the star "tellers"
there for many years.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 20 Sep 03 - 12:32 PM

The tattoo placement is up to each individual. As to whether to display it or not, well......................

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: kendall
Date: 20 Sep 03 - 03:13 PM

The Rose Tattoo was a movie back in the 50's. A black and white Italian film. It was supposed to be "earthy" but would'nt raise an eyebrow today.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: katlaughing
Date: 20 Sep 03 - 05:15 PM

What a fantastic interview! Thanks so much for posting it. I understand, more and more, why our own Art Thieme holds him in such high esteem, too. I am going to forward this to each of my kids...they love the music already, this will just bring it all closer to their lives.


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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Amos
Date: 20 Sep 03 - 05:18 PM

The order of the Rose, according to the author of The da Vinci Conspiracy (is that right?) was actually a mystic association dedicated to the presetvation of the feminine principle in Christianity.   Something like that, also. To which he attributes, among other things, the expression sub rosa (under the seal of the rose).


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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Art Thieme
Date: 20 Sep 03 - 10:00 PM

...and Mark Ross has recorded a fine CD with Utah---called LOAFER'S GLORY. Also, Mr. Phillips and the Rose Tattoo were grand enough to make me an honorary member of their agregation since I'm no longer in action on the long steel rails less traveled. I truly appreciate that and am unbelievably proud of the honor although I have not put a rose anywhere yet. (I am open for suggestions in a thread I will start in about five minutes.) --------- Yes, Utah showed how to use humor to get folks, who thought they weren't interested, to listen to songs and tales championing things that, once in their minds, opened them up to humane points of view they'd not recognized previously. Now people ask me for jokes and not the songs I uncovered and sang. What's THAT all about? Bruce, thanks a lot ! ;-)

Art Thieme

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 21 Sep 03 - 08:55 PM

We will keep all this sub rosa shall we not? At least where Art is supposed to put his rose.

Mark ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mooh
Date: 21 Sep 03 - 09:01 PM

Thanks. There are still heros. Mooh.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Reiver 2
Date: 21 Sep 03 - 09:23 PM

Thanks so much for posting the interview, Mark. Really takes me back to my younger days when I, too, was influenced by Ammon Hennacy, Dorothy Day, Pete Seeger, Utah Phillips and all. I wish Utah had been more in the public eye. I lived in Grass Valley, a hoot and a holler from Nevada City, for a year or two back in the late '50s but never knew Utah was around there... well, he probably wasn't at that time. My then father-in-law lived there for many years and was a dyed in the wool pacifist. I became a pacifist and a socialist back in the late '40s and still am. Wish there were more of us around.

Reiver 2

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Mark Ross
Date: 22 Sep 03 - 01:34 PM

Reiver 2,
          Utah moved to Nevada City in the late '80's. There are more of us around than you would think.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Fortunato
Date: 23 Sep 03 - 01:29 PM

Still it's a shame about the Johnny Cash not recording an album of Bruce's songs. Commercial I suppose, but it would have been good, though.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Brían
Date: 23 Sep 03 - 02:45 PM

Thanks, Mark.


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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
Date: 23 Sep 03 - 06:10 PM

Anytime, don't mention it.

Mark Ross

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: open mike
Date: 24 Sep 03 - 06:20 PM

like moose turd pie--it's good, though!

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: Naemanson
Date: 25 Sep 03 - 02:00 AM

One memorable evening for me was the night Charley Noble invited me to dinner with Utah Philips and Kendall Morse. I sat there and listened as the two old... uh, friends, talked of old times and told stories, both tall and true.

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Subject: RE: Utah Phillips Interview
From: katlaughing
Date: 16 Aug 07 - 12:43 AM

This seems like a good place to post this. Juts found it through a link on Utah's website, from 2001 in "Denver Westworld Music:"

State of Grace
As a train-hopping folk artist in the '60s, U. Utah Phillips rode into the heart of America's working class. He's been singing its song ever since.
By Marty Jones
Published: January 11, 2001

More than thirty years ago, when he discovered the traditional route to success in America was more like a dead end, U. Utah Phillips set out on new path. With a guitar in his hand and a batch of folk songs and stories in his head, he carved himself a nomadic, Woody Guthrie-style existence. Today, countless songs and miles later, the 65-year-old "Golden Voice of the Southwest" is still stirring audiences with musical portraits of hobos, trains, cowboys, unions and America's working men and women. And while a nagging heart condition has slowed him down considerably from his days of playing one-hundred-plus shows per year, he continues to bear witness to the unheralded Americans that first inspired him. He's still as fiery as ever, a rabble-rouser who preaches self-reliance with the same vigor he first displayed four decades ago.

"You've got to own what you do," Phillips says from his home in Nevada City, California, "rather than work and let somebody else make the profit off of it. And you've got to fight in this culture to hang on to your own soul, to hang on to your own creativity. Once I got into this folk music world and understood what I could do and that it belonged to me, I looked back on my years of employment with absolute horror. It was bondage, wage slavery. Sure, if somebody else is making the rules every day, it's a little bit easier, and you can turn your mind off. But none of my parts -- my intellect, my curiosity -- was being served by that experience. When I got out in the world as a free man, I found that all of my parts were being used."

Phillips delivers these steadfast sentiments in a measured, aged-in-wood voice that calls to mind a less-sentimental Garrison Keillor with a chip on his shoulder. He's the granddad that a punk kid dreams of having, equal parts senior savant, Seinfeld and Joe Strummer. And he peppers his anecdotes from the past with ample details -- everything from the street addresses of flophouses where he once bunked to the shantytown handles of fellow vagabonds, recalling guys with names like "Fry Pan Jack." These characters and places have been the fodder for Phillips's itinerant musical output; his is a gritty collection of odes far removed from the flowers-in-your-hair sound associated with "folk" music. In Phillips's pulp-folk songs and stories, men freeze to death on the plains, and bosses get whacked by their underlings. Drinking denizens find little salvation; they seek relief in the world of booze, prostitutes and flipping off to the establishment. Puff the Magic Dragon wouldn't stand a chance in Phillips's world, unless he could command a train or packed a blade and knew how to use it.

These days, Phillips's resolute focus on such underbelly characters is earning him newfound popularity among a fresh crowd. Two of his most recent discs, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere and Fellow Workers, are seemingly unlikely collaborations with Ani DiFranco, who discovered Phillips through the pair's mutual agent. Released on her Righteous Babe Records label, The Past (released in 1996) was a collection of Phillips monologues set to DiFranco's music. On 1999's Fellow Workers, DiFranco and her band backed Phillips on a live recording in New Orleans's famed Kingsway studio. Both recordings have put Phillips's time-tested, union-friendly music in the ears of a much younger working class, which is now seeking out his older acoustic work. ("I would trust her with anything I do," he says of his younger collaborator. "She has the most powerful intellect that I've ever encountered.") A number of Phillips's recordings from the '60s and '70s are being re-issued on CD; his syndicated radio program, "Loafer's Glory: Hobo Jungle of the Mind," is now appearing on a handful of public radio stations around the U.S., including Boulder's KGNU FM, which airs it on Saturdays at noon. He was also recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance.

Among his new pierced and tattooed audience, Phillips is enjoying a reputation as a revered protest singer, but it's a classification he's quick to refute: "Oh, no. I'm not a protest singer," he notes. "I'm much more insidious than that. I'm a folk singer and storyteller. I want to get together in a room full of people, get them comfortable with each other and laughing together. I want to sing about cowboys, kids, mining, railroads and tramping freight trains. And then, amongst all of that, I'm going to weave a thread of our 'red' music," he schemes. "I'll never say, 'Here's what I believe and here's what's wrong.' That's a lethal thing to do, [but] it's also abusive to an audience."

With his soft-sell approach, Phillips shows Americans a glimpse of something that looks oddly familiar to them. "Our labor music," he says, "is folk music that we've been denied in school and in mass media. All I'm doing is giving people back the music that they already own. They just don't know it."

According to Phillips, the newfound popularity of his labor themes is proof that the struggle of the worker is a timeless topic -- one that resonates in both boom and bust times. "I've crawled across the belly of this country enough, at fairly low levels, to know that there is an enormous working class," he says. "Most of the decisions that we make in our lives are governed by non-elected people representing non-democratic, capitalistic organizations. Our only defense against that is a militant, well-organized working class standing in solidarity."

Before he was a guitar-toting insurgent, Phillips grew up in his namesake state, where he took up the ukulele. A stint on a road crew exposed him to a wealth of folk and labor songs that would become permanent parts of his catalogue. After a stint as a soldier in the Korean War, he returned to the States and became a pacifist, running for the United States Senate on the Peace and Freedom platform. The campaign got him blackballed from his job as a state archivist and helped fuel his continued allegiance to the International Workers of the World labor union. In 1960 he began traveling the nation playing coffeehouses and the like, singing songs and telling tales about trail bosses, train engineers, bums, musical-saw players and labor organizers such as Joe Hill. He ended up in New York at the height of the city's folk-music boom. The experience was anything but glorious for him.

"I was playing New York City for the first time," he says, "and only had a few hours there. So I asked the audience to direct me to the one thing in the city that symbolized the place. The audience, in its collective wisdom, knows all things." After the show, a fan led Phillips to a penny arcade in Chinatown and the thing Phillips was looking for. "There was a glass cage with a chicken in it," Phillips recalls. "You put a quarter in the slot, a light went on and the chicken woke up, some rinky-dink music played, and the chicken danced. When the light went off, he sat down and a little food treat rolled down a trough into his mouth and the chicken would go back to sleep. It was the Dancing Chicken of Mott Street." To Phillips, the bird and its plight summed up New York's folk revival of the time. The aspiring folk singers, he says, "were like that dancing chicken: Just do what you're told, and I'll give you a food treat. That's why I got out of New York."

In Phillips's view, each city has its own "dancing chicken," and in the 1960s, he says, Denver's was Larimer Street before development. Phillips spent time here back then, connecting hobos, tramps and veterans with their medical records. At the time, the block was a juicy haven for his streetside brethren, and its renewal became the subject of a Phillips song, "Larimer Street." (Former state representative Pat Schroeder heard the song once and told Phillips it should be the state song, he notes with pride.) Today, a Denverite is hard pressed to find snippets of the old Larimer Street culture. "The only pale shadow of it left, of all of those faces and of all those people," he says, "is the parking lot of the Argonaut Liquor store [on East Colfax Avenue ] about twelve or one in the morning."

"One of the things that aggravates me the most about this country," he says, "is that there are fewer and fewer cracks for people to live in. I've spent a lot of time on the skids, and those are my people, and I write songs about them a good deal. But developers, they don't understand the needs of the old poor. There are people who have worked all their lives and got damn little pension, and they need a cheap place to live and cheap food. Diners, missions, flophouses -- poor people need those."

Granted, the folks enjoying the benefits of urban redevelopment might disagree with Phillips's assessment of urban renewal. To him, such naysayers probably hold inaccurate conceptions of the people he champions. "Tramps are the intelligentsia of the traveling nation," says Phillips. He is an official Grand Duke of Hobos, an honor bestowed upon him by the National Hobo Association. "A hobo works and wanders, a tramp dreams and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders," he says. (He also points out that his past method of nomad travel is something that he no longer promotes: "I don't recommend anybody hop trains," he says. "Riding freight trains is dangerous, dirty, and it's boring.") Phillips places himself in the tramp category because finding work has never been as important to him as finding new sensations and experiences on the road. That sense of curiosity is also a key to his lengthy life, he says, and the thrill of discovery is all the payment he seeks for his musical efforts. "I don't write songs for money," he says. "The best thing you can do as a songwriter is to seed something into the lives of people that they value, that they want to make their own."

In this respect, Phillips has seen proof of his own accomplishments. Once, after a strip-mining conference in Illinois, he watched a group of mine workers sing songs about their experiences. A West Virginia woman among the players got up and prefaced her song by saying she had no idea who wrote it, but that it crystallized her experiences. The song she then performed -- "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia" -- was a Phillips composition. "I was absolutely charmed," he recalls. "I thought, 'This is the way a reasonable world ought to work.'" Following her performance, the show's planners asked Phillips to introduce himself to the woman. "But I told them, 'Let it be the way it is.' That would have been a grandstand play and would defeat the purpose. I think if our tradition is going to persist and be passed along, sooner or later there's going to have to be a bunch of us that are going to have to give up our egos. The world's getting hammered by people's egos, and somebody's got to say 'no.' And I say, 'No.'"

"What I want to do," Phillips says, "is make friends. That's what I find in an audience, that's what I find at Swallow Hill and all over the country. I need friends. I don't need money. I don't need power. I don't need fame." (Phillips has been receiving some monetary help from his friends, who contribute via to the Utah Phillips Grassroots Social Security Fund, set up by a few of his fans and benefactors.)

Phillips, apparently, also doesn't need a boss -- as evidenced by the sentiment of one of his trademark tunes, "Dump the Bosses." An Industrial Workers of the World song penned in 1912, it has been a staple of Phillips's shows for decades. (An updated version of it appears on Fellow Workers.) The questions raised in the song seem pretty timely today: "Are you cold, forlorn and hungry?/Are there lots of things you lack?/Is your life made up of misery?/Then dump the bosses off your back."

Considering such a move? Phillips has firsthand advice on how and why one should carry out the mission. "Everybody has a unique and specific virtue in what they can do," he says. "And happiness is in living the exercise of that virtue. But you've got to hold the line, 'This is who I am.' So the first thing you do is figure out what you want to do. Then, while working for that boss, you gather the necessary tools and knowledge you need to exercise your plan. Then one day you're going to pick up the phone and call in well. And you'll say, 'I now own what I do.'" The move will involve struggles for finance and stability and pressure from the expectations of others, Phillips warns. But the payoff is independence and the chance to make "voluntary combinations" with like-minded, liberated souls who can help foster the dream. "You feel great," Phillips says of the freed laborer. "You find that you're not alone, you're not isolated. That's what I found in the folk music world. It's a constant struggle," he adds. "But looking back down the long tunnel now, I say, 'God, it was worth it.'"

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