Anarchist, musician, legend
U. Utah Phillips is a local hero of political activism and folk music. Just don’t call him the last of the radicals!
I’m on the road with U. Utah Phillips, and he’s angry. “Who’s that supposed to be?” he pointedly asks, his shaggy-bearded face swiveling, his fiery eyes meeting mine for a moment. His wife, Joanna Robinson, shakes her head from the driver’s seat. “Oh no,” she moans. Then, as if I didn’t get the point, Phillips says, simply: “It’s bullshit.” He waves a flannel-sleeved arm in apparent disgust.
The problem is that I’ve just mentioned a proposed headline for this story: “The last radical,” a title that encapsulates one of the driving forces of getting this story in print—that Phillips is prominent in an older generation of radical political activists. It is a generation entering its 70s and 80s and is one quickly fading both from this world and from the consciousness of average Americans. These are heroes of political activism, people who were not afraid to give up their livelihoods, their freedom and sometimes even their lives in order to promote an alternative vision of America. In Phillips’ case, this vision is founded on the idea of radical anarchy, on pacifism and, perhaps most importantly to his fans, on music.
In the folk-music scene, Phillips is, quite literally, a legend, his booming voice and strumming acoustic guitar immediately recognizable. It is through his music, and the humorously ranting stories he tells in between the songs, that his position as a radical becomes clear. This is not to say that Phillips is exclusively a political singer—in fact, he dislikes that term. Instead, his is a politics focused on people, one interested in telling stories about the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the socially and politically forgotten. In a country that now seems to careen forward at a dizzying pace in a mad grab for more dollars, bigger cars and newer gadgets, this in itself is a radical idea.
At 70 years old, Phillips is in the old guard of both politics and folk music, but his position is even more poignant now; despite some indications to the contrary, U. Utah Phillips is not well. In 1995, Phillips sent out a press release indicating that he was ceasing his rigorous touring schedule for health reasons. Phillips, the self-proclaimed “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” was suffering from congestive heart failure, a condition serious enough that he and his wife gave a statement in 1995 indicating that he had a 50-percent chance of living past five years. He apparently has made it into the more long-living 50 percent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the man is a model of health either.
But, despite these issues, Phillips’ tendency for vigorous tirade is still in full force, something I’m currently experiencing firsthand. It seems he hasn’t lost his proclivity for radical action. “If those [newspapers] show up that way on the stands in my county,” he says, “I’ll go around and burn ’em all.” Although U. Utah Phillips certainly has a strong sense of humor, in this case he doesn’t appear to be joking.
I’m not particularly surprised at his objection; Phillips’ songs and stories have always incorporated the past, bringing it into the present in a way that attempts to create a continuum. To quote the title of Phillips’ 1996 collaborative album with Ani DiFranco, for Phillips “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere.” So, of course, the idea that he would be the last anything is sure to ruffle his feathers, and being the last radical is perhaps an affront to how he views himself: not as a political singer at all but as a folk singer pure and simple.
We’re on the road to Oakland; it’s not, perhaps, the kind of lengthy road trip that U. Utah Phillips is famous for—in fact, the way Phillips tells it, he spent most of his working life as a musician traveling from town to town, much of it by rail—but it’s representative of the only kind of traveling Phillips is capable of doing these days. His health issues have caused him to heavily curtail the kinds of epic tours he had undertaken in the past. It was a decision hard on him in many ways, perhaps most immediately in terms of economics, for Phillips’ work has been based fundamentally on his ability to travel. “I work at a sub-industrial level at an ancient and honorable trade,” he tells me from the front seat as the car passes through the outskirts of Davis. No national tour with an entourage, simply him going town to town, playing small rooms. “Traveling storyteller and folk singer,” he describes it. “A people’s newspaper.”
If he’s a newspaper, then he is of a kind one doesn’t see often these days: a ranting, raving, funny, biting, activist newspaper. “We have an organization called the People’s Music Network, over 500 songwriters, young and old,” he tells me, still fuming over the idea of “The last radical.” “People like Charlie King, who can really write. Five hundred of ’em writing class-conscious political music. You’ve got a strike going on in Pueblo, Colo., and you need some picket-line songs? Send the particulars in to People’s Music Network, and they’ll farm it out to all these songwriters and come up with the music. A powerful thing is happening at the bottom, and there are great organizers out there, singing.”
For the general population, it might be a quaint idea—that folk music still has some kind of relevance in the world. Perhaps Phillips himself is deluded or somehow alienated from his own times. In fact, such a conclusion could be reached from a quick glance at Phillips himself: One might expect a folk singer who had his start in 1969 (not to mention one living in Nevada County) to sport the beads and tie-dyes of an aging hippie. With Phillips, nothing could be further from the truth. Sporting a brown coat and vest with a dangling silver watch chain, a broad-brimmed felt hat jauntily perched atop a tangle of snow-white hair, and a smile barely visible under a beard that would make Santa Claus himself white with envy, Phillips looks more like a 1930s traveling salesman than a contemporary folk performer.
That Phillips’ storytelling tendency is itself somewhat anachronistic may further solidify the impression: stories and songs about vagabonds, derelicts, railroad hobos and the trains they ride upon. He sings old songs, most often accompanied only by his own acoustic guitar playing, and the songs he writes himself sometimes sound even older. “Let me sing to you all the old songs I know,” he sings in “The Telling Takes Me Home,” a tune he penned, “Of wild windy places locked in timeless snow / And of wide crimson deserts where muddy rivers flow— / It’s sad but the telling takes me home. / Come along with me to some places that I’ve been. / Where people all look back and still remember when / And the quicksilver legends like sunlight turn and blend— / It’s sad but the telling takes me home.”
It may indeed be sad—and, in fact, “The Telling Takes Me Home” is one of Phillips’ more melancholy tunes—but the invitation to experience the stories and tales Phillips has collected is mingled with an overriding sense of hope in his songwriting: the sincere belief that people can change the present, that they can make a better future and that many of these lessons can be directly learned from an understanding of the past.
The show that we are traveling to in Oakland is directly related to that understanding of the past, for this road trip ends with those who are truly among the oldest and—for many—bravest survivors of radical politics: the veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. They are American men and women who literally took up arms to stop the spread of fascism in Europe by voluntarily fighting in the Spanish Civil War. It was a time when the idea that an individual could change the world for the better still held currency, and a time when U. Utah Phillips was still in diapers.
The man who would become U. Utah was born Bruce Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, one year before the outbreak of the war in Spain. Later, his parents (both were labor organizers) relocated the family farther west to Salt Lake City, in the state that would see Phillips through his formative years.
In young adulthood, Phillips served three years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. What followed was a period of roaming the country by rail. Phillips’ stories cover this period in detail: an unmoored veteran wandering from place to place, looking for something he could not identify or quantify but which he eventually found in the form of anarchy and pacifism—the central buzzwords of his creative output and the formation of a general political position that eventually led to his desire to make a living with a guitar and his stories. More directly, it also led to his expatriation from the state of Utah, for his political views—particularly those supporting union organizing—were not particularly popular in the state. Simply put, Phillips could not find a job. The end result was that he created one for himself, becoming a traveling, full-time musician and adopting the stage name U. Utah Phillips (inspired by country-music performer T. Texas Tyler).
It was, needless to say, a Woody Guthrie kind of apprenticeship: one spent with a guitar and a freight train. On the other hand, Phillips is known as a raconteur for good reason: One never quite knows if he’s telling the whole truth, a shade of the truth or an outright lie. That’s the interesting conundrum about coming to terms with Bruce Phillips, the man who is married to Joanna Robinson and lives up in Nevada City, and U. Utah Phillips, the man who will take the stage tomorrow afternoon. Are they different men? Are they the same man? From the driver’s seat, his wife alternates between calling him “Bruce” and calling him “Utah,” but that might just be for my benefit. It’s something like trying to determine which one is Robert Zimmerman and which one is Bob Dylan: At some point, one becomes the other, and from there on out the logic gets increasingly slippery.
Phillips—whichever variety you choose to believe in—traveled the folk-music circuit with regularity until he announced that he would curtail his traveling because of his heart condition. The immediate questions raised were financial, because a man who paid his bills by traveling and performing faced a serious problem when the traveling became impossible.
The temporary solution was to channel his creative energies into Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind, a lively syndicated weekly radio show he hosted from Nevada City’s public radio station KVMR. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done with my life,” Phillips says today. “Like vacuum-cleaning the brain.”
Indeed, over the course of 100 hour-long episodes, Phillips certainly told a long, involved tale, interweaving his own life story with that of his beloved union (the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies); progressive political movements around the world; folk music, both contemporary and historical; and a fair amount of general ranting and raving. In many ways, Loafer’s Glory represents U. Utah Phillips distilled and compressed.
It was a way to utilize the kind of street education that Phillips already had amassed. “Every town has been like a teacher,” he tells me, our car crossing the Carquinez Strait, its derelict ships fading into the gray dusk. “I’d go to a town. I’d read about it before I got there: ethnic distribution, economic base, history. Why is it there? I’d always ask for the newspaper to be sent to me the week before I got there so I could see what the local politics were. And I generally had a habit of not staying in hotels or motels but staying with people who lived there, who are familiar with the town and could answer a lot of questions. So, over the years, I had this enormous store of song and story and oddness.”
All those songs and stories and that oddness were always part of his live performances and recordings, but they also created a massive backlog, one that Phillips could draw upon for his weekly radio program. It was a success, although not in terms of economics: After the 100 episodes, the expected underwriting necessary to keep the show afloat never materialized. Phillips was faced once again with the necessity of traveling to make his living. Not that he’s necessarily complaining about it; despite his health concerns and his love of Loafer’s Glory, Phillips seems happy to be out in the world again, performing in front of flesh-and-blood people rather than the more speculative, faceless radio audience.
The night is warm for the Bay Area, particularly considering the gray rain that falls on the street outside. Phillips has a busy day planned for tomorrow: a quick trip to the venue in Oakland for a sound check, followed by a drive to KPFA, where Phillips will appear on his longtime friend Robbie Osman’s radio show Across the Great Divide, and then a fast drive back to the venue in time for the afternoon’s program.
Phillips isn’t entirely sure what that program will entail, although he knows the people involved. Director Peter Glazer has staged a Woody Guthrie-themed theater show in Nevada City, and Bruce Barthol, music director for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, is an old friend as well. What Phillips is less prepared for is the venue itself: the Calvin Simmons Theatre. It’s a large, plush theater and one that seems to make Phillips visibly uneasy. “This is way too nice for a guy like me,” he says on several occasions, smiling in profuse embarrassment during his sound check. His deep, resonant voice fills the room: not quite the baritone of Paul Robeson but not that far off either. It’s a voice that says: Listen to me. I am telling you something important. It doesn’t demand attention, but attention is required nonetheless.
After the sound check, Phillips packs his guitar into the dressing room (he has his own room, separate from the rest of the performers), and the three of us walk back outside to the car. “I never wanted to be labeled a political singer,” he told me earlier in the day. “I’m a folk singer. I want to help people to laugh. Get them singing together. Tell ’em, ‘This is your music, so why not sing it instead of consume it?’ And then there will be things I’ll want to get at. … I don’t beat anyone over the head. There’s nothing worse than a whole evening of political music. Tedious. Lethal.”
Nonetheless, Phillips was invited to attend this event—the Annual Reunion of the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade—as the guest of honor because of his political folk music, and, based on the program, it looks to be just what Phillips is warning about. The event’s subtitle, after all, is “Songs for Hard Times,” and the program reads, “Honoring Utah Phillips for singing the songs that hold us together,” ultimately calling on music to inspire “a new generation of activists.”
Nevertheless, Phillips himself doesn’t seem particularly put out by that aspect of the proceedings. What does seem to make him nervous is the relatively austere and formal surroundings and, perhaps more importantly, the veterans themselves. “I’m going to have to stand up there, and they’ll all be sitting in the front row,” he says to his wife. Phillips is, without a doubt, in real awe of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. Once he’s out of earshot, I ask his wife if this level of nervousness is typical. “Yeah, this is very typical,” she says, laughing. “And he always finds some reason why it’s not OK or how it can go wrong.”
This time, though, there seems to be a real sense of anticipation, and rightly so, for the Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade are one of the shining lights in the world of activist politics: a collective of communists, socialists, anarchists and working people who gathered together on the battlefields of Spain to fight the spread of fascism in Europe.
For historians, the Spanish Civil War was the test run for World War II: a struggle against the kind of fascist politics that, in the years that followed, would set Europe itself ablaze. In 1931, four years before Phillips’ birth, a new Spanish republic was founded by popular election. It was to mark a new era of Spanish rule, a conservative government but one built by the people and for the people. Nonetheless, due in large part to land reforms that reabsorbed vast tracts of land owned by the wealthy and the Catholic church, the young republic found itself besieged in the years that followed, by an increasingly strong force, eventually led by Spanish fascist Francisco Franco and funded by Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Benito Mussolini’s Italy. It was a brutal force, supporting, among other atrocities, an official policy condoning the wholesale rape of the female populace by fascist soldiers. By 1936, Spain found itself fighting for the survival of its newly won freedom, and, despite repeated calls for aid, the Spanish Republicans found themselves without official outside support of any kind.
So, up stepped the International Brigades: 35,000 politically active men and women who came from all over the world to join in the struggle against fascism, among them 2,800 Americans who were known as the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
In the studio at KPFA, Phillips first talks about his activities in working toward a homeless hospice program in Nevada County and then about the Lincoln vets. “They’re giving me some kind of award for activism,” Phillips says, “but the real activists will be sitting in front of me, and those are the veterans.” Phillips has a voluminous knowledge of history, with all its requisite dates and locales. On the air, he rolls out the whole history of the Spanish Civil War, commenting on the involvement of the International Brigades as an integral part of the whole progressive political movement.
But Phillips’ connection to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade isn’t merely historical; he has a real, personal connection. In front of the radio microphone, he recounts the story of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Edward Balchowsky: a man famous in Chicago as King of the Alleyways, an iconoclastic, one-armed, pre-beat radical poet and songwriter who roamed Chicago’s back streets and pool halls. Phillips tells of following Balchowsky through those back streets as a young man, describing how Balchowsky’s arm had been blown off while crossing the Ebro River in Spain during the war and how he returned a morphine addict. “He was one who talked to me and told me stories at first,” Phillips explains, “sitting in a bar, The Quiet Night, where I used to play.” On an archival recording Phillips plays on the radio, Balchowsky hits violent chords on the piano, his only surviving hand banging the keys with a wild abandon, his voice singing the marching song of the German branch of the International Brigades: “Freiheit! Freiheit!” (“Freedom! Freedom!”). It is powerful and moving: the voice of a huge ghost ranting out a foreign song in a Chicago bar in the predawn hours after all respectable drunks have retired to their gutters.
Phillips later will recount that same story when he is onstage, and he will sing the death song he wrote for Balchowsky. Now, though, he’s backstage, standing in front of his open guitar case. It’s an instrument that looks a bit like it’s received the same kind of beating that Balchowsky’s piano must have received, an instrument that is steeped in history. “The police knocked a barricade over on me and the guitar once,” Phillips says in answer to my comments about the guitar’s level of wear. “It’s even been thrown out of a train. I had to glue it together a few times. So, yeah, it’s been through a lot.” Much like the man itself, it seems, although it’s significantly easier to replace a set of strings than it is a diseased heart. Later, when I peek through the door, Utah is seated facing the mirror, talking quietly to himself, perhaps working out the evening’s story. There are more questions to ask, but even a public man needs his private moments.
Outside in the auditorium, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans themselves are assembling in the front row. There are eight of them in attendance—all of them men—and they are, needless to say, old friends. They look surprisingly lively given that most must be in their 90s. Nearly 70 years after the end of the Spanish Civil War, many are still devoted to a particular political vision. The cause of progressive politics has not been abandoned. Their commander in chief, Milt Wolff, sports a cravat and a wickedly charming smile, spending some time shaking hands in the lobby before walking down to the front row. This is the vets’ day, and they clearly are pleased about it. And well they should be, for, of the names listed in the program of the Bay Area Abraham Lincoln Brigade, nearly all are marked by a small plus sign, denoting “Deceased.” Most of the few names that remain are marked with an asterisk, indicating “Fallen in Spain.” In the end count, of the 130 names on the list, only 20 remain unmarked. Eighty-five percent of the Bay Area Veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade are gone.
So it is that when the lights finally dim, and the event itself starts, it does so with a nearly endless standing ovation for the vets themselves, who stand and nod appreciatively. When a microphone is passed down their line, allowing them an opportunity to address the assembled audience, the first makes a one-sentence statement that seems to neatly sum up the general political feeling of the event itself: “All I have to say is we have another Franco in the White House.” The audience again explodes into applause. This is, indeed, the vets’ day.
When Phillips takes the stage, he does so in the same spirit. By way of breaking the ice, he says, to tittering laughter, “Once again, an empty limo drove up to the White House, and George Bush got out.” Then he launches into the story of Ed Balchowsky once again. This time, it is significantly more detailed and, in keeping with Phillips’ skill as a storyteller, fascinating. “A wild man,” Phillips says of Balchowsky, the audience completely silent, waiting on his words. “He taught me powerful, powerful things. Mainly about holding on, holding on, and never giving up. Never.”
“I left Chicago,” the storyteller continues. “Went over to Rockford to play. I got a call a couple days later that said that Eddie had died. So, I went out late at night … and I made up a death song for Eddie. A week later, I got a call from Eddie. The first thing I asked him was ‘Hey Ed, where’re you calling from?’ He said he was calling from Chicago. I said, “Hell, dead or in Chicago, it’s all the same to me, fella.” And I went back to The Quiet Night a week after that … and had a chance to sing him his death song. He was amused.”
Then Phillips launches into Balchowsky’s death song. His voice sounds particularly resonant in the opulent theater. Like much of Phillips’ songwriting, the song itself could be criticized as a collection of clichés, but it is also very effective, given Phillips’ role as a songwriter and storyteller: His songs are meant to be understood immediately and physically. They must grip the listener from the first word, regardless of educational or intellectual level. They must be visceral in their force and intense, and this one is just that: “One hand on the keyboard,” Phillips sings, “and moonlight fills the room. One hand on the Ebro; no regrets. One hand on tomorrow, reaching for the sun. One hand on the sun that never sets.” His voice reaches out into the room. Images flood the mind: the bloody Ebro River in Spain, the drug-addicted Balchowsky in a Chicago after-hours bar, the crash of piano keys and “Freiheit! Freiheit!” and the absence of all of that once Balchowsky left the world at last.
But of course Phillips would argue, again, that “the past didn’t go anywhere” and that by singing Balchowsky’s death song, Phillips is, if only symbolically, bringing him back into the world of the living, for folk music and activism are both part of a continuum with no real beginning and no end. No last. The Abraham Lincoln Brigade vets and Phillips himself form part of that continuum.
The younger generation is made up by people like Ani DiFranco and, younger still, Phillips’ friends (and DiFranco’s fans) the “Radical Cheerleaders,” a group of young women in their teens and early 20s who are active in the lobby when the official part of the event is over and the audience is filing slowly toward the refreshments downstairs. Attending this event at Phillips’ invitation, the Cheerleaders are street-level activists, performing cheers in the general style of traditional cheerleading, but with a ragtag, punk-rock style and a clear and present political message: Don’t globalize, don’t consume and don’t be blind to what’s happening in the world. Radical ideas.
Phillips stands next to them and beams. This is, after all, part of the generation that will continue after him when he is gone: proof that his idea that the past, indeed, didn’t go anywhere but is right here, continuing. Phillips himself works the crowd, attempting, with some success, to direct attention back to the activism happening right in front of them. He greets as many people as he can. Some are old friends. Some are fans. I’m standing next to him when he shakes hands with Milt Wolff. Phillips immediately tries to draw his attention to the Cheerleaders. “Aren’t they great?” he says, but Wolff is already passing by, shaking the next hand, a beaming smile on his face. Phillips’ own smile doesn’t falter for a moment. He catches another eye, shakes another hand himself, nods toward the cheerleaders and repeats, “Aren’t they great?”
“There will never be a last radical,” he had said the evening before. “I’m a small fish in a very large pond.” It seems true now, standing in a room filled with radicals, the oldest in the Brigade and, cheering in the corner, some of the youngest, and Phillips himself forming a kind of bridge between them.