Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!: Utah Phillips and the Spirit of Resistance

In the spring of 2000, I was invited to join a group of young anarchists on a trip to Washington, DC to protest the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. I’d first encountered these committed young activists while organizing a local branch of Food Not Bombs in Haverhill, Massachusetts. We had conspired together and partied together and while I was a good deal older than they were, I couldn’t think of too many others with whom I’d rather close down our nation’s capital. They were my kind of people.

At a rest area somewhere on the New Jersey Turnpike one of my teenage compatriots pulled out a banged up guitar and treated our fellow travelers to an impromptu concert. “Why don’t you work like other folks do?”, she sang, head with blue Mohawk thrown back, piercings gleaming in the sun. “How the hell can I work when there’s no work to do?”

“Hallelujah, I’m a bum!

Hallelujah, bum again,

Hallelujah, give us a handout,

To revive us again.”

I immediately recognized Harry McClintock’s old Wobbly anthem and joined in the singing. When she’d finished she looked at me and smiled. “Where did you learn that song?” I asked her excitedly. “From a Utah Phillips tape I have,” she replied. “That’s funny,” I laughed. “So did I.”

Bruce Duncan “U. Utah” Phillips, anarchist, pacifist, folksinger, songwriter and agitator, died May 23rd of congestive heart failure at his home in Nevada City, California. Phillips’s passing garnered it’s fair share of notice in daily papers across the country. These remembrances ran briefly through Phillips’s biography, mentioned the traumas of his military service, and his redemption after an encounter with the Catholic anarchist, Ammon Hennacy, and the Catholic Worker movement. These brief mentions of Phillips’s radicalism—which often took on a bemused tone—were usually followed by extended, rhapsodic descriptions of his place in the folk world where he often sang old Wobbly tunes, railroad songs and told stories of American working-people, many of which he collected in his journeys around the country.

Unfortunately, very few of these obituaries have tried to assess Utah Phillips’s place in the recent history of the anti-authoritarian left and the critical role that the troubadour played in bridging the generational gaps between Old Left, New Left, and the more recent anti-globalization movement that has done so much to reshape the left political narrative since Seattle. Phillips’s life and work was defined by an anarchism that drew from the history of the “toiling masses” and also the grassroots engagements of the current generation of activist. By performing songs and telling stories of obscure strikes, train derailments, and coalmine disasters and weaving them into the fabric of contemporary struggles, Phillips spread a spirit of resistance that connected old IWW organizers, radical pacifists, draft resisters, and civil rights workers to the punk rockers, environmental activists and culture-jammers of the present.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, Phillip’s parents were labor organizers. The family relocated to Salt Lake City in 1947 and soon after the young Utah picked up one of his favorite hobbies, hopping freight-trains. Even in these early travels he found himself drawn to the “old-timers” who were always ready to share a story or a song. In 1956, Phillips enlisted in the military and soon found himself in Korea. Seeing the devastation wrought by war had a powerful and terrible impact. His experiences at the Song-do orphanage where 180 “GI babies” were living on a 100-pound bag of rice a month haunted him for years and according to Phillips, he returned from Korea “really pissed off and I didn’t want to live in the country anymore.” He once again began riding the rails but by this time was drinking heavily. Phillips eventually became a life-long advocate for homeless veterans groups.

After his service, Phillips returned to Salt Lake City and took a job in a local warehouse. One day, while delivering packages, he met Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker movement. Hennacy was picketing the Post Office—a lonely one-man protest against war taxes. He had been sent to Salt Lake City by Dorothy Day to establish a “house of hospitality” for transients and homeless people—the most marginalized members of capitalist society. Phillips eventually worked at Hennacy’s Joe Hill House for the next eight years.

“It was Ammon Hennacy who took over my life,” Phillips later remembered. “[He] told me that I really loved the country, that I couldn’t stand the government, taught me why I needed to be a pacifist and taught me why I needed to be an anarchist, and taught me what those things really mean.” Through Hennacy, Phillips was able to overcome the deep despair wrought by his military experiences. He quit drinking. But most importantly, Utah Phillips embraced a radical politics that would serve him for the rest of his life.

Founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker Movement espouses a doctrine of voluntary poverty, a commitment to nonviolence, pacifism, anti-racism and works of mercy, and a belief in the essential dignity of every human being. The Catholic Worker has established 185 “houses of hospitality” world-wide, dedicated to ministering to the poorest of the poor. It is also radically anti-hierarchical, and anti-authoritarian. Phillips was always quick to note that he wasn’t Catholic or even Christian but that was beside the point. “I don’t care what people believe,” Phillips told one interviewer, “it’s how they behave that concerns me, and Catholic Workers behave in such a way as to bring compassion and joy to the world around them”

That belief in right action also infused Phillips’s brand of anarchism. The way to social justice was through grassroots organizing and direct action. Except for two notable exceptions, Phillips eschewed electoralism in favor of community organization. He often invoked Ammon Hennacy’s entreaty that, “My body is my ballot.” He urged his audiences to “cast that body ballot on behalf of the people around you every day of your life. Every day! And don’t let anybody ever tell you you haven’t voted!” The mistake, according to Phillips, was allowing others to represent us. “You accept responsibility,” he argued, “and see to it that something gets done.” To Phillips, this was a way of engaging the system “without caving in to the civil authority I’m committed to dissolving.”

In 1968, Phillips’s pacifism overcame his distaste for electoralism and he ran as an antiwar candidate for the US Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket. He took a leave-of-absence from his job as an archivist for the state of Utah in order to run. He was proud of the fact that he ran in all twenty-seven counties and took 6000 votes. Unfortunately, Phillips’s brand of politics caught the attention of his bosses who eliminated his job and blacklisted him from state employment. He left Utah in 1969, eventually settling in Nevada City, California. He also dedicated himself to a new life as a traveling folksinger.

Phillips began a career in what he referred to as “the trade” that lasted nearly forty years. He traveled to many of his early gigs by freight-hopping and considered himself a member of the so-called “Traveling Nation,” the loose community of hobos, tramps and denizens of the railyards scattered across the Midwest. Phillips took it upon himself to collect the stories and songs he heard along the way. His music was intimately bound to oral tradition and he was soon known as much for his story-telling as his songwriting.

In a 2003 interview with David Kupfer in The Progressive, Phillips described a creative world that was a Whitmanesque affair comprised “of speakers and listeners.” “Many times,” he explained, “going to missions, going to the flop hotels, I’d get a line from some old Wobbly, some old communist, some old socialist, some old person living on short money, a lot of time alcoholic.”

I’d start asking questions. …Once I overcame their suspicions, and they realized I was really interested in what they had to tell me, it opened up like a floodgate. So that’s why I created my world, speakers and listeners, because it makes the country I love so much so rich. The wellspring of my fascination and the endless carnival of America are the voices of people who will share their lives with me.

For Phillips mastering the old labor tunes and story-songs that described the lives of rank-and-file Americans was no mere antiquarian exercise. He knew that historically music had served as a great and effective organizing tool. “All the great social movements,” he once said, “have all been singing movements.” Song was and remains an important vehicle for communicating complex ideas and his performances were opportunities to teach and agitate.

Phillips quickly became a mainstay on the folk music circuit criss-crossing the US to take advantage of the growing numbers of folk music societies springing up around the country. His first album, Good Though, was released in 1973. His songs were recorded by Rosalie Sorrels, Emmylou Harris, Ian Tyson and Tom Waits. Phillips recorded albums of railroad songs and songs from the IWW’s “Big Red Songbook.” In 1991, he released I’ve Got To Know, a collection of songs inspired by his rage over the First Gulf War.

But the albums that thrust Utah Phillips into the consciousness of a new and younger generation were the two he made with Ani DiFranco, Past Didn’t Go Anywhere (1996) and the Grammy-nominated Fellow Workers (1999). After hearing a tape of Phillips’s story-telling, DiFranco recognized a kindred spirit. She asked for additional recordings and then put Phillips’s words to music. Phillips was stunned at the results. “She had taken all those tapes to a studio in Texas and cleaned them all up digitally, and did a masterful job of actually restoring what, in any other context, would be regarded as field recordings.” They recorded a second record together in New Orleans in front of an audience of thirty people invited from the local Catholic Worker house, homeless shelters and soup kitchens. The result was the critically-acclaimed Fellow Workers which was nominated for the Grammy Award for Best Folk Album.

More importantly Phillips was able to tap into DiFranco’s rabid fan base. Wherever he played, it seemed, DiFranco’s audience would show up. “Ani gave young people the chance to access a different kind of world through me that harkens back to the early oral culture. It’s a setting where you get something essential that helps you make your way through life from one of your elders.” But he wasn’t just imparting wisdom to the young; the relationship ran both ways. “I find that being able to hang out with those young people gives me more creativity, more real imagination than I can remember from when I was their age.”

Phillips understood that the spirit of struggle and resistance that he could trace back to the Old Left of his beloved Wobblies, through the antiwar and civil rights agitation of the New Left was now playing itself out again but in a way that made his work far more resonant. Local resistance movements struggling against the forces of globalization that had been bubbling up around the world in the late 1980s and 90s exploded onto the streets of Seattle in 1999 and into the public consciousness. This was a new kind of “movement,” made up of many oppositional threads—shifting coalitions of campaigns and movements able to coalesce around the issues of economic globalization. As Naomi Klein has noted, these groups shared “a radical reclaiming of the commons.” As the marketplace encroached on the shared spaces of our communities, people were coming together to push back.

This was a state of affairs that Utah Phillips knew all too well. Our culture of consumption has no place for it’s poor people. He regularly commented on the shrinking of even the most marginal of public spaces. “There are fewer skid rows,” he told one interviewer.

Skid rows are the great melting pots where all the people who have 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?

Phillips embraced the politics of the burgeoning squatters movement, pirate radio, street newspapers, and the necessity of independent media. He championed the confrontational politics of direct action. “Direct action gets the goods,” he told one interviewer. And he knew that even if we could see this new spirit of resistance through a global lens, it was still rooted in local, grassroots political organizing. In his travels he networked with hundreds of local organizations and groups, played their fundraisers and spoke to their issues. And in his performances, he gave many young activists an anchor in the past—a historical context for their resistance.

Utah Phillips was the chronicler of that “old, weird America,” but not in the neutered, apolitical sense of Greil Marcus’s imagined community. Phillips was the archaeologist of resistance and rebellion. His world was populated with rebels and their struggles were a measure of the health of our democracy. Phillips may have rejected the rules of the American system but he demanded engagement. Engagement in one’s community was his definition of civic responsibility. His life’s lesson—the lesson he imparted to audiences that spanned generations—was one person could make real and lasting change. As he told David Kupfer when asked to describe his life’s purpose, Utah Phillips said, “I’m here to change the world, and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time.”

Mark Andrew Huddle is an Associate Professor of History at St. Bonventure University. He is also the National Affairs Editor of Verbicide Magazine where his column, “Mark Huddle’s Modern Temper,” appears in each issue. Read other articles by Mark Andrew, or visit Mark Andrew's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hp said on June 12th, 2008 at 10:52am #

    “Oh, jawbone, when did you first go wrong?
    Oh, jawbone, where is it you belong?”

  2. mike said on June 14th, 2008 at 3:01pm #

    Great article. Such a fascinating man. One aspect of his work, however, that wasn’t mentioned here is his radio show, “Loafer’s Glory.” Great shows, he did about 200 of them, I think. Absolutely tremendous. He talks, tells stories, sings, plays old records, lots of stuff. If you’re interested in his life and thought check them out, if you can find them.