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Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org


Utah Has Left the Trade!

Pete Seeger, Dar Williams & the Folk Community
Come to Rosendale In Support of Utah Phillips

Community Center in Rosendale
Sunday, April 20, 2PM

Story by Gary Alexander

"You bet I do! You're darn tootin' I do!" he said when asked if he had any thoughts on the health care situation in America, prompting reflection on who else could credibly drop a phrase like that these days.

Although a guy named "Utah" in a town called Nevada City in the State of California was feeling "a little rocky at the moment" on Sunday, his voice on the phone came out in the mountains of New York as clear and strong as ever when he spoke about the people staging a benefit in his honor at the Community Center in Rosendale.on Sunday, April 20, at 2pm. (The show is headlined by our national treasure Pete Seeger and Dar Williams, along with the Flames of Discontent, Sarah Underhill and the High Meadow Larks, Redwood Moose, Jude Roberts & Lily McCabe, and Woodstock's Norm Wennet.)

Utah Philiips Websites:
"I'm living with my wife Joanna in this old gold mining town of about 2800 people up in the foothills of the Sierra," Utah explained. "We live on the edge of town on a rural lane in an old grove of cedar and oak trees that's never been logged. It's a very small house but it suits us just fine." Even on a "rocky" afternoon?

"That's the way it goes, kind of like a roller coaster but I did get out to speak in church today," said the legendary performer of his excursion Sunday to oblige a request from a new minister at the nearby Unitarian Church he had helped to found. Recovering from a recent attack of gout which periodically attends the condition of congestive heart failure that underlies the reason for the fund-raiser, Utah was one of three charter members she, (the minister), had asked to speak briefly about the basis of their spiritual life. "That's something I do very, very seldom but I had a few words."

Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
By reputation, any time Utah Phillips stands to speak is an occasion. Known around the world for the monologues and tales woven into and around his songs, Red House, a leading folk music label, has even released a Phillips CD (The Moscow Hold) of mostly spoken word which rivals the work of many of today's stand-up comedians. Almost everyone consulted while priming this article used the word raconteur to describe him, even though he was born in Cleveland. So, how did he become such a highly respected folksinger?

"I got backed into it," Said Utah, who moved west from Ohio with his mother in 1947 before getting into some old fashioned ramblin' 'round, running away so often, it is said, that his mom started wrapping his lunch in road maps. "I always sang and, when I left Utah in 1969, I was an unemployed organizer. I was on the lam. I had a head full of songs I'd made up and all kinds of songs I'd learned. I'd worked picket lines and migrant councils in the migrant camps but it was only when I got into the east that I was told that I sang folk music. I didn't know what that was."

Long before his tune "Green Rolling Hills" became a hit for Emmylou Harris or "Rock, Salt & Nails" lit up recordings by Joan Baez, Steve Young, Waylon Jennings and others or "Going Away" showed up on a Flatlanders CD or Tom Waits and other artists recorded his songs (including a Grammy-nominated album drawn completely from the Utah Phillips songkit by husband-wife duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin); long before he received the 1997 life-time achievement award from the North American Folk Alliance or was Grammy-nominated himself for his mesmerizing collaborations with Ani DiFranco (bringing the work to a new generation); long before his weekly syndicated show Loafer's Glory- Hobo Jungle of the Mind lost its National Public Radio slot; long before all of this, Bruce Phillips, a Unitarian from Utah and card-carrying Wobbly whose name can be mentioned in the same breath as Woody Guthrie, Joe Hill, Jack Elliot and, of course, Pete Seeger, took a dip in the American political pool.

"See, in 1968, I ran for the U.S. Senate in Utah as a peace candidate and as a veteran who had put my time in over in Korea," Phillips continued. "At that time I was working for the State of Utah as a mole down in the basement of the state archives. When the campaign was over and we took 6,000 votes as a peace candidate during the Vietnam war, my job vanished at the state (level) and, in fact, I found I couldn't get work in the state anywhere. Someone had always called ahead. It was a blacklist and a friend suggested that I leave and try to make a living telling stories and singing songs-which, in Utah at the time, seemed absurd or illegal."

Utah in 1974. Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
With $75 dollars in his pocket, Utah headed east in an old German VW bus he called "Hitler's Revenge" that November, "crossing the belly of the continent toward an uncertain future and that's when I discovered the folk music community; the whole folk music world. I discovered Pete. I discovered Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, where so many singers started out with Lena Spencer.

"Pete doesn't agree but I've told him a number of times 'Pete, you invented this trade here.' While I know that all over the South and Southwest there were cowboy singers or people who had been cowboys who were traveling and singing there with the radio folks, the Carter family and all of the traditional people. But, for people from a different walk of life, who simply learned the music because they loved it and then set out to travel around the country to perform it for people who also loved the music, as a kind of missionary activity- sort of our 'People's Music'- Pete invented that- the whole idea that it could be an honorable, productive and useful profession.

"Just working, sleeping on couches and floors, building to better halls and larger audiences over the years and living right close to the ground," Utah said, "I learned from this folk music family that I don't need wealth and I don't need fame or power. What I need is friends and that's what I found and that's what's coming through for us in our time of need."

Sarah Underhill, a Banshanachie (woman storyteller and song collector), who will perform on Sunday, met Utah after she had come from the West Coast in the late '70s to sail the Hudson on the Clearwater sloop and wound up staying. She vividly recalls a Clearwater journey in Long Island Sound with Phillips to protest the building of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant at Portsmouth, New Hampshire and welcomes the opportunity for the community to raise awareness about the nation's health care situation and celebrate Utah's music and work as a devoted activist.

"He's an incredible humorist who wrote a lot of songs about hopping trains and being out on the great western plains that wound up being sung by the Clearwater crew even though we were usually singing our sea shanties and nautical stuff," said Underhill. "Now that some of us have settled in the Hudson Valley, we still sing his songs when we get together."

"We sailed from Beacon on the Clearwater, down the Hudson, around and out on the ocean," Phillips recalled of the mission Underhill mentions. "The Clearwater had never been out on the ocean and we sailed the coast of New England, around Cape Cod to Seabrook to a big anti-nuclear rally. I crewed on that and Peter Wilcox was the captain then. He wanted to take the sloop into the harbor under sail and radioed ahead to have the drawbridge over the harbor's entrance raised. So, here we were, under full sail, bearing down on a bridge that was rising rather slowly and he realized we were not going to make it, so he threw the anchor overboard to slow the sloop down. It caught, then broke but it did slow the vessel down. Captain Peter and the rest of the crew were diving for that anchor while I was on stage singing."

UTU and CTU members protesting in 1995 using Utah's song as picket sign slogan.
Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
Singer-songwriter Norm Wennet was involved with the Cornell Folksong Society in Ithaca when he floored by the song "Daddy, What's A Train" when Utah came in for a concert over 3 decades ago and met him at festivals in the Northeast afterward, forming a friendship.

John Pietaro, core of The Flames of Discontent with his bass wizard wife Laurie Towers, is also a Wobbly, or member of the historic IWW- Industrial Workers of the World union, and feels Utah is perhaps its best known living member.

"I've been a labor and protest singer quite a few years. IWW has long been a 'singing union'," said Pietaro, an arts columnist for New England's progressive Z Magazine whose group has an album titled I Dreamed I Heard Joe Hill Last Night...A Century of IWW Songs featuring workers' standards redressed in modern rhythms. "It was a group of people that came together and said 'We can allow women, we can allow blacks, immigrants and unskilled workers and we want the same union here as for people in Germany, South America, anywhere.' And, in order to really cross that barrier, they sang. Joe Hill said 'One song speaks louder than a thousand pamphlets' and Utah Phillips is rooted in that tradition. He carries the torch of Joe Hill."

Pietaro, who runs an annual "Philfest" at The Colony in December on Rock City Road to celebrate the songs of Phil Ochs and a Woody Guthrie Tribute there in July, specializes in topical and protest message songs.

Utah speaks at an IWW gathering. Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
"It's ironic that I work for a health care workers' union and much of what I've been doing as part of my own job is fighting for universal health care," he said. "Now, here is this great man who wrote classics like 'All Used Up' who can't afford his treatment and there are millions less visible than him suffering as the Bush administration pushes away at Mediaid."

Dar Williams first met Utah when she opened some shows for him 15 years ago. Their friendship developed further at festivals and concerts through the years like a large fundraiser for the famous free speech radio station KPFA in Berkeley as they underwent their management shake-up in 1999 with Joan Baez, Spearhead and other artists sharing the bill.

"I'm a big fan of Utah and there are things he didn't do in general and specific ways in his career that helped him keep things on a human scale," said Williams of a man who scorned the "parasites, and money grubbers who own the music machine" in his assessments of the music industry. "His motto was 'Make a living, not a killing' and, in order to navigate the whole medical scene, it's almost as if you need to have made a killing. If you stick to the human scale, you look to your friends and we're his friends and he always gave generously of himself and passed on things where he really could have climbed another kind of ladder. I certainly don't do as much as he did but I try to do a lot of fundraisers and I'm in line with that sense of responsibility because of people like Utah, and specifically Utah."

Because of his heart condition, Utah has attempted retirement a couple of times in the past few years. In October, last year, the inevitable could no longer be put off.

"My heart is enlarged and very weak," Utah said. "I was sent down to California-Pacific Hospital, the best cardiac unit in the country, for a heart transplant. This was at the beginning of Feburary (2008), and it was determined by a group of experts there, and myself, too, that I would not survive a transplant... So, the alternative was to keep me there for the whole month of February, run a variety of medicines through my heart-electrolytes, coreg and so on, to see what I would tolerate, eventually to get it right and send me home with the alternative to a transplant- which is continuous home medication.

Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
"I'm getting used to carrying this shoulder bag around with my life support in it and people around me have to get used to it, too, but I'm doing okay...It has a bag of medicine in it, which shows up here on dry ice every other day in several packages, and an electronic pump which all sit pretty nicely in this small shoulder bag. There's a tube that comes out of the bottom and goes up to a permanent IV implant in my chest and that catheter ablation goes directly to my heart to pump a continuous supply of that medication 24 hours a day to keep my heart beating more regularly, help my breathing and send the right signals to my kidneys not to eliminate all that fluid- which was a big problem with me.

"So, that'll be for the rest of my life that I'll be carrying this around, besides taking a lot of oral medications nine times during the day," he summed up. "So, I guess I really have left the trade- which I regret enormously"

Then Utah reached the part which in his estimation made me "darn tootin'"..."I think there's a lot of people out there who assume the reason we're up against it here is because of the tremendous high cost of medical care and that's why there's a benefit happening with Pete and Dar Williams and some other good friends in your part of the country.

"I'm 73 years old. I'm on Medicare...The month in the hospital, the pump, the oxygen machine I sleep with that makes oxygen out of the air and rumbles every night in my bedroom, my pacemaker-defibulater on the other side of my chest- I'm a cyborg now, all of that was covered by medicare...Medicare is something that, during the 1930s, enormous numbers of American working people, who were all up against it, developed so much pressure from the bottom that it forced the government to create it. It's something that American workers got together and created for ourselves- to take care of each other. That's why there's never been any problem being in the medicare system.

Utah Phillips and the Rose Tattoo around 1976.
Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org
"And, besides other good things like minimum wage, unemployment insurance, workman's compensation; things that are unheard of any place else in the world, the people here got those things but medical social security is the centerpiece of all of that...What I'm saying is socialized medicine works. Anybody who's got an argument with that, send 'em to me and I'll tell 'em. It works. Here I am, okay? I should be dead but I'm not and I'm getting excellent care. As much as an anarchist as *I am, I realize that it's through the help of my fellow workers all over the country through the tears that has enabled this to happen...It does work. There shouldn't be any argument there. The object is to lower the age requirement to zero. And stop fighting these dumb wars. And stop the money pump that's pumping waelth from the bottom to the top at a furious rate, impoverishing the working class. Reverse that, get that money back and put it to work, giving everybody exactly what I've been able to enjoy through medicare."

Utah also wanted to clarify his current circumstance: "The reason these benefits are happening throughout the country is that I had to leave the trade. I can no longer be on stage. I left, after about 40 years, fairly close to the high end and I'm not talking about 'the industry.' I always worked at a 'sub-industrial' level. I was a journeyman at my trade, working close to the street- small clubs, small concert halls; making a living-not a 'killing,' which is all I ever wanted... I was doing fairly well and, when I finally decided I couldn't do this anymore, our income went from a reasonably good one to zero. So, that's what stranded us here.

"My medicines are covered. We own the house we live in, thank God, or we couldn't afford to live here. But we've got property taxes. We've got to heat the place. We've got to keep the lights on and keep ourselves fed... My wife, Joanna, and I are giving ourselves a year to get on our feet- to decide how we're going to make a living from here on and the good people in the folk music world- it's a family, behaves like a family- are coming together and helping float us over this year until we get on our feet."

There is scarcely anything more that needs to be said about Pete Seeger, who turns 89 next month, than here is an opportunity to see him perform in person. Rosendale Cafe proprietor Mark Morganstern, who originally organized the event for his cafe and acquired use of the community center due to public response, advises that there will be no advanced sales or reservations.

Utah said he would try to arrange a live phone hook-up to speak to the audience directly and, if you've got some Utah Phillips CDs you've been meaning to get, now would be a great time to do it. Go to Utahphillips.org or Cdbaby.com.

Hobo Utah hopping a train. Photo courtesy of UtahPhillips.org

-Gary Alexander

Gary Alexander is an independent journalist and scholar whose focus of interests range through a variety of disciplines. Under various names, he has written (and ghost written) upon history and current event; science and technology, as well as music and the arts in books and for national periodicals. While particularly attentive to the subtle and complex impact upon cultural imagination and contemporary structures of presumption which activity in the above mentioned topics tend to have, Alexander treats his topics with a slightly more than occasional resort to humor.

Posted on April 23, 2008

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