He also was an archivist, a historian and a traveler, playing guitar and singing almost forgotten songs of the dispossessed and the downtrodden, and keeping alive the memory of labor heroes like Emma Goldman, Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World, “the Wobblies,” in a society that too soon forgets.That's from Amy Goodman's remembrance over at Truthdig, which goes on to recall Phillips' connection to a movement close to my heart, the Catholic Workers:
After three years in the Army, he went back to the state that earned him his nickname, Utah. There he met Ammon Hennacy, a radical pacifist, who had started the Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, inspired by the Catholic Worker movement. Hennacy guided Utah Phillips toward pacifism. Utah recalled: “Ammon came to me one day and said, ‘You’ve got to be a pacifist.’ And I said, ‘How’s that?’ He said, ‘Well, you act out a lot. You use a lot of violent behavior.’ And I was. You know, I was very angry. ‘You’re not just going to lay down guns and fists and knives and hard angry words. You’re going to have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.’ If there’s one struggle that animates my life, it’s probably that one.”Hennacy, it might be noted, inspired some of Dorothy Day's most interesting reflections in her writing that appears in the volume of her work, listed in the sidebar here.
More recently, Phillips collaborated with Ani Difranco in a super-duo of independent musicians. They're work was nominated for a Grammy award. Phillips also married DiFranco a few years back.
I'm pretty new to Phillips' songs, but its true that you're not going to hear much like it anywhere. Full of stories that are true, told in a strong voice you want to trust, with music that lures you to listen to what otherwise might feel like a speech. Maybe this is something that the progressive movement has lost in recent years: the songs embedded in it.
People associate "We Shall Overcome" with the civil rights movement, and drumming circles with communes. Back in Boston, Haley House celebrates an annual Christmas concert with Charlie King, a musician that was part of the Worker community there. It's a wonderful time when folks from the early days of Haley House come and socialize with the new generation of it. And King's show is one of those interactive folksy types--there are refrains, and those of us gathered on chairs and on floors and leaning against walls are invited to join in.There are singalongs and choruses. Charlie doesn't want us to listen to him and his guitar strictly; he sees himself as a song leader, rather than a singer.
And here's the thing: us younger types, including me, are consumed in bashfulness at the sing-a-long parts, while the older generation leaps in with joy. I remember some brand-new Haley volunteers assuming an air of irony, a smirking smile. I, and others, were afraid of sounding bad. It took a long time for us to let down our guard and just start singing with the group and having a good time--even at my second and third Charlie King shows.
Why? Because song isn't as fundamental to communities in the progressive movement today, especially among the younger generation, as it was in the past. And this is a terrible loss. Because not only is song a source of joy, not only does it bring people together in what can sometimes be a bitterly divided struggle, not only is there something ancient and spiritual when a group of people sing together in a common vision of hope, but song in the progressive movement is disarming.
That is, as Utah Phillips manifests, song is a way to tell our stories and our histories, a way to re-vision our future, in a way that invites you into it, in a way that speeches and editorials cannot. People put their guards up when they feel they are being lectured. Not so when they hear songs. And yet, as evidenced by song's place in the civil rights movement, the labor movement, and other communities, it has extraordinary and active power in sustaining our struggles. In creating a more peaceful world.
Utah Phillips was among the few folks I know of who fuse storytelling and music in a way that manifests the world we want to live in. Pete Seeger's another, and Charlie King, of course. Buffy St. Marie did it; and the Indigo Girls have a great cover of St. Marie's song, "Bury My Heart and Wounded Knee." Bob Dylan has done it. Most importantly, there are the many musicians who pick guitars in the vans that drive down to rallys and the drummers who pick up beats during strikes and the many other nameless folks who keep music with us. But they are too few.
I want the songs to come back
As Goodman writes, the music is fundamental to our collective memory.
But Utah Phillips was a living bridge, keeping the rich history of labor struggles alive. He told me: “The long memory is the most radical idea in America. That long memory has been taken away from us. You haven’t gotten it in your schools. You’re not getting it on your television. You’re being leapfrogged from one crisis to the next. Mass media contributed to that by taking the great movements that we’ve been through and trivializing important events. No, our people’s history is like one long river. It flows down from way over there. And everything that those people did and everything they lived flows down to me, and I can reach down and take out what I need, if I have the courage to go out and ask questions.”Phillips was 73 years old.
Image credits: Americans Who Tell The Truth; Haley House; Amazon