In a time of history when it seems that for so many attaining the rank of manager is the best they can do in terms of professional attainment it is fitting to remember the words of the song Dump the Bosses off your Back:
"Are you poor, forlorn and hungry?
Are there lots of things you lack?
Is your life made up of misery?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are your clothes all patched and tattered?
Are you living in a shack ?
Would you have your troubles scattered?
Then dump the bosses off your back.
Are you almost split asunder?
Loaded like a long-eared jack?
Boob - why don't you buck like thunder,
And dump the bosses off your back?
All the agonies you suffer
You can end with one good whack;
Stiffen up, you orn'ry duffer
And dump the bosses off your back."
The managerial elite have for so long meddled in the affairs of those who got the actual work done they have forgotten the privilege and the tenacity of their position. The Karen's of the world may not believe in God or the plethora of God's and Goddesses that populate the multiverse but they certainly believe in managers. Their new slogan has been updated as, "No Gods, Only Manager's". And they will promptly ask to speak to one if you frack up their latte or avocado toast.
The work of Utah Phillips is an antidote to all that. Phillips was a bard of the railways, a revered elder of the folk music community, a keeper of stories and songs that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. He was also a member of the great Traveling Nation, the community of hobos and railroad bums that populates the Midwest United States along the rail lines, and was an important keeper of their history and culture.
Philips filled his life up with learning, with investigation, with activism, with storytelling, travelling and music. He was a labor organizer, card carrying wobbly, poet, musician, historian, keeper of the long memory of the people. He enjoyed studying Egyptology, the Runes of the Futhark, and linguistics in general; he was interested in chemistry; but most of all history (American, Asian, African, Mormon and world). As a keeper of the long memory history was the name of the game. And to that deep love he added many other practical skills in the areas of cooking, pickling, and gardening.
Utah said, "The long memory is the most radical idea in this country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we're going, but where we want to go."
If anything Utah Philips was a gardener of the working class imagination. He tried to keep the weeds of commercialism and corporate interest from colonizing the deep beds of labor songs, hobo and railroad lore, anarchist & pacifist philosophy, vaudeville music, and the many gifts and talents he accumulated through drifting. He got his love for vaudeville from his stepfather who managed the Lyric Theater in Salt Lake City. His exposure to the world of vaudeville became an important factor in his real world education as an American Bard.
He was a true knight of the road whose chivalry shined through in his music, actions and words. As a young man he hopped freight trains back and forth all across this wide country of ours. It was on these travels that he came face to face with himself, relying on his intuition, wits, and the kindness of strangers. He experienced the ultimate freedom that comes from having no home except the sky above his head, with nothing in his past to hold onto behind him, and nothing in his future except the next step along the ever forking and winding road. He experienced the mercy that came from a place beyond his own self as he faced the various difficulties of being a knight of the road. As he met various people he "discovered the dynamic struggle of people to organize themselves and demand a quality of life for themselves and those around them that provides bread yes, but roses too."
After tramping around the west for a spell Phillips made his way back to Salt Lake City where he met a man who changed the course of his life: Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker Movement. Utah gave this man credit for saving him from a life of drifting. Utah started using his prodigious talents in the field of activism, public service, song and story. He help Hennacy establish a mission house named after American hero Joe Hill, and he worked there for the next eight years.
Another person who had a large influence on Utah was folksinger Rosalie Sorrels whom he met in the early 1950s, remaining friends with her throughout his life. Rosalie started playing some of the songs Phillips was writing and this lead to his music starting to spread.
This was followed by Utah's bid in 1968 for a seat in the U.S. Senate as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party. He received 2,019 votes in an election won by Republicon Wallace F. Bennett. In the bi-centennial year of 1976 he ran for president as a member of the Do-Nothing Party. Sadly, he did not win that election either.
When he finally left Utah in the late 1960s, he went to Saratoga Springs, New York, and became a regular fixture at the Caffe Lena coffee house. He played there for over a decade on a regular basis and was a beloved part of the community there. Even though he left Saratoga in turn, the coffee house became one of his regular stops for the rest of his career.
One of the best ways I've found to get to know Utah and his life's work was by listening to the archives of his radio show Loafer's Glory.
Loafer's Glory was originally broadcast from KVMR in Nevada City, California from 1997 to 2001. The broadcasts are a mighty "collage of rants, poetry, tales, and reminiscences mixed in with little known music and talk from over 1,000 tapes of everything under the sun, from tramping and labor (historic and contemporary ) to baseball and old friends... from unreleased Lord Buckley to animals, children, tall tales, Paul Robeson, and most of what you need to know about life on the open road... and always music."
Each episode is an education. Each episode opens a door onto some corner of history. As the man himself said, "It occurred to me that there are whole areas of our history that nobody knows about, kids, adults, people that went through public schools, they just don't know about it. I didn't because I had to go to my elders who gave me a better, truer picture, of who I am and where I really came from than the best history book I ever read."
Listening to Utah Phillips share his accumulated lore on these recordings from the airwaves is a mighty fine way to receive a transmission from this bard of the open road.
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Justin Patrick Moore
Husband. Father/Grandfather. Writer. Green wizard. Ham radio operator (KE8COY). Electronic musician. Library cataloger.