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A Hobo's Progress 

U. Utah Phillips, inspiration to Ani DiFranco and card-carrying Wobbly, is Northern California's institutional memory of itinerant folk

Wednesday, Nov 17 1999
Something everlastingly true about riding freight trains is that it's boring," says U. Utah Phillips. Among other disparate and curious credentials, he is a songwriter, a poet, a storyteller, a peace activist, a broadcaster, a collaborator with Ani DiFranco, and a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World -- a Wobbly. And, for five decades, he has worked in the tradition of humming, strumming rail riders like Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whose cars pulled them west and whose politics leaned left. Phillips, however, was never part of the '60s Folk Revival -- he barely even knew it was happening. Then, just as now, he stood apart from the pack of folkies and singing hobos.

"I think that the romance [of riding rails] gets pounded out of you after the fourth or fifth try because those empties, they ride rough when there's nothin' in 'em, and I had to ride 'em for a thousand miles squatting on my heels because you couldn't sit down without getting pounded to death. The jolly hobo singing with his guitar? You can't hear anything! Too loud," he exclaims.

No one would dare describe Phillips as a jolly hobo, though he'd make a jolly Santa with his full head of gray hair, great gray beard, and gentle manner. It's the middle of a November day in Nevada City, the one-time gold mining town near the Sierra Foothills, and Phillips is dressed in coveralls, a red plaid shirt, red bow tie, and felt fedora; he looks the picture of traditional mining town resident and iconoclastic codger. Within minutes of walking the downtown promenade, he settles inside his cozy farmhouse up the road a piece. "Three years ago, Nevada City had a downtown barbershop, a hardware store, a movie theater, and a drugstore," he says. "Those have all been upscaled, mainly by the landlords who wanted to make more money, mainly boutiques, wine shops, and so on. So there's not a lot of reason for the people who live here who need those services to go into town. We all love Nevada City, but people go to Grass Valley or to Brunswick, one of America's great shopping cities, for their services."

Phillips first discovered the area in the late '70s, and he and his wife have called it home for over 20 years. He has made it his business to know his history, not only of the Sierra Foothills, but of the people and regions he visits about once a month in other parts of the country, guitar in hand, as a traveling raconteur -- recent congestive heart failure and continuing treatment notwithstanding.

Born Bruce Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, Phillips' family relocated to Utah, that bastion of Mormondom, in 1947. His father owned a movie theater that premiered the classics of the day and featured live entertainment, while his mother worked for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the union group that ultimately merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). His upbringing had a two-pronged effect on the young Phillips: He loved the arts, but perhaps more significantly, when Phillips' mother insisted the ropes that segregated races in her husband's theater come down, the Phillips clan made Utah history. After an unsuccessful escape to Yellowstone by freight train to work for the National Park Service and a few other attempts at running away from home, Phillips served as a soldier in the Korean War. He had picked up the ukulele as a kid and strummed a bit around campfires during his rail-riding years; overseas, he played in a canteen band.

Upon his return from the war, feeling angry and dispossessed, he hopped the rails again in an effort to find a place and pound it out of his system. It didn't work. But something happened during that time overseas and in those bumpy cars: Phillips experienced an awakening of sorts. During the late '50s, Phillips found a mentor in Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a religious pacifist and labor organizer who was contributing his services at the Catholic Workers House. Hennacy, perhaps best known for his fasting in protest of prisoners awaiting execution, ultimately died of a heart attack on a protest line in 1970, but by then he had already helped co-found and oversaw the Joe Hill Houses of Hospitality (named for the martyred Wobbly organizer, songwriter, and subject of many songs himself, the most famous of which is "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night").

"Ammon told me I had to learn to become a pacifist to save my life, just like an alcoholic has to learn to go into the program to save his life," says Phillips. "I found out from Ammon, all that takes is courage. Courage is the principal virtue, because without it you can't practice any of the others." It was also Hennacy who contributed to Phillips' "conversion" into a political or topical songwriter; when Phillips speaks of him, it is with the hushed tones that one reserves for the people whose lives and work have profoundly changed one's own. In 1968, Phillips ran a serious campaign for Senate in Utah as a Peace and Freedom candidate. He won 600 votes, and when he returned to work, his job was gone. "I couldn't get work in the state anywhere. That's why I'm sitting here right now. I had to leave Utah. Ammon told me, 'Some people learn things the hard way and you're one of them.' I've never forgotten it. After a long period of rubbing against the world from place to place, I realized what Ammon was up to: There are more fundamental changes that need to take place before the ballot box works."

Nonetheless, Phillips plans to run for president again in the next election on his own Sloth and Indolence ticket. "I always run, and why not, because I always win. When I'm not in the White House, it's a stunning victory!" But say if he were elected .... "I wouldn't do anything. I'd say if you want something done, get together and do it yourself. I'm not the boss -- I'm not gonna tell you what to do. Anarchists are some of the most organized people I know because you gotta learn to be your own government."

In his "downtime," Phillips collects his thoughts, songs, and what he calls "bits of doggerel and miscellaneous and unidentifiable trash" for presentation on a wild ride of a weekly community radio broadcast, Loafer's Glory, where he addresses topics from labor and black history to baseball. Additionally, since 1990, Phillips has released six CDs, the most recent the collection of stories The Moscow Hold. There's also the traditional and original labor songs recorded with longtime pal Rosalie Sorrels, 1996's The Long Memory. Last year, local multi-instrumentalist folk duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin earned a Grammy nomination for their album Heartsongs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips.

"Utah phoned us up four years ago -- he'd had a dream we were singing one of those songs," says Stecher. "Sometimes you hear a songwriter's song and you think that's so and so's song. You hear Utah's songs and you think they've always existed. You don't feel his stamp. Instead it feels like it came out of the earth; the craft is almost concealed and they sound like folk songs." Kate Brislin adds: "I felt like what he gave us were some gems and what he asked us to do was to make settings for them, as if we were making a piece of jewelry to set off his incredible songs. He paints pictures and tells stories in song very, very well."

Ani DiFranco also created a musical landscape, albeit of a less traditional variety, for Phillips' words on 1996's rhythm- and sample-inspired collaboration The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, followed up earlier this year with Fellow Workers. "She had pirated a recording of a concert I did in Ithaca, New York, and listened to it while she was traveling," says Phillips of his initial contact with the dissident folk singer. "[She] wrote me a letter saying, 'I want my audience to hear these stories. You don't have to do anything, just lend me live concert tapes.' So I put 'em in a box -- some of them had been under water -- and I sent about a hundred hours of those things to her and I didn't know what she was going to do until it showed up in the mail.

"And I was stunned. I liked it. Some of my old comrades and political people didn't like it and I just had to tell them, 'Well, it wasn't made for you. Surprise!' But it really did work. And what she said in that letter, and what really sold me on the idea of working with her -- I think she was 22 at the time -- I can quote: 'Not that there's anything wrong with your performances as they stand, but I am aware of the vertigo a young audience experiences when the music stops and they're left at the precipice of words and ideas.' Now anybody gonna say that, you're gonna work with them, see. I would trust Ani with anything of mine. Her instincts are so keen."

The experiences Phillips had working with DiFranco put him in touch with a generation of politically minded youth. A busload of fans, he says, followed DiFranco up from Indiana to Kalamazoo, taking a detour to Minneapolis to see him at a recent three-day conference of peace activists. DiFranco's fans were also in attendance when he appeared at the Old Songs Festival in Albany, N.Y. "Here are these people, some of whom are leathered, spiked, pierced, and it's sort of off-putting to the old folkies, but by the second day, they're all dancin' and singin' together. So it goes both ways. Everybody knows something I don't know. Whether I like 'em or not, the only way I'm gonna find out what it is, is to ask and to really listen, really pay attention. I made myself that way -- not my school and not even my parents. It was an act of will somewhere around the age of 10 when I realized I was responsible for my education and I still am. If I'm in the hospital overnight for an angioplasty, I want to know what it's like workin' on the night shift, year after year, from the night shift nurses. I want to talk to the janitors. It's an endless source of fascination being on the planet, being alive, being around other people. I guess one of the reasons I took over my education was I realized one of the most valuable things I was born with is curiosity and I didn't want anybody to take it away."

In that spirit, curious minds want to know: What does the "U" in U. Utah Phillips stand for? "I was gonna ask you, I thought you might know," he counters. "I've been trying to figure it out for years. Anybody has an idea out there, write me a letter and tell me. I don't know how it got there, it's just there. It could be 'ubiquitous,' it could be 'underwear,' it could be 'Unitarian,' it could be 'union' or a 'ubiquitous, Unitarian, unionist.' Or 'uh' ... I like 'uh.'"

U. Utah Phillips' Loafer's Glory: A Hobo Jungle of the Mind airs Sundays from 5 to 6 p.m. on KPFA-FM 94.1.

About The Author

Denise Sullivan


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