REMEMBERING UTAH PHILLIPS and RUBBER COCKROACHES by Len Wallace
"Reach out for each other,
raise a song together,
and let our voices carry us through".
- from "Singing Through The Hard Times" by Bruce "Utah" Phillips
It was sad news. Fellow Worker, Bruce "Utah" Phillips passed away quietly in his sleep on May 24, 2008.
Humorist, denizen of the folksong mines, raconteur of hobo consciousness, storyteller extraordinaire, songwriter and storyteller, unreconstructed Industrial Worker of the World, poet, radio show host, Korean war vet turned non-sectarian anarchist and pacifist, son of a CIO organiser, transcendentalist Unitarian with Zen Buddhist overtones, former state candidate for the Peace & Freedom Party, folk hero and legend, preserver of labour lore and knick knacks of all things useful and then some - was known to folks in Windsor.
Utah enthralled an audience of workers years ago at the CAW Local 200/444 union with his stories, songs and jokes to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." Those were rare moments and even a few months ago I was being asked, "When can we bring Utah Phillips to Windsor again?"
His tall stature was accentuated by a big brimmed Stetson fedora, long white hair and white flowing, white beard. Wearing work shirt and work pants and suspenders, watch chain and fob dangling, union pins and work boots, he looked like a man from another era. In a way, he was. You couldn't help but notice him.
He was passionately committed to the belief that people could change the world and he insisted on the power of remembering. He was fond of the adage that "You don't know where you're going unless you know where you came from". The elders of our community came up with some darned good ideas, one of the them being the idea of the One Big Union of all workers. There's no need to reinvent the wheel. Remembering is a very subversive thing because it points to the "not now". The powers that be and the defenders of the powers that be want us to think that the way things are the way they have always been and always will be and frankly, that is nonsense.
Good friend Rick Taves made the same point to me after he heard an interview Utah did with Amy Goodman of Democracy Watch on U.S. National Public Radio a few years ago back:
"He talked of the parallels between the Weimar Republic and present day America, and about how an awareness of such parallels demands a possession of historical memory that is very subversive to the existing order. Those who give us Iraq and Afghanistan depend on our amnesia."
That's food for thought. Utah did it with his humorous stories filled with the exploits about terrible jobs, riding the rails, baking a moose turd pie, getting involved in a wrestling match in which he ends up biting his own testicles, making fun of yuppies, barbed references to fascists and corporate execs, new age faddists, fortress keepers. He presented it in a style of homespun tales of the front porch variety. In a way they were. They were often the wisdom of the elders of our communities. They had to be preserved otherwise they would disappear just like front porches have been replaced by the modern suburban architecture of the two car garage door in itself a sad but telling commentary on capitalist society.
Utah's stories were based on objective reality but he never let the facts hamper a good yarn. They were artfully crafted in a Mark Twainesque style full of eloquence that challenged this day and age of the internet, ipods and text messaging that has dumbed us down and made us inarticulate. "Be careful of the garp you put in your brain from reading newspapers, listening to radio and watching TV", he told me years ago. "If you stuff your brain with garbage then garbage will come out."
Utah's pockets were often a treasure trove of unexpected items - pins, clown noses, rubber cockroaches. The cockroach routine was something he picked up from the hobo jungles. You can buy a tin of them for next to nothing at a joke store. If you found yourself out of work, starving and without money on the road you could go into a restaurant and order a hot meal. After you had eaten your fill you could reach into your pocket take that rubber vermin and slip it into the mashed potatoes then stand up hollering, "OH MY GOD! There's a COCKROACH in my food! I refuse to pay for this meal!" and go walking out. By the time the horrified and apologetic owners discovered the ruse you would be down the road with a belly full of food.
Yes, I saw Utah use the routine at the CAW Educational Centre in Port Elgin, Ontario. While we sat eating with two hundred other trade unionists in the huge cafeteria I caught him reaching into his pocket. "Oh no!", I said to myself. "Please don't do this to me!" Sure enough he slipped that damned rubber cockroach ever so neatly into those mashed potatoes and then set up bellow. The Centre's cook was brought in. Why did he do it? For fun and to teach some real history.
Another hobo trick involved getting the cork out of a bottle of hooch without a corkscrew (an item not often carried by the "bums of the rod"). You take a wine bottle, turn it upside down and smack it with the heel of your shoe. Eventually the cork will ease itself out of the bottle and you can pull it the rest of the way. The bottle should not have a concave bottom and the boot heel has to be rubber otherwise the trick can turn into an embarrassing mess.
It's useful information and this just isn't the stuff one learns in school. The same goes for the songs and stories that Utah chose to present - poetry from the Bertold Brecht, the abolitionists, revolutionaries, the songs of Joe Hill, workers' songs, songs of strikes won and struggles defeated. Pick up a school history text (if you can find one because they're not really teaching history anymore) and you'll find stories of so-called great men and leaders, national events and such, but you won't learn much about the history of the working class, the great majority of us in this society. We've been made invisible. Worker's songs, stories and poetry are the real history needing to be preserved and they became his playground of subversion.
Utah disbelieved the notion that workers are mere consumers of the dominant culture . We create culture. The problem is that history as presented to us by those with power, money and means (the "bums on the plush") is a top down affair and Utah was out to rectify the situation.
If you believe in the rat race then only rats will win. If you think that that humans are hopelessly greedy and warlike that is a hopeless position that only leads to despair. Despair and hopelessness are the gateways to fascism and totalitarianisms of all types. If you resign yourself to the way things are then you have made the choice to side with the powerful few against the powerless. Utah was adamant and engaged in what Herbert Marcuse called the "Great Refusal". When it came to war he as a former war vet made it plain that "never again would I abrogate my to someone else might right to choose who and who is not my enemy."
Utah had a weakening heart and he took a serious turn for the worse last year. By the end of last year he was losing strength and he was hooked up to a pacemaker and a machine that pumped in drugs 24 hours a day. It meant that he couldn't work and couldn't go on the road. In an economic system where work for wages is the major affliction, even the sick are forced into the irrational and inhuman choice of "earning" a living or live in the streets
It's a special affliction for those who are artists, musicians literally travelling on the road to earn their bread. Pensions and benefits of any kind are almost non-existent
Benefit concerts were held across Canada and the United States so that Utah Phillips could keep up expenses. We owed him much.
Two weeks before he passed away I was able to perform at a benefit concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan. During the concert a phone hook up allowed the audience to hear Utah's voice. He described his illness and commented that at one point of serious depression he actually contemplated suicide so be dialled the suicide hotline for some counselling.
When he got on the phone he asked the hotline counsellor, "Mind my asking, but where am I calling?" The guy answered, "Afghanistan".
"You're kidding", said Utah, "You mean to tell me the suicide hotline has been outsourced to Afghanistan?". The guy at the other replied, "Yes, now how can I help you?"
"Well", said Utah. "I was having suicidal thoughts.".... "Really?", said the guy on the hotline. "Do you know how to drive a truck?"
Good ol' Utah had us going till the end.
When the revolution comes, and it will, it will be humorous.
I mourn his loss. I considered him a mentor. Just before he passed away I wrote him a long letter telling him to hang in because I've learned a lot from him and there's was so much more I needed to learn. He never saw the letter. I guess I got my work cut out for me. We all do.
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