GR: What're you up to these days?
UP: What am I up to these days? Well, I just passed my 70th birthday. And the Peace Center for Nevada County, we're in a very conservative, rural county, and I worked hard to get a peace center started here. I was pretty excited to have a 70th birthday, so I said, “Let's put it to work.” We did, at the Center of the Arts, at the concert hall, to raise money for the peace center. Which we did. We had a lot of people come out, and it was great to see all those people standing around, talking to each other. A lot of local musicians were playing, and a few others came in from other places. Aside from that, I've been traveling. I just got back from playing in Detroit. I was playing Ann Harbor, Michigan, and East Lansing, Michigan.
GR: I just passed through Detroit myself. Just a couple of months ago.
UP: Detroit's a fascinating town. It's a tragic one, in many ways. Because of the job laws. There's actually a very strong branch of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) there. It's their 100th anniversary this year, and I've been a member of it for fifty-one or so years. It's my proudest association.
GR: Any comments for our President?
UP: For him? About him?
GR: Well, let's say you get ten minutes to talk to him.
UP: I think it's more important, in a situation like that, if you have minutes with him, to ask questions. To ask him why he thinks and feels the way he does. You can't know why people do the things they do, unless you know what's been done to them. Now, I don't know this man. I don't know him at all. What I know about him is what I've read in the newspapers. And I don't have a television set. So, I suppose that's what I would do. I would sit down, and think of important questions to ask him, rather than trying to lay down a rap of some kind.
GR: Do you think anarchy in its original form that which hasn't been manipulated by Corporate America and sold to disenfranchised teenagers, is still possible? Rather, do you think it's still a viable concept?
UP: You have to look at anarchy in two different ways. You look at it as a social and political movement, and you look at it as a lifestyle choice. By and large, young people treat anarchy as a lifestyle choice. Making a transition to a political movement is far more difficult. Murray Bookchin wrote a wonderful book about this, which was published by AK Press. If anyone wants to look up AK Press on the web, they'll find it. [And who knows, maybe the editor of this interview will be capable of something as simple as a hyperlink –Ed.] He felt that anarchy as a lifestyle choice and anarchy as a movement were positions that were irreconcilable. I don't believe that. I think that that lifestyle choice is an essential step toward building anarchism as a movement. The two concepts are by no means outmoded. There's still a way out in front of us. There's still a future of self-governing people. We live in a highly cohesive culture. We're entangled in all kinds of cohesive combinations. Boss, employee, student, teacher, parental, marital. And we're not the architects. We don't decide that those are the combinations we want to participate in. We inherit them. We have no control over them. And all we've ever really wanted to do is become self-governing enough, so that we can create, among others, voluntary combinations which serve our needs as we define them, and not as they're defined for us by institutions. We have become accustomed to abandoning our children to institutions and authorities over which they have no control. Kind of like empty milk bottles. They get filled up full of these cultural compulsions. And leaning how, as individuals, to resist that, to become self-governing people, reaching out and forming voluntary combinations to get the work of the world done, without the boss and without the state, is very difficult. Ammon Hannesy, my great teacher, the Catholic anarchist and pacifist, put it in very simple terms. We were working at the Joe Hill House, in Salt Lake. It's a house for transients and migrants and bums and that's what I was doing at the time. And Ammon said to me, “If you and I can agree to do our share of the work of the world, if we can agree to take only what we need and put back what we can, if we can agree not to hurt anybody, all the things you can't get from the boss and the state, if we can agree to these things, then we can, between ourselves, begin to form that voluntary combination. And begin, in our own small way, to get the work of the world done, without the boss and without the state.”
GR: Anyone familiar with your work is aware of the wealth of knowledge you possesses about the history of this country. The stuff that isn't taught in any high school textbook. What compelled you to seek out this information, collect it, and share it with other people?
UP: The world that I inhabit, the one that I have created for myself, is built out of speakers and listeners. I'm more comfortable in that world. I learn more easily from sitting in front of somebody and asking them questions and listening to what their answers than I do from books. I respect books. I have many of them around me. But I keep them in their place. The people that I've sought out lived extraordinary lives that just can't be lived again. And most of my great teachers were born in the century before last. I met many of them when they were my age now, seventy. Those were the immigrant workers, the industrial workers. They were the people working down at the bottom, in the forest, in the mines, in the wheat harvest. Old Jack Miller, who ran the Citizen's Center up in Seattle, Washington, once said, “When we started in the forest, we spoke two different languages, and most of us had never been to school, and we couldn't read or write. We lived in our emotions, and we were comfortable there. We made decisions in our lives for which there is no language. We made commitments to change, to struggle for which there are no words. But those commitments carried us through fifty or sixty years of struggle. You show me people who make the same commitments intellectually, and I don't know where they'll be next week.” And then he added to that hardest of all things, he said that, “We, speaking all those languages, hardly speak to each other. Armed only with our degradation as human beings, we came together and changed the conditions of our labor and the conditions of our lives. You young people, with all you've got, why can't you do that?” Now, that's a very serious charge to lay at our feet.
GR: Well, unfortunately, I don't know if I see a lot of people answering that call.
UP: Well, more and more, everybody I meet out there, and I talk to a lot of people, know that something's desperately wrong. But they're very often dealing with bad information or misinformation.
GR: In this country?
UP: Yeah. This is the most politically isolated country in the world. And it's very difficult to sort what your best interest is. And I think that part of our job as political organizers is to help people to understand what their best interest is and to see what their best interest is, as working people struggling to pay bills, to get their kids into schools, and most of all, to lead the kind of life that exercises all their parts. You're not just a cog in somebody's machine. We're so over-adapted to our culture these days. We're capable of doing things mentally and things physically that we are seldom called on to do. We push buttons, rather than building something with our hands. Assigning memory, the gift of time, to books and computers rather than using it. That's one of the reasons I continue to talk to people, to learn from them. It's the life of the mind. I use that memory. I look into other people's memories and repeat my own, and keep it alive and supple, like you would with lifting weights to keep your muscles toned.
GR: Any stories that have yet to make it onto an album?
UP: Oh, there's many, but I haven't thought about it. I just finished the songbook, Starlight on the Rails, which is about sixty songs and the stories that go with them. I have no real plans to record anything else. Although I keep writing songs, so I suppose I ought to think about it. Right now, I'm mainly concerned with staying healthy, so I can keep moving, so I can continue to go to places and talk to people and sing to people. I'm going to Chicago, on June 23rd, to play with John McCutcheon at the Hot House, for the 100th anniversary of the IWW. It'll be an interesting affair, too. John McCutcheon is president of Traveling Musicians Local 1000, of the American Federation of Musicians, the AFL/CIO. IWW was created as an alternative to the AFL, the American Federation of Labor, and there's never been any love loss between us. But I have decided, unilaterally, by god, that the situation is so dire that the labor movement can't afford to be fragmented. It's time, at least, as an opening volley, for one of the senior partners in the IWW to be on the same stage with the president of the Traveling Musicians Local 1000, of the American Federation of Labor.
GR: Well, I definitely think that's something everyone in that area should be on board for.
UP: We gotta come together. We gotta cooperate or we're doomed.
GR: Is there anything in contemporary music that's grabbed your attention lately?
UP: I was enchanted to hear a rap rendition of the Canterbury Tales. The whole Canterbury Tales is translated out of Middle English into Modern English. Well, not Modern English per say. It's a little complicated to explain why I'm charmed by it, but I'll take a crack at it. English has a real organic rhythm, which was identified by Emily Dickinson and certainly by Yeats. It's dominated by what's called a trochaic foot. Accent thought like going. Going down the road. English is an inflected language. When there's an invasion and a whole country's taken over by another group of people speaking a different language, it's like throwing a bunch of pebbles into a stream. The stream of the language, where all the pebbles in the bed are arranged and all the rough edges have been worn off, and there's a whole bunch of loose gravel thrown in there, and it chips and disarranges it. Well, that's what happened with the Norman conquest in 1066. The Normans conquered Saxon England, and they stigmatized the Saxon language as the language of the gutter. All those four letter words that aren't radio legal were common words, common Saxon words. But they were regulated to the gutter, so now we say vagina or feces. All this Latinized French was superimposed as the ruling class language, but the two languages existed side by side. I have a shed, a rich person has a garage. I live in a house, German, they live in a mansion, French. I go to school, German, they go to university, French. The class identities of the languages continue to persist. But if you grow up without being exposed to those Latin-made polysyllables that are in consequence of the Norman conquest, you wind up speaking, pretty much, a latter-day derivation of the old Saxon, with the single accent words. If you grow up in South Central, down in Watts, down in L.A., that's the English you grew up with. And it has that organic rhythm. It hasn't been disarranged. Now, you go back to the oldest Germanic, and that's what Anglo Saxon is, it's a Germanic language and you go back to the oldest Germanic utterance, which would be Norse Eddas, the Odin sagas, you'll find that the old story measure is four stressed syllables per line, with a pause at the end of each line to catch your breath. I'll give you an example of how that would sound, with a kid's rhyme. “Trick or treat, wash my feet, give me something good to eat. If you don't, I don't care, I'll just eat my underwear.” That's perfect old story measure from the north. It uses all the simple Saxon words. That's exactly what rap does. If you take rap and scan it for worthy accents, you're gonna find four lines and four stresses per line. And it simply does what English does when you leave it alone. That's why it's perfectly consistent to do Chaucer.
GR: Ani Difranco, who you collaborated with on two albums, met you at a young age. What did you think of her then and does it surprise you that she's become such an important musician to so many people?
UP: I always thought she was brilliant. I always thought that she had an extraordinarily powerful intellect, and also an extraordinarily powerful will to take what was just a dream and turn it into reality. She has drive, energy, and an incredible memory. She owns what she does, and that's dear to the heart of any wobbly.
GR: Any chance of a DVD coming out?
UP: I don't really have any plans for it. I've made my living for thirty-six years being alive in front of people. That's consistent with something I feel very strongly about, that Joseph Campbell once said. “All we want is to be completely human and in each others' company. And we are in each others' company less and less.” I wanna get away from the machines, and I wanna keep moving, keep traveling, keep singing, and keep talking to people and being alive. That's my life and that's the way I wanna keep it.
GR: Any chance of a book then?
UP: I get offers from writers, from people wanting to do a doctor's thesis, from documentarians. But I'm not done yet. I don't have time to make a book, and I'm not going to. If somebody ever wanted to do it, it wouldn't be a biography or an autobiography. I'd wanna do a book of ideas.
GR: Of all the history and stories you've shared, which one is your personal favorite?
UP: Do you have the CD that I did with Ani that has the story about the Spanish Civil War?
UP: Yeah. That's the story you wanna listen to.
GR: Who're your heros?
UP: Well, it's like old Ammon Hennasy said. “If you got any heroes, make sure they're dead so they can't blow it.” I guess I would probably say Eugene V. Debbs, founder of the Socialist Party, founder of the American Railway Union. Fridtjof Nansen, who was the first man to cross Greenland on a dogsled. He locked a ship to the polar ice caps to see if it rotated. And he went on to be the head of defense for the starving Armenians during the First World War, and the League of Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A truly great man. My personal favorite heroine is Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, along with Peter Maurin, the French peasant philosopher. And of course, Ammon Hennasy, the Catholic anarchist and pacifist, who took me in, taught me what it meant to be a pacifist, what it meant to be an anarchist. He ran one of the houses of hospitality. I think that about covers it there. There's a number of people I respect. Father Dan Barrett, certainly, for his tenacity, and not just his willingness to go to jail. He's now working in prisons in the south, getting murderers on death row together with the families of their victims to get reconciliation. That's hard work.
GR: Yeah. Definitely.
UP: There are people doing things I would never dream of trying to do myself that I admire.
GR: I've always had a hard time committing to an opinion on the death penalty myself. On one hand, I think, “Well, I don't know. We probably shouldn't be killing people.”
UP: Dumb idea.
GR: But then I think of that guy of Florida, who kidnapped and did all that stuff to that little girl. Actually, somebody had put up a picture, just before the story broke that she had died, on that wall thing that protects the bus driver on the greyhound bus. This was when I was going to New Mexico, and I had to stare at that thing for about six hours, because it was in my direct line of vision. And my impulse with a guy like that is castrate him, cut his legs off, make him sit in a little cell for sixty years, something, you know?
UP: Well, why did he do it?
GR: Because he's a sick puppy?
UP: But, I mean, why did he do it? We don't know. We know very little about why people do that. And what's the best source of information about why people do that?
UP: The people that do it. They're the best source of information. We're a constant social experiment. And society as a constant social experiment is like a laboratory. It's ever evolving. If a lab experiment goes wrong, you don't just take it, flush it down the drain, forget about it, and start over. You try to figure out what went wrong. And the best source for what went wrong is the experiment itself. Well, the best source of information for why people kill, why people do those brutal things, are the people that perform those acts. So, what we need are institutions that are set up to really take those people apart, psychologically, psychiatricly, and try to get at motivation, get at some of the physiology of it. What're the brain waves doing? What kind of chemical imbalances are going on? We need to know more. We just can't take the best source of information we have about that, kill it, and stick it in the ground. All that does is ensure that it's gonna keep happening more and more. This is a very violent culture, and there are forces loose in this country that make it violent. And we have to learn to deal with those things. I don't think that violent and vicious offenders should just be warehoused either. Put in cubicles or cells for the rest of their lives. I think they should be in special facilities. The purpose of which is to find out what went wrong with that particular fragment of the social experiment.
GR: This is rather dated, but I was wondering if you could give me your thoughts on the death of Hunter S. Thompson.
UP: Well, Hunter was a brilliant mind.
GR: Did you ever get to meet him?
UP: Oh yeah. And he was definitely his own man. But he had a real fondness for guns and explosives. He had a destructive way of going at things that I didn't care for. He also had an exacerbated, tenanted sense of hyper-individualism that was engaging in its own way, but socially, it doesn't achieve very much. But Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was one of the funniest books I 've ever read.
GR: The movie's good, too.
UP: I spent a lot of my life trying to overcome my own violent impulses. I became a pacifist for the same reason an alcoholic's gotta give up alcohol. It'll kill you. So, I never liked being around people who carried around and talked about guns all the time.
GR: He was fearless in what he did though.
UP: Yeah, he was.
GR: Any chance of Loafer's Glory [radio show] returning?
UP: I really want to. There's people working on it, trying to get funding for it. I need underwriting. The underwriting didn't materialize after a hundred shows, so I had to go back on the road. Albeit in a more limited way. I also don't have the energy to do both the show and the live touring.
GR: Is there any particular place in your travels that holds special meaning to you?
UP: Well, there's a lot of them. Worcester, Massachusetts, because of its diners. It's a town that's refused to let the diner die. Salt Lake, of course. Rochester, New York, which is the home of Ellen Oldman, Frederick Douglass, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Susan B. Anthony, who was a friend of Buffalo Bill Cody's. He lived in the house right behind hers, the second oldest Catholic worker house in the country. It's just an endless source of fascination for me. You keep digging and you never get lost.
GR: Do you think there's room in music for a legitimate pacifist? One who isn't trying to use his stance to sell more records?
UP: Oh, sure. The standard of performance will always be the concert stage. And if you sell records besides that, all it does it pay the expenses.
GR: Can folk music as you've defined it survive?
UP: Folk music has to be defined. It can't be dealt with in those terms. The most appropriate definition of folk music is that it's not owned by anybody. It's owned by everybody. Like the national forest, like the postal service. It's part of the common conscienceness. Folk music or a folk song can be the definition of a particular group of people, but it's still part of the collective consciousness. It's very seldom these days that a song enters the consciousness, loses its identity, the identity of the person that created it, and enters the consciousness anonymously. That's a laudable goal for anybody who makes songs. To have it embraced by the people and taken into their consciousness and used, changed, adapted, but where, eventually, nobody knows where it came from. I don't see many people trying to do that. I think that most of the music that's being created today is part of the properterian culture. That's why I really liked Napster. I really liked this assault on properterian culture, which turned all music loose and threw it up in the air and up for grabs. I liked that. That charmed the socks off of me.
GR: Does it surprise you that you have a rather diverse group of listeners?
UP: No, not at all. I worked at it. Ani's worked at it. She gave me that whole audience of hers, and that was her intention. That's what she wanted to happen. So, no, that doesn't surprise me. And I like it besides. This whole folk music community, that I've worked at for so many years, those kids grew up with that music. They know the same body of material their parents know. And that's a very old idea.
GR: This one's strictly a fluff question, but what's your favorite movie?
UP: In terms of the way it's made, Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. It was the best physical comedy ever made.
GR: Anything to close off with?
UP: I would like people to trust their memories more, rely less on assigning what they know to books and to machines. I'd people to exercise all their parts, physically, mentally, emotionally, rather than being boxed in. I'd also like people to understand that their life is a story, that the lives of everyone around them is a story, that you learn that story by asking, and that the best you can hope for is that your story will have been well told.
You can learn more about U. Utah Phillips at www.UtahPhillips.org.
Gabriel Ricard writes short fiction, poetry, and plays. Born in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, he lives with his family in Waverly, Virginia.
U. Utah Phillips died of congestive heart failure on May 23, 2008. He was 73 years old. As of this writing, his web site remains and contains his family's official eulogy.
steve ben israel
thank you for your wonderful piece on utah
philips..iww arist and performer