Long memory

There is certainly plenty to write about U. Utah Phillips.

It’s no wonder—not every weekly newspaper has a legend living in its own backyard. A major player in the American folk-music scene that took roots in the late 1970s, Phillips is guitar man, folk singer, hobo, storyteller and people’s historian. He’s as legendary today for his anti-war politics as for his music.

As with most people, Phillips forged his life’s future direction while he was a young man. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and resolved to remember forever what he learned there about the awful costs of war—the violence, destruction, starvation and devastation. He became a pacifist and refused to accept the militarism that went along with American foreign policy. He learned early on that pacifism wasn’t a tactic to pull out for use only when it serves your interests. It was a way of living, one he decided to embrace with every bit of who he was.

Phillips’ peace-loving philosophies came accompanied by his guitar, booming voice, sense of humor and skill as a teller of yarns. He traveled the country—mostly by rail—singing, strumming … encouraging dissent in its many forms. His famously hippie looks appealed to the old-timers and baby boomers who fought for labor unions and civil rights and opposed the Vietnam War. But Phillips has tried hard to keep his message young, too. His 1996 collaborative album with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, was just one of this man’s attempts to make the musical language of dissent relevant to a new generation.

(See “Anarchist, musician, legend” by Christian Kiefer.)

A heart condition has slowed him down somewhat, and he rarely wanders from his Nevada City home to tour these days. But, even without leaving the area, U. Utah Phillips remains an inspiration: a one-man argument for pacifism in a culture that seems to glorify war now more than ever.