Monday, May 26, 2008

Interview with the late, great Utah Phillips

Street Roots was sad to hear that the great folk singer and rebel rouser Utah Phillips died this past weekend. He passed away peacefully at his home in Nevada City, California on May 23. He was 73 years old.

Back in January of 2004 Israel Bayer of Street Roots had the chance to interview Utah Phillips before one of the many Winterfolk Benefit Concerts he headlined for Sisters Of The Road. Here's the interview titled, "The altered state of Utah Phillips."

He has been likened to Mark Twain and Will Rogers, but probably the best compliment you can give Utah Phillips is that, search high and low, you will find no better friend of the working man and woman.

And that’s a title that would do Phillips proud, because while he may not be the hardest workingman in show business, Phillips knows hard work like few others in show business. He is the radical son of labor organizers, a product of the union movement and a lyrical visionary for everyone who still holds hope for workers rights and civil liberties.

By the time Phillips was a teen-ager, he was riding the rails, bumming with tramps and soaking in every drop of life on the road. He taught himself to play the ukulele and guitar and began writing songs about the hobo life while he worked odd jobs. Those days and his constant keen observations of labor in the United States continue to fuel his musical storytelling today.

As a soldier in Korea, Phillips decided that nonviolence was the only sane way to live. He founded the Poor People’s Party in Utah, ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace & Freedom ticket, and routinely runs as a presidential candidate on the Sloth & Indolence ticket.

Activist, musician, politician, rabble rouser and storyteller, Utah Phillips wears many hats. We caught up with him this month to talk about his life and music.

Street Roots: How did you get connected with Sisters of the Road?

Utah Phillips: I would come down and sing for Mike Barns and raise money for the (Portland) Alliance. Sister’s was providing the food for one of these events and I got curious about that. Around the same time, I got a phone call that Dorothy Day from the Catholic Workers had passed away. They rescued me from the streets, you know. I was feeling pretty depressed, so I went down to Sisters to get some lunch. At the time, Genny (Nelson) was working behind the counter there. There were very few people there. I sat and watched Genny. I watched the way she was working with the people and saw that the work Dorothy was doing was getting passed along. That was my first experience.

I was on the road a great deal at the time, and Genny lived in a variety of houses, and she would always have a place for me to stay. I have seen Sisters grow and grow and I watched Genny grow and grow. Genny is one of the most courageous people to be doing what she does with an ailing illness. Since I’ve had this diagnosed congestive heart failure, which means I can’t tour anymore, it’s hard to stay active. I think Genny is an example of people who can be very productive with an ailing illness.

Street Roots: What’s so unique about Sisters that has kept you coming back?

Utah Phillips: I guess first of all, the Catholic Workers philosophy that goes along with Sisters. That movement was started by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin spreading the social message of the Catholic Church that there is a whole other way of practicing Christianity that has nothing to do with fame and power and greed. Christians spend a lot of time examining the birth and death of Christ, you know, but very little practicing the example of his life. The Catholic Workers movement has meant to change this.

Dorothy went out on the skids up in New York City and opened houses of hospitality. Going back to the primitive church, Dorothy and Peter pushed the idea of people having Christ rooms where people who would be down and out on their luck could go. The Catholic Workers houses served meals to people and people would bed down if they had enough room for people to sleep. The houses are not missions and they don’t serve clients, everyone was a friend and a guest, that’s why at Sisters you have table service. You’re working with people and their lives and at Sisters they are guests.

Catholic Workers are pacifists. When I got back from Korea where I was a soldier, I acted out a lot with some pretty violent behavior. They taught me how to be a pacifist and it saved my life. They are also anarchists; they take nothing from the state and give nothing to the state. They live in volunteer poverty.

Again, I’m not a Christian, but the Catholic Workers are people I would go to the wall with.

See, Dorothy Day and other Catholic Workers, in the time of air raids, do you remember the air raids? I guess you wouldn’t. It was in the time of McCarthyism. It was against the law not to go to the air raid shelters. Shelter sirens would go off and when you heard the sirens you would have to go to the shelters. If you were on the streets you could be arrested. Well, Dorothy Day and her people would be down there in Times Square marching down the middle of the streets with hundreds of people when the sirens would go off, holding signs denouncing the nuclear buildup happening in the country. First it was hundreds of people marching, then thousands and finally the city said the hell with it. Direct action gets the goods.

See, life on the streets is very rough, you know. There are mean people out there who feel threatened and up against it all and act out violently, and at Sisters you can’t do that. Maybe it takes three or four visits at Sisters for someone to realize that ‘I don’t need this violence in my life, this is a peaceful place and I can put all that aside.’ Eventually, people like that become managers and activists and so on. General personalism works, you know. It may help out your trip that has been drilled into you by your bosses and drill instructors and peers, you know. You can walk away from it and lay it all down. This is what the Catholic Workers did for me and that’s what Sisters is doing for others.

Street Roots: It’s estimated that more than 500,000 veterans experience homeless—ness in this country every year. Do you think there is a connection between homelessness and the military?

Utah Phillips: I heard about the person who died on the streets up there shortly after I visited Santa Barbara. People on the beach there had put up crosses representing every soldier who had been killed in Iraq. I could see the connections between those soldiers and those who die on the streets. Those crosses represent sacrifice, you know, and there’s a world of difference between sacrificing your life and being sacrificed. Those people who die on the streets and on the battlefield died on the altar of human greed. One thing the rich benefiting off of these people being sacrificed, whether on the battlefield or on the streets or in a prison, have to understand is that the harvest of greed in the people is not wealth, but rage. I don’t want to see it all explode because I’m a pacifist, but the rich better have a care and better watch out. I hate to say that, I know there’s a better way, but the rich, year after year, are harvesting so much rage in the people in this country and all around the world.

Street Roots: How do you think being a hobo in the 21st century is different than the past?

Utah Phillips: (Laughter) A hobo is a wandering worker. At the end of the Civil War, when agriculture in the South had collapsed, workers traveled west, hoeing corn from one field to the next. They called themselves the hoe boys or, in vernacular,“hobos.” A hobo is somebody who works hard but doesn’t stay in the same place, you know. A tramp is different, a tramp is someone who doesn’t want to work for a boss or structure in their lives, like Frying Pan Jack said, a tramp is anyone who cooks out. If you gave him a ticket for the Salvation Army, he wouldn’t use it. A tramp will scavenge and wander and, of course, they say a bum is someone who drinks and wanders.

Used to be, there was always work for wandering people. In the past, you could be a wanderer and find work in a restaurant or on a loading dock or in a stable or on a farm or something. Now there are less ways for poor people to make it through the world, you know. There are fewer skid rows. Skid rows were great melting pots where all the people who had been driven ganged up where there was cheap food, tent cities and flophouses for people to go. Most of these melting pots have long since been torn out. Many times torn out without thought of where poor people were going to go. Where are people going to go?

Street Roots: Street newspapers are popping up all over the country. How important is it for people living in poverty to have their own independent media sources?

I think it’s important for everyone in the world to have an independent press. I think what you all got going on is a powerful, powerful movement. As a kid, I used to do that. You would get the newspapers, then you would sell them on the streets and then you would pay back and get a nickel for the paper.

At one time in Butte, Mont., the street vendors were getting paid less than the people who were delivering them, so they struck and created a newspaper union with the Wobblies (International Workers of the World). You guys have got it all figured out, you know, all figured out.

It’s going to have to come from the bottom up. If I take what’s going on in the media from the top down I get depressed. It’s from the world to the city to the block — we look at it from the top down when we watch CNN or Fox News. But if I walk out my door I see too many people working hard and doing good things to become a pessimist.

Street Roots: Over the years, how important is it for people living in poverty to have creative expression in their lives, like poetry, music and art?

Utah Phillips: All the great social movements within memory, starting with the labor movements and the civil rights movement, have all been singing movements. It’s terribly important to build solidarity. To take a comprehensive idea and then boil it down to a way people can understand it is very important.

It’s very important for poor people to have a place to have poetry workshops and halls for people to read in, or to have places for people to work with clay or create art and to have places to exhibit their art. It’s all desperately important for poor people to have ways to express themselves, you know.

Street Roots: What do you think of the current administration?

Utah Phillips: What kind of language does your paper print?

Street Roots: Well, we don’t censor anything.

Utah Phillips: In that case, they’re a bunch of brain-dead assholes. What we are looking at is corporate fascism. These people at the top of the pyramid have no experience in democracy. They’ve spent their lives in anti-democratic organizations and they’re bringing that thinking to government. Fascism grew in Germany, when a lot of people stood around and didn’t do anything. People went out to clubs, cabarets, and movies instead of doing anything, and after the war was over, the young people would ask their grandparents, ‘Why didn’t you do anything?’ We are in the beginning, you know, and we have to do something now. I don’t want my grandkids coming to me and asking why didn’t you do anything.

Street Roots: What do you think as poor and working people we need to do about it?

Utah Phillips: The major thing that needs to happen is the rebuilding of the labor movement. At a grassroots level it has proven itself decade after decade. The labor movement, through rut hog bottom-up organizing, brought us the eight-hour workday, workman’s compensation, minimum wage, and mining and safety laws.

When I was a kid, I was born in a hospital in Cleveland, Ohio, that was built by the United Auto Workers Union. National health care wasn’t an issue, it was a bargaining issue, and getting a good contract meant building hospitals and entire villages. The unions had enormous power. That’s why it was so vigorously attacked. We need millions of workers to get back to the bargaining table at the point of production. We need to rebuild the whole thing as a direct action movement.

Millions of workers need to walk away from the political system and get back to organizing in the workplace.

The best way to rebuild at a local level is to rebuild our own lives. The best way to rebuild at a national level is to rebuild democracy were we live and work, between us and our workmates, between us and our children, between us and our lovers, because if we can’t build it there in our own lives, the biggest ballot box in the world won’t give it to us.

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