Utah Phillips, 1935-2008

Issue 

@intro =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 Phillips phenomenon in the late '80s, when I was in my early 20s, 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 (IWW).

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 1960s. There were (and are) plenty of veterans of the struggles of the '60s 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 '60s 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 Phillips 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 Phillips 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 Phillips.

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 Phillip'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 Phillips, the songwriter. Then, in 1991, I came across Phillip'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 Phillips 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 Phillip'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 US Empire and the bombing of Iraq, rolled together seamlessly with the voices of deserters, draft dodgers and tax resisters of the previous century.

Travelling around the US in the 1990s and since, it seemed that Phillip'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 Phillips, 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-DiFranco era.

In any case, for those of us who knew his music, whether from recordings or concerts, for those of us who knew Phillips from his stories on or off the stage, whether we knew him as that human bridge to the radical labour 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 rumour in his own time. No question, one man's rumour is another man's legend, but who cares, it's just words anyway.

[David Rovics is a US folksinger. This obituary is abridged from his blog http://www.songwritersnotebook.blogspot.com]