Farewell to a giant

Utah Philips on stage.He’d sure have hated to have those words stuck to him. Giant, legend, a truly great person. And really, it is wrong to heroize people like that. But oddly, his insistence on humility, respect and honesty was exactly what made these descriptive words fit very well on him. Sorry, dude, but you were my hero, like it or not.

Bruce “Utah” Philips was a folk singer, storyteller and -collector, bum, hobo, contract worker, labor organizer and jester. And first of all, he was a bridge builder: bridging the gaps between past and future, between the generations, between people. He saw himself as a voice for the dead and forgotten that still had a helluva lot to teach us people of today and tomorrow. A voice that can be heard in an intense and entertaining way on the album The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere that he made in collaboration with the folk singer Ani DiFranco.

He built bridges, but he knew his enemies. He’d never build bridges between the oppressors and the oppressed, he’d never excuse cold hearted waste of human life. Harshly, and with a great sense of satire and knowledge of people, he attacked warmongers, inhuman labor conditions, racist politicians and any kind of forced authority.

He loved offbeat characters, hard-workers and honesty as much as he hated bigotry, hypocricy and cold-heartedness. He was a warm and sometimes goofy jester and an etching satiricist, he liked to use new and funny words but still put things in a plain language that everyone could understand. What he said wasn’t your generic banalities though; he told jokes and workplace anecdotes side by side with gripping stories from his time as a soldier in chorea, awesome descriptions of great personalities he’d met and pasionate appeals for solidarity, humanity and peace.

Utah told us of the stories that Hollywood wants you to forget. Of the draft dodgers, the striking workers who had to struggle not only with poverty, but also ruthless bosses paying armed gangs to break the will of the unions. For the people who worked hard to tow the United States in the direction of a human society, where not only the abstract freedoms, but also food, good health and a place to live were human rights that were not discussed. Forces that built America and that are neglected, forgotten and belittled in the official, corporate image of America today.

It is all very well summed up in this quote, taken from here:

“Kids don’t have a little brother working in the coal mine, they don’t have a little sister coughing her lungs out in the looms of the big mill towns of the Northeast. Why? Because we organized; we broke the back of the sweatshops in this country; we have child labor laws. Those were not benevolent gifts from enlightened management. They were fought for, they were bled for, they were died for by working people, by people like us. Kids ought to know that. That’s why I sing these songs. That’s why I tell these stories, dammit. No root, no fruit!”

Utah died in his sleep this friday. His heart that had been giving him trouble for 15 years finally stopped beating. A huge personality has jumped his last freight train. I hope I can honor his spirit a bit by telling of him with an echo of the passion with which he told us about Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Amon Henacy, Frying Pan Jack and countless other people who made up the Other America.

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