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Utah Phillips: The Voice of Radical Labor In America

November 29, 2007

Justice Jukebox

utahonair.jpg“The stories I tell don’t just come out of my own life. Many of them come to me from my elders. I strained to hear them through the roar of my own ego, my own needs and desires. But when I became quiet and open to the thoughts and feelings of my elders, I learned that my life-story deepens, grows richer, by taking in the stories of those who have led extraordinary lives, lives that can never be lived again. Except in memory – through mine, through yours – as the fragments of our story – lives mix and blend into a common whole, the great river of our collective memory of which we are all a part and into which each one of us will, some day, dissolve.” -Utah Phillips, from “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere”

Back in September, I posted folk-rocker Billy Bragg’s working class anthem “Between the Wars” to the Justice Jukebox, and lamented that in the United States, because of the relative weakness of the labor movement, we are much less likely to hear such songs. But there is at least one voice that has kept alive the songs and stories of the radical labor movement in the United States. For nearly forty years, Utah Phillips has sung the songs and told the stories of the long struggle for worker’s rights and justice in the United States. I’d argue that his oeuvre gathers together some of the most powerful ideas in American history. As Utah says, “The long memory is the most radical idea in America.”

Sadly, serious health problems have forced Utah to retire from performing this year. But happily, Utah continues to share his wit and wisdom on a semi-regular podcast called “A Short Jog Through a Long Memory.” His website reports that the folk music community is beginning to organize benefit concerts around the country to help Utah and his wife out with the financial burden of his forced retirement. This would also be a great time to buy some of his CDs, which you can get from his website.

If you haven’t heard Utah before, I’d recommend you start with The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, a collaboration with indie folk icon Ani Difranco. She selected some of his best stories and provided a powerful musical backdrop — one of the most powerful recordings I’ve ever heard. If you’ve heard Utah and are ready for more, you can get the whole Gospel according to Utah on his four cd “audio songbook” Starlight on the Rails. It includes 61 songs, each introduced by a story that explains its historical origins and significance. Obviously these would make great gifts for that folkie/lefty on your list.

Below are a couple of videos of Utah at the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite earlier this year. In the first, he shares memories of the Catholic worker Ammon Hennacy, who Utah lived with in the 1950s after returning from the Korean war; in the second, he shares the philosophy of Fryin’ Pan Jack, a hobo whom he met while riding the rails.

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