Tag Archives: Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips (d. 23.05.08) remembered

“We the American People are enormously wealthy, you know that? Who owns all those trees in the National Forest? This is not a rhetorical question– we do! Who owns all of that offshore oil you read about in the papers? We do! Who owns all of those minerals under the federal lands? We do! It’s public property and all. But we elect people to go to Washington –who are those assholes?”

Lucy Parsons and the call for class war

CLASS WAR we have found new homes for the richThe death of Utah Phillips reminded me of a favorite story he would tell about the Haymarket widow Lucy Parsons. Shoot or Stab Them was advice that got the anarchist agitator arrested whenever she tried to speak in public. Lucy’s husband was among those anarchists framed and executed for the infamous 1886 Haymarket bombing. Lucy continued to advocate for labor rights and social change. Here’s how Utah told the rest of the story:

Lucy lived well up into this century,
well into this century, died in 1940.
One time, she was speaking at a big May Day rally
back in the Haymarket in the middle 1930s, she was incredibly old.
She was led carefully up to the rostrum, a multitude of people there.
She had her hair tied back in a tight white bun, her face
a mass of deeply incised lines, deep-set beady black eyes.
She was the image of everybody’s great-grandmother.
She hunched over that podium, hawk-like,
and fixed that multitude with those beady black eyes,
and said: “What I want
is for every greasy grimy tramp
to arm himself with a knife or a gun
and stationing himself at the doorways of the rich
shoot or stab them as they come out.”

Lest her zeal need a little explaining, Lucy Parsons made this declaration at the founding convention of the IWW in 1905:

“Never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.”

Very little remains of the pamphlets which Parsons published over the course of her life. The authorities considered her “more dangerous than a thousand rioters.” They blocked her entrance to public halls and arrested her whenever she addressed a crowd. When Parsons died, the police confiscated and destroyed her library and papers.

A number of websites have emerged to celebrate Lucy Parson’s legacy. Would it be racist of me to suggest that a book entitled FIFTY BLACK WOMEN WHO CHANGED AMERICA should have mentioned Lucy Parsons at least in the index? The list complied by author Amy Alexander included Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Florence Griffith Joyner.

A short biography of Lucy Parsons is reprinted at Red Robin’s Red Channels, Left Links, and Proletarian Places. There’s also the Lucy Parsons Project. Her essay on “The Principles of Anarchism” is archived at LucyParsons.org. An oratory class at the University of Washington includes Parsons’ infamous call to arms:

Lucy E. Parsons, “To Tramps,” Alarm, October 4, 1884.
(Also printed and distributed as a leaflet by the International Working People’s Association.)

TO TRAMPS,
The Unemployed, the Disinherited, and Miserable.

A word to the 35,000 now tramping the streets of this great city, with hands in pockets, gazing listlessly about you at the evidence of wealth and pleasure of which you own no part, not sufficient even to purchase yourself a bit of food with which to appease the pangs of hunger now knawing at your vitals. It is with you and the hundreds of thousands of others similarly situated in this great land of plenty, that I wish to have a word.

Have you not worked hard all your life, since you were old enough for your labor to be of use in the production of wealth? Have you not toiled long, hard and laboriously in producing wealth? And in all those years of drudgery do you not know you have produced thousand upon thousands of dollars’ worth of wealth, which you did not then, do not now, and unless you ACT, never will, own any part in?

Do you not know that when you were harnessed to a machine and that machine harnessed to steam, and thus you toiled your 10, 12 and 16 hours in the 24, that during this time in all these years you received only enough of your labor product to furnish yourself the bare, coarse necessaries of life, and that when you wished to purchase anything for yourself and family it always had to be of the cheapest quality?

If you wanted to go anywhere you had to wait until Sunday, so little did you receive for your unremitting toil that you dare not stop for a moment, as it were?

And do you not know that with all your squeezing, pinching and economizing you never were enabled to keep but a few days ahead of the wolves of want? And that at last when the caprice of your employer saw fit to create an artificial famine by limiting production, that the fires in the furnace were extinguished, the iron horse to which you had been harnessed was stilled; the factory door locked up, you turned upon the highway a tramp, with hunger in your stomach and rags upon your back? Yet your employer told you that it was overproduction which made him close up.

Who cared for the bitter tears and heart-pangs of your loving wife and helpless children, when you bid them a loving “God bless you” and turned upon the tramper’s road to seek employment elsewhere? I say, who cared for those heartaches and pains? You were only a tramp now, to be execrated and denounced as a “worthless tramp and a vagrant” by that very class who had been engaged all those years in robbing you and yours.

Then can you not see that the “good boss” or the “bad boss” cuts no figure whatever? that you are the common prey of both, and that their mission is simply robbery? Can you not see that it is the INDUSTRIAL SYSTEM and not the “boss” which must be changed?

Now, when all these bright summer and autumn days are going by and you have no employment, and consequently can save up nothing, and when the winter’s blast sweeps down from the north and all the earth is wrapped in a shroud of ice, hearken not to the voice of the hyprocrite who will tell you that it was ordained of God that “the poor ye have always”; or to the arrogant robber who will say to you that you “drank up all your wages last summer when you had work, and that is the reason why you have nothing now, and the workhouse or the workyard is too good for you; that you ought to be shot.” And shoot you they will if you present your petitions in too emphatic a manner. So hearken not to them, but list!

Next winter when the cold blasts are creeping through the rents in your seedy garments, when the frost is biting your feet through the holes in your worn-out shoes, and when all wretchedness seems to have centered in and upon you, when misery has marked you for her own and life has become a burden and existence a mockery, when you have walked the streets by day and slept upon hard boards by night, and at last determine by your own hand to take your life, – for you would rather go out into utter nothingness than to longer endure an existence which has become such a burden – so, perchance, you determine to dash yourself into the cold embrace of the lake rather than longer suffer thus. But halt, before you commit this last tragic act in the drama of your simple existence.

Stop! Is there nothing you can do to insure those whom you are about to orphan, against a like fate? The waves will only dash over you in mockery of your rash act; but stroll you down the avenues of the rich and look through the magnificent plate windows into their voluptuous homes, and here you will discover the very identical robbers who have despoiled you and yours. Then let your tragedy be enacted here!

Awaken them from their wanton sport at your expense! Send forth your petition and let them read it by the red glare of destruction. Thus when you cast “one long lingering look behind” you can be assured that you have spoken to these robbers in the only language which they have ever been able to understand, for they have never yet deigned to notice any petition from their slaves that they were not compelled to read by the red glare bursting from the cannon’s mouths, or that was not handed to them upon the point of the sword.

You need no organization when you make up your mind to present this kind of petition. In fact, an organization would be a detriment to you; but each of you hungry tramps who read these lines, avail yourselves of those little methods of warfare which Science has placed in the hands of the poor man, and you will become a power in this or any other land.

Learn the use of explosives!

Judi Bari’s gentle lesson in nonviolence

A couple years ago some Colorado Springs activist organizations had a chance to host a public screening of a documentary about Judi Bari and her posthumus court victory against the FBI. It turned out the Feds had planted the bomb with which they tried to discredit her, and kill her too. Judi recovered but died of cancer before she could hear a jury award 4.4 million dollars for the FBI’s trying to rob her and the Earth First movement of their First Amendment voice.

Well, the locals activists hadn’t yet seen the documentary, or hadn’t understood the headlines, and so remembered Judi according to the FBI’s slander. The locals thought Judi Bari might be a poor example for nonviolence advocates and they all but scuttled the event.

Utah Phillips recalls driving with Judi Bari the day before the bomb struck, and recounts this advice she offered him about why she believed in nonviolence.

Judi Bari on nonviolence, as told to Utah Phillips

Talking about the non-violence,
Judy Barry said: The man,
and I mean THE MAN,
can escalate the violence
from a cop on the beat with a handgun
all the way up to a hydrogen bomb
and everything in between.
He’s always saying “come up that road,
come up that road of armed struggle
because I own that road.
Come up that road and it’ll kill you.”

We don’t use that road. She said
You got to take a road he doesn’t own,
a road he doesn’t know anything about,
that road of non-violence, of nonviolent direct action.

Nonviolence is not a tactic, it’s not a strategy,
it is a way of life, it is a practical, practical necessity.

David Rovics on death of Utah Phillips

utah-phillips-fellow-workers-moose-turd-pie.jpgUtah Phillips died Friday. Friends have circulated a May 14th letter he’d sent. The Salt Lake Tribune reprinted a great interview from 2005. And fellow performer David Rovics forwarded this remembrance:

I was watching my baby daughter sleep in her carseat outside of the Sacramento airport about ten hours ago when I noticed a missed call from Brendan Phillips. He’s in a band called Fast Rattler with several friends of mine, two of whom live in my new hometown of Portland, Oregon, one of whom needed a ride home from the Greyhound station. I called back, and soon thereafter heard the news from Brendan that his father had died the night before in his sleep, when his heart stopped beating.

I wouldn’t want to elevate anybody to inappropriately high heights, but for me, Utah Phillips was a legend.

I first became familiar with the Utah Phillips phenomenon in the late 80’s, when I was in my early twenties, working part-time as a prep cook at Morningtown in Seattle. I had recently read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and had been particularly enthralled by the early 20th Century section, the stories of the Industrial Workers of the World. So it was with great interest that I first discovered a greasy cassette there in the kitchen by the stereo, Utah Phillips Sings the Songs and Tells the Stories of the Industrial Workers of the World.

As a young radical, I had heard lots about the 1960’s. There were (and are) plenty of veterans of the struggles of the 60’s alive and well today. But the wildly tumultuous era of the first two decades of the 20th century is now (and pretty well was then) a thing entirely of history, with no one living anymore to tell the stories. And while long after the 60’s there will be millions of hours of audio and video recorded for posterity, of the massive turn-of-the-century movement of the industrial working class there will be virtually none of that.

To hear Utah tell the stories of the strikes and the free speech fights, recounting hilariously the day-to-day tribulations of life in the hobo jungles and logging camps, singing about the humanity of historical figures such as Big Bill Haywood, Joe Hill or Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, was to bring alive an era that at that point only seemed to exist on paper, not in the reality of the senses. But Utah didn’t feel like someone who was just telling stories from a bygone era — it was more like he was a bridge to that era.

Hearing these songs and stories brought to life by him, I became infected by the idea that if people just knew this history in all its beauty and grandeur, they would find the same hope for humanity and for the possibility for radical social change that I had just found through Utah.

Thus, I became a Wobbly singer, too. I began to stand on a street corner on University Way with a sign beside me that read, “Songs of the Seattle General Strike of 1919.” I mostly sang songs I learned from listening to Utah’s cassette, plus some other IWW songs I found in various obscure collections of folk music that I came across.

It was a couple years later that I first really discovered Utah Phillips, the songwriter. I had by this time immersed myself with great enthusiasm in the work of many contemporary performers in what gets called the folk music scene, and had developed a keen appreciation for the varied and brilliant songwriting of Jim Page and others. Then, in 1991, I came across Utah’s new cassette, I’ve Got To Know, and soon thereafter heard a copy of a much earlier recording, Good Though.

Whether he’s recounting stories from his own experiences or those of others doesn’t matter. There is no need to know, for in the many hours Utah spent in his troubled youth talking with old, long-dead veterans of the rails and the IWW campaigns, a bridge from now to then was formed in this person, in his pen and in his deep, resonant voice. In Good Though I heard the distant past breathing and full of life in Utah’s own compositions, just as they breathed in his renditions of older songs.

In I’ve Got To Know I heard an eloquent and current voice of opposition to the American Empire and the bombing of Iraq, rolled together seamlessly with the voices of deserters, draft dodgers and tax resisters of the previous century.

In reference to the power of lying propaganda, a friend of mine used to say it takes ten minutes of truth to counteract 24 hours of lies. But upon first hearing Utah’s song, “Yellow Ribbon,” it seemed to me that perhaps that ratio didn’t give the power of truth enough credit. It seemed to me that if the modern soldiers of the empire would have a chance to hear Utah’s monologues there about his anguish after his time in the Army in Korea, or the breathtakingly simple depiction of life under the junta in El Salvador in his song “Rice and Beans,” they would just have to quit the military.

Utah made it clear in word and in deed that steeping yourself in the tradition was required of any good practitioner of the craft, and I did my best to follow in his footsteps and do just that. I learned lots of Utah’s songs as well as the old songs he was playing. Making a living busking in the Boston subways for years, I ran into other folks who were doing just that, as well as writing great songs, such as Nathan Phillips (no relation). Nathan was from West Virginia, and did haunting versions of “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” “Larimer Street,” “All Used Up,” and other songs. In different T stops at the same time, Nathan and I could often be found both singing the songs of Utah Phillips for the passersby. Traveling around the US in the 1990’s and since then, it seemed that Utah’s music had, on a musical level, had the same kind of impact that Zinn’s People’s History or somewhat earlier works such as Jeremy Brecher’s book, Strike!, had had in written form — bringing alive vital history that had been all but forgotten. With Ani DiFranco’s collaboration with Utah, this became doubly true, seemingly overnight, and this man who had had a loyal cult following before suddenly had, if not what might be called popularity, at least a loyal cult following that was now twice as big as it had been in the pre-Ani era.

I had had the pleasure of hearing Utah live in concert only once in the early 90’s, doing a show with another great songwriter, Charlie King, in the Boston area. I was looking forward to hearing him play again around there in 1995, but what was to be a Utah Phillips concert turned into a benefit for Utah’s medical expenses, when he had to suddenly drastically cut down on his touring, due to heart problems. I think there were about twenty different performers doing renditions of Utah Phillips’ songs at Club Passim that night. I did “Yellow Ribbon.”

Traveling in the same circles and putting out CDs on the same record label, it was fairly inevitable that we’d meet eventually. The first time was several years ago, if memory serves me, behind the stage at the annual protest against the School of the Americas in Columbus, Georgia. I think I successfully avoided seeming too painfully star-struck. Utah was complaining to me earnestly about how he didn’t know what to do at these protests, didn’t feel like he had good protest material. I think he did just fine, though I can’t recall what he did.

Utah lived in Nevada City, and the last time I was there he came to the community radio station while I was appearing on a show. This was soon after Katrina, and I remember singing my song, “New Orleans,” and Utah saying embarrassingly nice things. I was on a little tour with Norman Solomon speaking and me singing, and we had done an event the night before in town, which Utah was too tired to attend, if I recall.

Me, Utah, Norman, and my companion, Reiko, went over to a nice breakfast place after the radio show, talked and ate breakfast. Utah did most of the talking, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that his use of mysterious hobo colloquialisms and frequent references to obscure historical characters in twentieth-century American anarchist history was something he did off stage as well as on.

I’ve passed near enough to that part of California many times since then. Called once when I was nearby and he was out of town, doing a show in Boston. Otherwise I just thought about calling and dropping by, but didn’t take the time. Life was happening, and taking a day or two off in Nevada City was always something that I never quite seemed to find the time for. Always figured next time I’ll have more time, I’ll call him then. It had been thirteen years since he found out about his heart problems, and he hadn’t kicked the bucket yet… Of course, now I wish I had taken the time when I had the chance, and I’m sure there are many other people who feel the same way.

In any case, for those of us who knew his music, whether from recordings or concerts, for those of us who knew Utah from his stories on or off the stage, whether we knew him as that human bridge to the radical labor movement of yesterday, or as the voice of the modern-day hobos, or as that funky old guy that Ani did a couple of CDs with, Utah Phillips will be remembered and treasured by many. He was undeniably a sort of musical-political-historical institution in his own day. He said he was a rumor in his own time. No question, one man’s rumor is another man’s legend, but who cares, it’s just words anyway.