Utah Phillips: A 'Golden' Voice for Labor

"Hallelujah, I'm a bum / Hallelujah, bum again / Hallelujah, give us a handout / To revive us again."

Utah Phillips, the self titled "Golden Voice of the Great Southwest," used songs — good ones — to frame his shaggy dog stories about working people and American life, a life too big and messy to fit into a digital home-entertainment system.

He was the one and only: The only guy I knew who executed his television in his backyard after giving it a last cigarette; the only guy I knew who was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World for over 50 years; the only performer I knew who asked for a tour by the local historian whenever he got into town; the only folk singer I knew who talked more than he sang, who made a recording of just stories out of respect for the music lovers in his audience.

Whose shows consisted of one aphorism after another, because aphorisms — unlike sound bites — are the accumulated wisdom of years of experience, polished until they can be carried in the mind and used when needed.

Aphorisms like: "The most radical thing in America is a long-term memory." Or, "Children, be worried when they call you America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they've done to the other natural resources?" Or, "Don't vote — it only encourages them."

The only guy I knew who could explain the difference between a hobo, a tramp and a bum — who was ready to tell my son where to hop freights if he wanted to know. Who gave up traveling as a folk singer when his heart wore out and started a homeless shelter. Who quoted Shakespeare, Wendell Berry and Idaho Blackie in the same breath. Who wrote songs sung by both Johnny Cash and Ani DiFranco.

Master of the one-liner and the bad joke — and the call to direct action.

Quoting Ammon Hennacy, Utah said: ""Before you call someone a hero, make sure they're dead, so they don't blow it."

OK, it's safe. He's gone and can't blow it.

He was a hero, too.

"Hallelujah, I'm a bum / Hallelujah bum again / Hallelujah, give us a handout / To revive us again."

Bill Harley is a songwriter and storyteller who has not, to this point, ever hopped a freight. He lives in Seekonk Mass. and his latest book is Dirty Joe the Pirate: A True Story.

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