A Rumor in His Own Time
In Praise of Utah Phillips
I was watching my baby daughter sleep in her carseat outside of the
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
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
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
Thus, I became a Wobbly singer, too. I began to stand on a street corner on
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
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
In I've Got To Know I heard an eloquent and current voice of opposition to the American Empire and the bombing of
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
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
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
I've passed near enough to that part of
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.
David Rovics can be reached through his website.