Utah Phillips looks a bit like Santa Claus, and he's probably just as friendly. But while Mr. Kringle is something of a capitalist icon, folk legend Phillips is an unabashed lefty -- a man whose commitment to political activism is rivaled only by his storytelling gifts.
The 70-year-old songwriter has been hopping trains, protesting and generally living the life of a troubadour tramp since the 1960s. Phillips' rugged, golden voice is a part of the tapestry of American music -- he's got 12 albums under his belt and has appeared on more than 73 compilations. He also has a strong connection to Vermont, having lived in a caboose while recording for the legendary, Ferrisburgh-based Philo label. Utah will be back on his old Green Mountain stomping grounds for several performances at the Champlain Valley Folk Festival at Kingsland Bay park this weekend.
You might say Phillips' vocation was predestined. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, to a family of labor organizers and radicals, he had ample opportunity to witness the real-life struggles and victories of those involved in leftist causes. After hopping trains as a teen, he served in the army in Korea, an experience that shaped his pacifism.
Running for U.S. Senate on the Peace &; Freedom Party ticket in 1968, Phillips managed to win more than 6000 votes -- which spooked some government officials. Blacklisted for his political views, he was unable to find employment in his then-home state of Utah. Never one to give up, Phillips supported himself as a folk singer, riding the rails across the country and bringing his tales of old-time labor unions and hobos to anyone who would listen.
These days, a heart condition keeps Phillips from performing more than once a month. He nevertheless remains active in the peace movement, both in his own community of Nevada City, California, and the world at large. Phillips hosts a weekly, one-hour radio program that is broadcast free of charge to community radio stations by Pacifica -- a non-commercial radio-content provider. His friendship with neo-folk goddess Ani DiFranco has exposed a whole new generation of listeners to his work.
A four-CD boxed set of Phillips' music, Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook, was recently released. The set includes his personal reflections on each tune, captured in his amiable and intelligent vernacular. Seven Days recently spoke with the folk hero from his West Coast home.
SEVEN DAYS: You once lived in a railroad car outside the Philo Records barn in Ferrisburgh. How did that come about?
UTAH PHILLIPS: I did indeed. I made three records there -- Philo was like a big family. A friend of mine got a handle on a "scraper car," which is like a large caboose that's used for scraping ice off the rails. It was a big, old, wooden one out at the St. Albans yard. So I bought it and did some work -- we weren't making a lot of money then, and I was just a traveling folk singer. But I saved up some money and bought it for $500. And then I saved up more money, about a thousand dollars, to have the thing hauled out to Philo by flatbed truck . . . we had to lay down about 50 feet of track. So we had kind of a track-laying party. There was no electricity, but I had a hand-crank Victrola, a beautiful Sonora, and a bunch of old Enrique Caruso 78s.
SD: How did it go over with the locals?
UP: Thing was, it was sitting in the township of Monkton Ridge and, at that time, the state had passed a consolidating-development ordinance for housing. And the caboose didn't fit into that plan. So Monkton Ridge decided that because it didn't fit the plan, it didn't belong there. So I said, "Well, this thing is huge, and it weighs a hell of a lot. It'd be really hard for you to move it, should you decide that it's illegal." And they said they'd just get some Army Reserve helicopters over there and just drop it in Lake Champlain!
SD: That's ridiculous.
UP: Yeah. Well, the head of the Chittenden Bank over there turned out to be a huge railroad buff. He had pictures of trains all over his walls. He was part of the Champlain Valley Rail Historical Society. So I went and sang for their group. And then I sang for all these other civil groups in Monkton Ridge. I sort of ingratiated myself with these people. Finally, they said, "OK, we'll designate this as a hunting camp," which means that you can only live there a certain number of months out of the year. And I said, "Hell, I'm not around that much anyway!" But I intend to visit whoever's living there when I get back to Vermont.
SD: You knew Bernie Sanders a little bit, too.
UP: I talked to Bernie on a number of occasions about what appeared to be an open hall in your city building. And there was an immediate need for a medium-sized venue in Burlington. Either we could play at Hunt's, or the organization that was sponsoring an event could rent one of the local churches. And I played at a lot of those. But we thought that City Hall would be a great place for contra dances and concerts. So I talked with Bernie Sanders when he was the mayor about opening it up for performances. And they did.
SD: It's still being used for that purpose.
UP: Oh, I am very happy to hear that!
SD: Having spent so many years in the struggle for labor rights and worker equality, what's your opinion about the shift in the labor force to service-industry jobs?
UP: The whole thing is a sack full of puppy doo. We rant and rave about patriotism, and then we destroy Youngstown, Ohio, by getting our steel overseas. I mean, who are the real savage hordes, who are the real non-patriots in this whole thing? You've got steel workers, who were proud of their work, now flipping burgers to keep up on mortgages that they can't even conceivably begin to pay.
SD: How do you feel about the recent fracturing of the AFL-CIO?
UP: Oh, I am very happy about it. I've been in the labor movement all my life, and I've been keeping track of this verse and chapter for a long time. This really needed to happen.
The CIO developed in 1935 as a whole bunch of unions organizing industrially, rather than by craft. They were built around the idea of industrial unionism and real rank-and-file organizing. And they were successful. But they nearly were redbaited out of existence in the McCarthy era of the '50s. They were forced to become part of the AFL. Those were the fruits of the cold war. So this is like a rebirth of the CIO.
These people from the CIO are saying that too much is going into political action committees and not enough into workplace organizing drives. The AFL has always been the real labor elite, but there are a whole lot of people in the service industries, like fast food, that need to be organized. This is a real shot in the arm for those down at the bottom.
SD: I recently had the privilege of learning a little bit about [martyred labor leader and protest singer] Joe Hill. What kind of influence did he have on your life?
UP: One of the greatest things I learned from Joe Hill was as a songwriter. Keep it simple, something other people can sing. You don't sing down to them. Joe was writing at the turn of the last century -- a time when most of the industrial workers were immigrants and didn't speak much English. Did you know that the International Workers of the World [of which Hill was a member] is 100 years old? I've been a member for 51 of those years.
When I lived in Utah I was a state archivist, before I got blacklisted. So I got to go through all of Joe Hill's files, and the appeals from President Woodrow Wilson for a new trial. There were 75,000 letters, and I went through all of 'em. Joe Hill was executed in the old Salt Lake City prison, which was later torn down and turned onto a public park. Well, since I worked in archives, I knew what the floor plans were. So I could pretty much pace out where the kitchen chair was that he was tied up and shot in. One night at midnight I went out there in the pouring rain, confused about what I was going to do with myself. I couldn't see any future at all. But I stood in that spot, and looked at the sky. And that's when I decided to take up the trade that I'm in now.
Joe said, "They're gonna kill me in jail or out, so stop wasting money on me. Put it to work keeping those presses rolling and getting people into a fighting union." He wrote himself off. Real hard to find leaders like that in our political movements today.
SD: Do you believe that violence is ever justified?
UP: No, I don't think violence is ever justified. I am a pacifist. But I embrace non-violence for the same reason that a recovering alcoholic stays away from the bottle. Because I have a lot of violent, angry feelings in me, I have to be a pacifist for the same reasons an alcoholic has to give up alcohol -- because otherwise you wind up dead.
SD: How do you maintain an oral tradition in this age of digital media?
UP: I maintain it by turning on the radio to see if we're at war or not, and then getting ready to go to jail if we are! If we're not, I turn all that stuff off, go downtown and talk to people. The world I've created for myself is made up of speakers and listeners. That's why at this festival I'm going to, I'm not going to be sitting in some green room. I'm gonna wander around and see what people think and feel. People give me ideas, they give me songs; they tell me dumb jokes that I can hopefully turn into good jokes! That's the juice that keeps me alive.