Utah Phillips, the legendary folk musician and peace and labor activist, has died at the age of seventy-three. Over the span of nearly four decades, Utah Phillips worked in what he referred to as “the Trade,” performing tirelessly throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. The son of labor organizers, Phillips was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. As a teenager, he ran away from home and started living as a hobo who rode the rails and wrote songs about his experiences. In 1956, he joined the Army and served in the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. In 1968, he ran for the US Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. For the past twenty-one years he lived in Nevada City, where he started a nationally syndicated folk music radio show. He also helped found the Hospitality House homeless shelter and the Peace and Justice Center. We spend the hour with an interview with Phillips from January 2004. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: Utah Phillips, the legendary folk musician, peace and labor activist, has died. He passed away in his sleep in Nevada City Friday night. He died of congestive heart failure. He was seventy-three years old. A memorial service is being planned for Sunday.
Over the span of nearly four decades, Utah Phillips worked in what he referred to as “the Trade,” performing tirelessly for audiences in large and small cities throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. His songs were performed by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie. He earned a Grammy nomination for an album he recorded with Ani DiFranco and was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance.
Born Bruce Duncan Phillips in 1935, he later adopted the name “Utah,” from where he grew up. The son of labor organizers, Phillips was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies. As a teenager, he ran away from home and started living as a hobo who rode the rails and wrote songs about his experiences. In 1956, he joined the Army and served in the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. In 1968, he ran for the US Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
For the past twenty-one years, he has lived in Nevada City, where he started a nationally syndicated folk music radio show called Loafer’s Glory, produced at community radio station KVMR. He also helped found the Hospitality House homeless shelter and the Peace and Justice Center there.
Today we spend the hour hearing Utah Phillips in his own words. In January 2004, I had a chance to sit down with Utah for an extensive interview. We met at the pirate radio station, Freak Radio Santa Cruz, where Utah had come to perform. I began by asking him why he arrived at least a day early to any city or town where he performed.
UTAH PHILLIPS: When you have an engagement, at least in my world, the world that I create for myself, an engagement doesn’t begin when you hit the stage and end when you leave the stage. It begins when you hit the city limits, and it ends when you leave the city limits.
There’s a whole lot going on in that town. My trade is like being paid to go to schools, and every town is its own teacher. Every town, that’s my university. And there are marvels and wonders. There’s Hobos from Hell, are from Santa Cruz. They’re young people riding on the freight trains, and they’re better at it than I ever thought I would be. You’ve got the Homeless Garden Project. You’ve got just an enormous rich community here.
I was involved some years ago in helping to organize a street singers’ guild in this town, and it — you got to beat the streets and learn from the people, and then you’ve got to get on their stage and, having done that and been with those people, let that audience know that you’re not just doing the show you did in the town the night before, you know. You’re no — you’ve got to know who you’re with and where you are. That’s very important to me. And they’ve got to know that I understand that, that I’m really there for them.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start out where you started out. Where were you born? When were you born?
UTAH PHILLIPS: I was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935.
AMY GOODMAN: And how did you start on this journey? When did you begin singing, storytelling?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Oh, mercy, I think we’re all storytellers, you know. You think of the excuses you told your parents for why you got home late. I just never gave it up.
I got — I left home. I went up to work in Yellowstone National Park during high school. I was going to make some summer money. I went up on the freight trains, and for the first time I rode the freight trains. And I worked on a road rating crew. And at that time, I was playing the ukulele and singing ersatz Hawaiian music — Johnny Noble, things like that, “Lovely Hula Hands,” “Malihini Melee.”
The other hands working on that crew, a lot of them were old, old alcoholics who could only shovel gravel. But they knew songs. And late at night, you know, there would be a fire. We would live in these clapboard shanties. They sang old songs, Jimmie Rodgers, and they sang old Gene Autry songs, songs I had never heard, but were much closer to the way I was living right there at that time, certainly a lot closer than as Hawaiian music. So they showed me how to turn my ukulele chords into guitar chords and taught me those songs.
And it’s right about then I started making songs in that mold, making songs of what I saw in the world around me, but using those tune models and those verse models that had endured for so long and will continue to endure simply because they work. So, you know, I’ve been making songs and stories for over fifty years now. It’s a way of life. It’s like breathing.
AMY GOODMAN: War has always seemed to play a major role in defining our times and affected your work, as well. You went to Korea?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Yes, I joined the Army. Like old — as a string fellow said, some people learn things the hard way, but at least then you never forget it. I joined the Army and then got pipelined for Korea. I was there after Panmunjan, you know, after the treaty, right after the treaty there, the truce. Life amid the ruins — I mean, it was absolute life amid the ruins. Children crying — that’s the memory of Korea. Devastation. I saw an elegant and ancient culture in a small Asian country devastated by the impact of cultural and economic imperialism. And the impact of an army of young men given unlimited license for excess of every kind, of violence, sexual, booze, what have you, drugs — a blueprint for self-destruction. And I knew that if I endured that, I would perish, I would simply perish.
It was there in Korea in that situation around those kinds of experiences — and I was up — I was up on the Imjin River, and I wanted to swim in it, because I wanted to wash all that away, all that away. And I was told I couldn’t swim in the Imjin. And it was the young Korean there, Yoon Suk An [phon.], who explained to me why I couldn’t. He said, “When we marry, we move into our grandparents’, in with our grandparents, and — but the place is devastated. There’s nothing growing. It’s all dead. So when the first child comes, somebody has to leave, and it’s the old man. The grandfather will leave and go sit on the bank of the Imjin with a jug of water and a blanket until he dies and will roll down into the water.” He said, “You can’t swim in the Imjin, because those are our elders being carried out to sea.”
Well, that’s when I cracked. You know, that’s when I broke up. I said I can’t do this anymore. You know, this is all wrong. It all has to change. And the change has to begin with me. It was right then that I decided that the idea of manhood that I had been given, that blueprint for self-destruction, that my father had lied to me about manhood, my drill instructors, my Army sergeants, my scoutmaster, my gym instructor in high school. They had all lied to me about what manhood was, and it was up to me to begin to figure out what it really meant.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you do it?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Painfully, painfully. It takes a long time to shut up and listen. You know, it takes a long time just to plain shut up and listen. I tell you, what I learned was — I decided that the great struggles, the wars that you’re talking about — it could be the Bosnian War, it could be the Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, it could be the Korean War, it could be the Iraqi War, whatever, it doesn’t matter — it’s all — every — the thing they all have in common is that it’s young men with guns doing it to everybody else. Women aren’t doing it. Kids aren’t doing it. Old people aren’t doing it. Disabled people aren’t doing it. It’s young people with guns, you know, that are doing it to everybody else. And we don’t have a problem with violence in the world. We’ve got a serious male problem. And I bought into it, so I know. And I’m buying myself out of it, you see. It’s terribly, terribly important for me for people to understand that and begin to shut up and listen. The most important movement in the world is the feminist movement. If we can really figure out what’s going on between men and women, the other problems will take care of themselves. I’m sure of it.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Utah Phillips. We’re broadcasting on Democracy Now! and doing it at Free Radio Santa Cruz, which is also broadcasting us live, known as Freak Radio. And Utah Phillips is going to be performing tonight before, well, many hundreds of people, and he’s been in places with a couple of people, he’s been singing alone, or he’s been singing before thousands, actually just came off of a concert tour with Ani DiFranco?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Oh, no, no. I don’t tour anymore because of this congestive heart failure. I only leave town about once a month, if that. Ani and I will share the stage, you know, when we happen to be in the same area. She’ll invite me to go and do that. I should mention that tonight I’m not doing this show by myself. It’s called a circle of friends. It’s like a living room, where some good friends of mine, Bodhi Busick, great guitarist and a fine song maker, and Paul Kamm and Eleanor McDonald, who are up from Nevada County, town I live in, we’re going to sit on the stage and share songs and stories together. And that’s the way that I want it to be.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to continue on this idea of confronting violence and how you became a pacifist. When did you — how long were you in Korea?
UTAH PHILLIPS: I was there for eighteen months, and I extended for some months. I can tell you exactly how. I made it back to Salt Lake, and I was going into the post office, and there was an old man sitting under the bush out there, taking a water break. Well, that man was Ammon Hennacy, the great Catholic Worker, one of Dorothy Day’s people. And Ammon Hennacy had come to Salt Lake to open the Joe Hill House of Hospitality, one of the Catholic Worker houses. And Ammon took me in. And I was there with Ammon for about eight years at the Joe Hill House.
Ammon came to me one day and said, “You’ve got to be a pacifist.” And I said, “How’s that?” He said, “Well, you act out a lot. You use a lot of violent behavior.” And I was. You know, I was very angry, very angry person. “And you just act out a lot. And if you brought a lot, you’re not any good at it. You’re the one who keeps getting thrown through the front door, and I’m tired of fixing the damn thing. You’ve got to be a pacifist.”
He had a more fundamentalist way of looking at it. And I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, I could give you a book by Gandhi, but you wouldn’t read it. So” — but he said, “You’ve got to look at nonviolence like — your capacity for violence like an alcoholic looks at booze.” Alcohol — booze will kill an alcoholic, unless he has the courage to sit in a circle of people that are like that, put his hand up and say, “Hi. My name is Utah. I’m an alcoholic.” But then you can — once you own the behavior, you can deal with it. You know, you can have it defined for you by the people whose lives you’ve messed with, and it’s not going to go away. Twenty years sober, you’re not going to sit in that circle and say, “Well, I’m not an alcoholic anymore.” You’re going to put up your hand and say, “My name is Utah. I’m an alcoholic.”
He said, “It’s the same with violence. You acknowledge your capacity for violence, you see, and you learn how to deal with it every day, every instant, in every situation for the rest of your life, because it’s not going to go away. But it will save your life.” See, it’s a different way of looking at pacifism. I have to be a pacifist, you see.
So I said, “OK, I’ll do that, Ammon.” And he said, “It’s not enough.” And I said, “Oh.” He said, “You were born a white man in mid-twentieth century industrial America. You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege, economic privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege. You’re going to be a pacifist. You’re not just going to lay down guns and fists and knives and hard angry words. You’re going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed. Well, you try that.” I’ve been at it — Ammon died over thirty years ago, and I’m still at it. But if there’s one struggle that animates my life, it’s probably that one.
AMY GOODMAN: Utah Phillips, the legendary folk musician, died this weekend at his home in Nevada City, California. We’ll come back to this 2004 interview in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary folk musician and peace and labor activist Utah Phillips died Friday night at his home in Nevada City, California at the age of seventy-three. I interviewed him in 2004 at the pirate radio station Freak Radio in Santa Cruz. I asked him how he got the name Utah.
UTAH PHILLIPS: Well, that comes in the Army. I was from Utah, and nobody ever heard of anybody from Utah. Had mail call out in the street, and they holler out “Utah!” and I’m the guy who says, “Here, sir.” So the name, you know, since — it’s like calling somebody Tex if they’re from Texas or calling them Louise if they’re from Louisiana maybe. I don’t know. So that name just stuck.
The “U. Utah” — I’ve always been known as “U. Utah Phillips,” and that comes — I guess I can say that now. That’s been a closely held secret for years. When I was in Utah there first learning the kind of music I love, my favorite singer was T. Texas Tyler. So my friend, Norman Ritchie, the traveling teenage sage, started calling me U. Utah Phillips. There you go.
AMY GOODMAN: So we’re here with U. Utah Phillips. And wars have defined so much. History books define times by war. But resistance is also there, and that’s what often goes unchronicled, except with people like you who have been chronicling the resistance movements for a long time. And I was wondering if you could talk about some of the people who you feel have made important differences in activism, in resisting the wars.
UTAH PHILLIPS: Well, for that, I would have to go back to union brothers and sisters. I would have to go back to the Espionage Act in the First World War. In my union, the Industrial Workers of the World, this is my fiftieth year in the IWW, by the way, my proudest association. It is the only organization I’ve ever been — ever known of that didn’t break faith with its elders.
Well, when I hit the road, when I went out to try to find out who I really was, to reconstruct my life, when I left Utah, I found those elders and I sought them out. I never thought I would be able to say this, Amy, but my — most of my elders, most of my great teachers, were born the century before last. [inaudible] born in the 1890s. And I think of Fred Thompson and the elders that I’ve talked to that went through the First World War as unionists and endured the Espionage Act, endured the enormous persecution, and just kept at it and kept at it. That was an amazing thing, because that was the — one of the effects of the war — and the same thing happened in the Second World War, was to use that super patriotism and to use the enhanced governmental powers to break the back of the labor movement, especially the radical labor movement, the IWW, and pretty damn well, you know, near succeeded. In spite of that, you know, of that terrible oppression and that awful war, we came out of that war with the beginning of the eight-hour day, with mine safety laws, with child labor laws, you know? We were still winning all the time we were losing.
AMY GOODMAN: For young people who’ve never heard of the Wobblies, or the International Workers of the World, can you explain —-
UTAH PHILLIPS: Industrial Workers of the World.
AMY GOODMAN: Industrial Workers of the World -— can you explain its origins?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Industrial Workers of the World was started — grew out of the Western Federation of Miners. It started in 1905. The cornerstone of the IWW was the notion that people in the same industry should belong to the same union.
Big Bill Haywood there in Colorado, Big Bill, the true American, he was one of the founders of the IWW. His father rode for the Pony Express. His mother was a forty-niner who got off the wagon train in Salt Lake. Bill was born in Salt Lake. There in Colorado, he’d see how a mine would get struck. So they’d bring in scabs to bring out scab ore, and then it would be transported to the mill on the union train and milled at the union mill. He said all of the people in this industry should belong to one union, because that’s union scabbing.
So industrial unionism was born as an alternative to craft unionism, like the AFL, organized bodies of workers fighting against each other. And it wasn’t just industrial unionism; it was the One Big Union, the OBU, a union of all skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers in one big union, divided up into industrial departments, syndicalists, syndicalism, which would then replace the government; the means of production in the hands of the producers, produced for use instead of profit, create abundance for workers and nothing for parasites; an end to the wage system. Well, like John Greenway called the IWW a banzai charge on capitalism, and that was about right.
Well, of course, the union dwindled, you know, after the First World War, the Palmer Raids, which were so much worse than anything we’re experiencing now, but still survived. And now the union is growing, has been growing for quite a long time now.
AMY GOODMAN: The Palmer Raids?
UTAH PHILLIPS: No, the Industrial Workers of the World.
AMY GOODMAN: Right, but the Palmer Raids, if you could say what they were again, for people who —-
UTAH PHILLIPS: Oh, Attorney General Palmer, that was the first Red Scare, the first big Red Scare. The Russian Revolution had been accomplished right at the -— you know, during the First World War. So the first big Red Scare happened when Attorney General Palmer caused thousands of unionists to be jailed and many, many immigrant workers to be deported without any kind of due process. And it was like an industrial war. And Palmer — they did their best to break up the IWW, but it never succeeded, because we have survived and we have persisted.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the Palmer Raids. You talk about the Espionage Act. How do you think the time we’re living in now compares?
UTAH PHILLIPS: I think that — I think that it’s getting — it can get as bad. I think that we’re being frog-marched into a corporate fascist takeover of the country. And no fooling, I think that we’re in the Weimar Republic. And that’s another thing that I would encourage young people to understand, what — that was Germany before the Second World War, the rise of Hitler, the rise of Nazism. Why didn’t people do anything? You know, the big question that young Germans are asking their grandparents: “Why didn’t you do something?” Read about the Weimar, compare the rise of fascism in Germany from the 1920s to what’s happening right here right now.
The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. Listen, you young people I’m talking to, that long memory has been taken away from you. You haven’t gotten it in your schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re not getting it anywhere. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. You know, you can’t remember what happened last week, because you’re locked into this week’s crisis.
No, turn that off. You know, walk away from that. Walk out your front door. Go find your elders. Go find your true elders. Go find your people that lived that life, who knew that life and who know that history. And get your hands down into that deep rich stream of our people’s history. We divided our culture up into a market for youngers, a market for young adults, a market for young marrieds, a market for older people, you know. It’s not that way. And mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we’ve been through and trivializing important events. No, our people’s history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions. That huge river, you know, it’s like tributaries that flow down into the polluted river and purify it and purify it.
AMY GOODMAN: Utah, you’re known for telling stories, very — well, really opposite from the mass media world today, where a sound bite is something like eight or nine seconds.
UTAH PHILLIPS: Mm-hmm.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think that has done to the way people learn and understand?
UTAH PHILLIPS: I think that television has had a serious — we’re thinking differently. I’ll watch television once a year just to get kind of an idea of what is happening to people’s minds, or maybe I want to go see the World Series. The frequency of images is so fast that I can’t track it. If I don’t — I don’t have TV, and I don’t like them, so I can’t understand how people can watch them. The frequency of the images is just too fast. I can’t take it all in. Yeah, it is — you’re absolutely right that we’re thinking differently. Television alters consciousness. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t use it. It’s intended to alter consciousness.
Me, the last TV set I had, I shot. I don’t know what commercial importunement drove me off of the pier, but I hauled it into the backyard. It was up in Spokane, Washington, and I got a — had an old Stevens shotgun. I tied a scarf around it for a blindfold and scotch-taped a cigarette to the front and lit it and let it burn an appropriate amount of time, and then I blew a hole through it with the shotgun. It was out there in the lilac hedge, which grew through it eventually. It was kind of pretty after a while. But I have not — you know, I haven’t owned one of those foolish things since.
I think that abandoning children, you know, to a television set — children are born with this bridge between world time and dreamtime. They wander back-and-forth over it at will, and you never know which side of the bridge they’re going to be standing at either. You’ve just got to be willing to stand with them at the dreamtime end of the bridge, instead of jerking them over the bridge into world time on the presumption that facts will save your butt. Have they? Well, they won’t.
Kids understand storytelling. They understand stories, and they understand that particular kind of magic. And they also understand innately that all the wonders of the mind need not be explicit. We’re robbing children of their imagination. We just said earlier that the glory of radio is that it unlocks the imagination, as my wife said, and television — because you create your own images — and television gives you the images. Also, television is there to say to these kids, see, kids — you can take a coffee can and turn it into a rocket ship, you see? You create the story. If you have the story and you want to act out, and then you create the object to act it out. Television turns that around backwards and says you can’t have this story unless you buy the object — the exact opposite of what we’re born to do. We have to fight like hell to turn ourselves back to our own best natural selves. And that’s part of what I’m doing.
AMY GOODMAN: Utah, we’re speaking on this weekend that would have been Martin Luther King’s seventy-fifth birthday, who came out of a fierce tradition of civil rights protest and human rights activism. A lot of people don’t appreciate what that day-to-day organizing and activism is all about. They hear Martin Luther King, it’s almost as if he was alone, but he certainly wasn’t. And there were so many, like you mentioned Rosa Parks. Rosa Parks, a story, a legend, where we hear about a woman who just got tired and sat down, but of course that was not her story.
UTAH PHILLIPS: No, she was at Highlander School getting her training.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what Highlander School was?
UTAH PHILLIPS: Oh, good heavens, that Myles Horton — Myles Horton was the world’s — the best educator the country ever had. And I knew Myles. He was a fine, remarkable man, good preacher, too. The Highlander principle was that any group of people in the community experiencing a problem, if they sit in a circle and spend a couple of days telling each other their life story, will eventually arrive at a solution to the problem. So the Highlander School was created for people to come together and do that.
So there’s food that’s prepared for them, a place to stay. And if you run into a knotty problem and you need a lawyer or you need an expert — and, you know, ex is a has-been, a spurt is a drip under pressure — you need an expert come in there, they’ll come in and tell you what you want to hear, and then they have to leave. You know how a lawyer can take over a meeting. And then you go back and just use the information, because it’s right in the hands of those people to do that.
And that’s where Rosa Parks was. Martin Luther King was there. Remember that billboard during the ’60s that the John Birch Society put up, said Martin Luther King at a communist training school? That was Highlander that he was at.
And it’s — and it was Myles’s idea, an extraordinary idea that works. Myles was a great organizer by himself. Myles Horton told me once, he said he was doing an organizing job in a little, small town, a coal mine job, and the thugs were in town, and they were going to try to break the union, you know, pretty violent. The preacher feared for Myles’s life and gave him a horse pistol to protect himself, but it was broken, and it didn’t have any ammunition. And Myles said he didn’t know how use it anyway.
Well, Myles was looking out the front window down on the street from the rooming house, and a big black car pulled up and these three goons got out. And Myles opened the window and, dangling that pistol out the window, said, “Hey, you down there. Let me tell you something.” They looked up and said, “Horton, you can’t tell us anything.” He said, “Oh, yes, I can. You’ve got to get organized.” They said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re not organized.” “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, now, look. You’re going to come upstairs and try to kill me. You’re going to kick in my door. I’m going to shoot the first one inside the door, and I may get the second one. Third one will get me. But you’ve got to decide which one’s going to come in first. You’ve got to get organized.” Well, they talked to each other for a while and got in the car and drove away. Myles could do that.
One time he — Myles, he did a — he was invited to give a talk on leadership. And he showed up in town, and he couldn’t remember where he was supposed to go. He lost the piece of paper. So he walked up to the main part of town, and he saw a bunch of people going into a hall, so he followed them. And he went in there and saw his name on the reader board, and everybody sat down and he sat down. When they were all sat down, he got up and walked to the front onto the stage and said, “Leadership is finding a bunch of people that look like they know where they’re going and following them, and when they’re all sitting down, stand up and talk to them about leadership.”
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask you about commercial media and what it’s done, what radio — that is commercial — record industry, the music industry, how you respond to it. And I also wanted to ask you about Johnny Cash.
UTAH PHILLIPS: Isn’t that the little bill changers in public restrooms? Forget it. My brain does that. Listen, I’m a victim of this myself. You know, I’m a bystander. I’m not doing this.
Let’s see, you started out with what media has done to people. You know that better than I do. That’s why you do what you do. See, you’re doing an alternative media. And if we play our cards right and have enough time, then pretty soon it won’t be alternative media anymore. But then, we have a thorough understanding — don’t we, Amy — that they fight with money and we fight with time, and they’re going to run out of money before we run out of time. So we’ll just be patient, and you do your work, and I’ll do mine, and we’ll catch up and overtake them.
It’s a damn shame, though, that we have to be alternative. But then, we’re in a capitalist environment, we’re in a capitalist system that’s built on — that’s built on the least commendable features of the human psyche, greed and envy, rather than the best. We in community radio, in pirate radio, in alternative music distribution, we reach for the best in people, you know, we don’t — not lowest common denominators. And we are building a new world within the shell of the old.
I don’t feel pessimistic about that at all. There’s simply too many good people right here in this room, too many good people on the street, close to the street, doing too many good things for me to afford the luxury of being pessimistic. I’m going to — I’ll tell people that tonight, damn it. I’m glad it came up. If I look at the world from the top down, from FOX, God help me, or CNN or — there ought to be a CNN Anon to wean people from that idiocy. If I look at it from the top down, I get seriously depressed. The world’s going to hell in a wheelbarrow. But if I walk out the door, turn all that off, and go with the people, whatever town I’m in, who are doing the real work down at the street level, like I say, there’s too many good people doing too many good things for me to let myself be pessimistic about that. I’m hopeful, can’t live without hope. Can you?
AMY GOODMAN: Legendary musician, Utah Phillips. We’ll come back to this 2004 interview in a minute.
As we go back to 2004, I asked Utah Phillips to talk about the music industry.
I was in New York, after I left Utah on a kind of blacklist, and I was a fish out of water. I had to be told I was singing folk music. And I wound up in New York City, and there was a fellow there that was going to manage me and Rosalee Sorrels. We were assured he was the most honest manager in New York City. It took me a year to figure out that “scrupulously honest” in New York City was a jailable offense elsewhere. And I bailed out on that, you know, and I realized that I would no longer own what I do. I was a good Wobbly. You need to own the means of your production. I would have to abdicate most of the creative decisions to non-artists, and I said I’m not going to do that.
I decided that I would learn the trade. The trade is a fine, elegant, beautiful, very fruitful trade. In that trade, I can make a living and not a killing, and that was very important to me, to make a living and not a killing, to live reasonably well. I found a world of folk music. I found folk music societies all over the country, little singer circles, a little program here, Spirit of the Woods, Manistee, Michigan, what have you. And these were people who part of their pattern of social responsibility was being committed to making sure folk music happened in their community, like you might work for United Fund or muscular dystrophy. And so, I would come into town to do a concert as a partner in that effort. So the past thirty-five years I’ve been in this trade, I had no bosses. That’s another part of it: no boss. I make all the creative decisions.
And then, this wonderful glorious movement, the most healthiest one that’s happening in this country, is organized folk music, people turning off those machines and getting together to sharing music and food as a holy activity, singer circles, folksong societies, campouts, things like that, take care of each other’s kids, potlucks. It’s — you find that town, town, city for city, all happening below the level of media notice. And that’s where I happen, that’s where I want to happen, below the level of media notice, off of their radar, and create this world that’s apart, but which, as I say, if we’re patient and continue to build and to do our work in place, we will no longer be the margin. We will no longer be the alternative.
The late Johnny Cash and you?
Well, John R. Cash once sent me a — well, no, he called me on the phone. There was a fellow named Paul Milosevich, used to paint a beautiful painting for outlaw country singers down in Austin, Texas. I discovered the difference between outlaw country music and Nashville country music was that in outlaw they had dirty hats and in Nashville they had clean white cowboy hats. And if you wanted to be an outlaw, you had to take it off and throw it under a truck at a truck stop and let it run over four or five times, then you could be an outlaw. I knew that.
Well, Paul Milosevich had taken him a bunch of songs I had made up, and John R. Cash, Johnny Cash, said, “I’d like to record these songs.” And Paul said, “Well, you’d better talk to Utah first.” He could have demanded a license. You know, that’s the way the law is written, copyright laws. If they had already been recorded once, you could demand a license. But no, he’s a gentleman. He called me up and said, “I want to record these songs.” And I said, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that.”
And we talked a good deal about that, you know. I think what I told him, I said, “I don’t want to contribute anything to that industry. I can’t fault you for what you’re doing. I admire what you do. But I can’t feed that dragon. I’m not going to feed that dragon.” And, of course, he and other people said, “Well, think of the money that you’d make. You could put it together in any cause you wanted.” And I said, “Mr. Cash, think about dollars as bullets. And the ragged band of revolutionaries meet on the field with the general of the army, and the general says, ‘We’re going to divide up the bullets. I’ll take seven, and you’ll take three. And then we’ll fight.’ Who’s going to win?” See, so — and a lot of people got on me. Melvina Reynolds was furious with me for not doing that, you know, for not making the deal. And I was on the edge of doing it, you know, any number of times.
And finally I said I’ve got to resolve this. I got a call from Santa Rosa. They were going to open a peace center, and they asked me if I’d come and sing. And I said, “Well, I think I can get there.” And they said, “By the way, Father Daniel Berrigan will be there.” I said, “OK,” and I went over there so I could do the show, but also so I could ask him, Father Berrigan, say, “What do I do in this situation? Would you have any advice?” And so, I told him the story backstage, and Father Berrigan said — all he said was “Oh, yeah. They’ll always tell you how much good you can do with dirty money.” And he walked away. So, OK, you know, I called and said, “No, no. Don’t do that.”
What I wound up doing was turning around, since there is mandatory licensing, is telling people who want to record those songs I make up, even if you’re a little label or you’re self-produced, you know, folk legacy, something like that, go ahead and do it, I just won’t sue you. And if somebody does demand a license, you know, and gets it, like the industrial-strength performers, I set up a non-sprinkling trust called the busker’s fund. And the money, I don’t even see it, just bypasses me and goes into there for people for medical relief for over-the-road folkies who can’t get health insurance.
I don’t want to make money writing songs. There are people who make money writing songs; I can’t fault that. I’m an anarchist. I don’t make rules for other people. I make rules for myself. And it’s also a kind of penance for what I saw and felt when I was in Korea. And that’s where we started, isn’t it?
Utah Phillips, we’re talking in an election year, perhaps one of the most important election years ever. But you once ran for election.
Once — oh, yeah, well, several — OK, I ran for the US Senate in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom ticket, took a leave of absence from state service — I was a state archivist — and ran a full campaign, twenty-seven counties. We took 6,000 votes in Utah. But when it was over, my job would vanish, and I couldn’t get work anymore in Utah.
So I hung on for about a year living on a cot in the back of a warehouse, keeping a little draft resistance center going. And, of course, by that time, we were dealing with deserters that didn’t want to go back to ’Nam, rather than, you know, the resisters. And I did some work with the Utah Migrant Council, started the Joe Hill House again, because Ammon had moved to Phoenix because he was too old to run it.
Finally, I had just run out of moves. I couldn’t find work, and that’s when people, friends like Rosalee Sorrels, suggested I leave Utah and try to make a living telling stories and singing songs, which seemed criminal or somehow unthinkable in Utah. But that’s when I went out and found — discovered this whole world.
So, you were an archivist in Utah?
I was an archivist, yeah. I handled 75,000 cubic feet of public records. For an information junkie, that’s heaven. Yeah, I loved studying archival science, and I still have a library in my home that I curate, my own little research library of popular antiquities. And that’s where my mind lives when I’m at home.
I’ve been speaking with librarians who are very concerned that the country’s archives are now being transferred to the internet, and they’re afraid from there that they will then be vacuumed, that the internet can then be changed, as we’ve seen President Bush, you know, purging words like “global warming” from government websites.
Archival science is in a serious — a serious crisis, and that’s because of electronic media, electronic storage and retrieval. A lot of hotshot, fancy, high-tech salesmen have gone to a lot of archives and archivists and sold them some bogus hardware and software. How many books has the Library of Congress lost? Millions of books, because the images have vanished, whatever the storage system is, electronic storage system is. It’s degraded to the point where the stuff is no longer usable.
In the Utah state archives, the best and most durable records are on paper, from the 1800s, the old Mormon Governor Brigham Young’s papers. Why? Because there was potassium in the water they used to make the paper in their own mill, and that’s a natural paper preservative, you know. And that’s true, I think, of any archive in the country. You talk to the archivists; they’ll say the most durable resource they have is still on paper.
Well, what’s the shelf life of a CD? Is it about ten years, ten, twelve years? Congress won’t accept tape for archival purposes, because after about ten, fifteen years, it bleeds through, you see? That it — paper. You know, LPs, I have, what, over 150 John McCormack 78s from the early 1900s — my favorite singer, John McCormack — and I can play those and listen to those. Same with my LPs. The whole information is becoming more and more temporary. And you’re absolutely right. You know, it is terribly threatening to every archive to be bullied by technocrats into going that route.
So, are you going to be voting this year? Are you going to be endorsing anyone? What do you think is the most important form of participation these days?
Well, now, you’ve got me boxed in. Amy, you know, you make — you ever made of vow? You know, like Catholics make vows, don’t they? You make a vow of celibacy or a vow of poverty. I made a vow to Ammon Hennacy shortly before his death, that, you know, he would never — he was an anarchist, a great anarchist. And he would never speak when I was running for the Senate. He would never talk, you know, for me. Another you learn things the hard way, don’t you? He made me promise that I wouldn’t engage in systemic politics ever again, that there was another way I had to do this.
Ammon never went to the polls, but you couldn’t tell him you hadn’t voted. He did vote. Ammon’s body was his ballot. And he cast it in behalf of the poor around him every day of his life. And he paid a terrible price for that. You couldn’t tell him he hadn’t voted. He said, “Yes, I did vote. I just didn’t assign responsibility to other people to do things. I accept responsibility and saw to it that something got done.” It’s a different way of looking at voting, isn’t it? And you can do that all the time. You could have your life. And that’s the way I live my life. My body is my ballot. It’s a lesson I learned from Ammon. That’s my way. That’s the vow I took, and I’m not going to break it. Right?
Given that, I can’t, of course, ask people to do something that I wouldn’t do, you know, but it does appear to me that these fascists that have taken over have got to get — we’ve got to get rid of them. They’re not Republicans, and they’re not Democrats up there. You know, they’re something else. They’re corporate fascists. And they got to be out of there. And the only organized force on the planet — in the country that I know of that can do that is the Democratic Party. God help us all. You know, it’s like buying a seat on the Titanic, the Democratic Party, but they’re the only force, organized force, that has the ability to do it. So it’s imperative that the entire progressive movement come together, like they did in the Great Depression at the time of the CIO.
Every progressive force in the country came together, gave them the window of opportunity, Roosevelt’s second term, and put their differences on the shelves, stopped hammering on each other. In the Great Depression. And we came out of that with Social Security and workmen’s compensation and a minimum wage, you understand? The whole progressive movement, from animal rights to the feminist movement to anti-nuclear — I don’t care what permutation — have got to saying, “This is my issue, this is my issue,” and join forces and once again create the united front, total united front, and take over the Democratic Party, and that’s the only way we’re going to be able to do this, to pull this off. We can’t do that — then, when we’ve done it, go back and hammer on each other, OK, but for right now, all the difference has got to be pushed aside. I am absolutely appalled at these Democratic candidates hammering on each other, you know, not recognizing the direness of our situation.
It is long since, since those people should have sat down in a room together and decided which one could be elected and put everything they had into that person. Time has long since passed. They’ve got to do it. And otherwise, we’re in for very much serious, more serious times than we’ve got now. It’s not that time has run out. It’s going to make it a lot harder on everybody else to try to make it better.
Legendary folk musician Utah Phillips in 2004. He died this weekend in Nevada City, California. The memorial service will be held on Sunday. The family requests donations go to Hospitality House in Grass Valley,hospitalityhouseshelter.org. I’ll be speaking in Grass Valley Friday night.