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Interview with Utah Phillips
A fter Bruce Phillips returned to the U.S. after his tour in post-war Korea, he hopped freight trains around the nation and listened to the stories of the destitute and forgotten. He landed in Utah (where he picked up his nickname) and began putting into practice his sense of social justice. After he left Utah, he traveled for many years, singing and telling stories. He founded what is now the Folk Alliance.
A passionate union activist, he lives in northern California, where he was one of the founders of the peace center in his community. In the summer of 2003, I spent several hours in conversation with Utah Phillips. A portion of the conversation follows.
PHILLIPS: I made up songs during that time [after Korea] that I’ll never sing again—to leave with people where I stayed or just scattered them around. Then I decided I needed to make a stand. So I went back to Salt Lake and I got a job in a warehouse wrapping packages. That was when I met Earl M. Lyman, grandson of M. Lyman, one of the original apostles of the Mormon church, an original pioneer in the Mormon crossing of the plains. Earl M. Lyman was an old storyteller. He used to love to tell stories about the old Mormon days. So I got in the habit after work of going to the library and reading stories and histories about Mormon pioneer history, so I would have questions to ask him when I came to work the next day. That’s when I learned the value of storytelling as a way to avoid work.
I was delivering packages one day to the post office, and there was an old man sitting in front of the post office with a jug of water and an enormous picket sign. He was taking a break from picketing. I noticed him every day when I went back to the post office. He’d either be picketing or sitting under the bush. He’d be talking to people and the big sign was announcing how he wasn’t going to pay war taxes. I watched him closely. I saw enormously hostile people come up to him. One guy took a swing at him. He reached out and took his hand and shook it. I saw that man come back the next day and say, “I despise what you believe in, but I’m going to stand here and make sure nobody hurts you.” I saw nonviolence in action really for the first time.
The man was Ammond Hen- nessy, Catholic anarchist, pacifist draftdodger in two world wars, tax refuser, and vegetarian. He called himself a one man revolution. Did hard time at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary during WW I for objecting. Still has the record for consecutive months in solitary. He was working when he was in his 70s, digging canals, dredging. He wouldn’t take a job if there was withholding. He gave nothing to the state and got nothing from it. It was a life of absolute voluntary poverty. He talked to people back and forth across the country. He was sent from the Catholic worker. He was a great friend of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker. He was sent out to Salt Lake to start a house of hospitality. Peter Murin, who taught Dorothy Day, said, “I want to live in a world where it’s easier to be good. But if you’re cold, lonely, and hungry, it’s hard to be good. You’re hanging somebody up. You’re going to get mad and break a window.”
He said, “Let’s just create corners on the skids, houses of hospitality where there’s no preaching, no conversion, no waiting for the sermon to be over to get your coffee and a doughnut. Just places where there’s food, clothing, warmth, and human companionship.” Compassion. And a completely nonviolent situation.
Now there are over 80 of them, and more coming. Many in different parts of the world now. The people live there—that’s their home. The people who come in are not clients, but guests. They’re visitors in your home. You live in absolute poverty, but radiantly, living well. That’s the Joe Hill house we started. The Catholic Worker House. After Joe Hill, the great songwriter with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). He was executed on November 19, 1919, by the state of Utah. Ammond was an admirer of Joe Hill for his commitment. So I started talking with Ammond and going to the Joe Hill house and he sort of picked me up, took me under his wing. Those Catholic Workers probably saved my life.
What do you mean he saved your life? It seems like you were doing pretty well when you met him.
Oh, no. I was still angry a lot. I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I wasn’t sure I could live in the country at all. I had figured that out riding the freight trains. Every place I went I was angry. I was angry at the state, the country. All these images in my mind of what I’d seen—they wouldn’t go away. I couldn’t get rid of them.
Ammond said to me, “You need to be a pacifist.” I said, “What’s that?” He said, “Well, you act out a lot. You brawl a lot. You’re not any good at it. You’re the one who keeps getting pushed through the front door and I’m tired of fixing the damned thing so you got to be a pacifist.” It was a more direct approach to the idea of pacifism. Once you own the behavior and you acknowledge it, you begin to define the behavior and have it defined for you by the people whose lives you’ve messed with or sometimes destroyed.
He said, “You’ve got to look at your capacity for violence in the same way as a social addiction. You’ve got to learn to deal with it in every situation, every minute, every day for the rest of your life, because it’s not going to go away, but it will save your life.” When I thought about it, I was ready to lay it all down. I was feeling battered in more ways than one.
I began to understand, watching Ammond and the other Catholic Workers, that the idea of manhood that I had been given—by my father, by my scout master, by my gym instructors, by my drill sergeants, by my field commanders —was all lies.
What they had given me, and I sure felt this in Korea, was a blueprint for destruction. I was given a license for every excess that there is. Whether it be sex, violence, drugs. Of course you’re going to die, of course you’re going to destroy yourself if you go with that model of manhood. I was exhausted.
I said, “Okay Ammond, I’ll try that.” He said, “It’s not enough. You were born a white man in mid-20th 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 want to be a pacifist you are not just going to lay down knives and guns and fists and angry words, you are going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.”
He’s been dead for 33 years and I’m still at it. When we’d go in front of Judge Ritter, Ammond would always plead “anarchy.” He’d never plead “Innocent” or “guilty”—he’d just plead “anar- chy.” Judge Ritter would say, “What is an anarchist?” Ammond would say, “Well, an anarchist is anybody who don’t need a cop to tell him what to do.” The press treats anarchy as chaos. No. Anarchists are the most organized people you are ever going to find because they’ve got to be self governing. You’ve got to figure out the right thing to do. When you blow it, look at it as a chance to change; and you do change, and you keep changing all the time, you keep evolving all the time, questioning all the time, learning how to make decisions, learning how to make choices. The good Anarchists are born knowing the right thing to do. You know when somebody knows they are doing the wrong thing because they hide it. That’s how we know the WTO is wrong because they’re hiding it.
Ammond said to me, “If you can agree with me that we will each do our share of the work of our world, if you can agree with me that we will only take what we need and put back what we can, if you and I can agree that we will care for the afflicted, and if you and I will agree not to hurt anybody, and all the things you can’t get from the boss you can’t get from the state.
If you and I can agree to that, then between us we can begin to build that voluntary combination and get the work of our world done without the boss and without the state.”
Well, that was a whole lot easier than the canon of the anarchists, much more right down on the ground.
The combinations I created in the folk music world were all voluntary. I have no boss. If anybody comes on to me like a boss, I take a hike. They’re noncoercive combinations. When I pass it along to young people, I tell them exactly the same story that I’ve told you. I say, first thing you’ve got to do, while you’re examining your behavior and deciding what’s compulsive and what isn’t and taking charge of yourself, you’ve got to discover what your unique and specific virtue is. I don’t mean virtue in a moral sense. I mean virtue in a Greek sense. The ball bounces by virtue of its elasticity, the knife cuts by virtue of its edge. The flower that grows, the sun that shines, everything is in exercise of its own unique and specific virtue. Human beings, because of that coercion, depart from our virtue and we have to fight like hell to get back to it. You have to relax into yourself and find what your real virtue is. What is your work? Work is what you do for yourself. Toil is what you do for somebody else.
What is it that animates you? What is it that satisfies your soul? Discover that. That’s your work. That’s your virtue. Now in order to exercise that virtue you’re going to have to take a lot of dumb jobs. You’re gonna live cheap, just kind of squeak through the world, but you’re gonna take part of the money and part of the time. Then one day you’re going to pick up the phone and call in, well, and do your work. So here I am—afloat. Thanks to a good and patient man.
Carolyn Crane is a radio and print journalist. Her radio features can be found at www.leftcoastradio.org.
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AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
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