State of Grace
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 www.utahphillips.net 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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