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.

Farvel til en kæmpe

Utah Philips, found somewhere on the internet.Han ville hade at få de ord hæftet på sig: legende, fyrtårn, kæmpe, et stort menneske. Og jeg synes egentlig det er forkert at stille folk på en piedestal på den måde… Men netop hans æsel-stædige insisteren på menneskelig respekt og ydmyghed er paradoksalt noget af det, der har gjort ham til et så inspirerende menneske, at beskrivelserne alligevel passer. Sorry dude, men du var min helt, hvor meget du end protesterer.

Bruce “Utah” Philips var først og fremmest en brobygger; han byggede bro mellem humor og alvor, mellem fortiden og fremtiden, mellem generationerne og folkeslagene. Sig selv så han mest af alt som en stemme for de døde og glemte, som stadig havde masser at fortælle vor moderne verden – en stemme, som begynderen kan starte med at høre på CD’en The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere, som er lavet i samarbejde med visesangeren Ani DiFranco.

Han byggede bro, men han kendte venner fra fjender. Han byggede aldrig bro mellem undertrykkerne og de undertrykte, han forsøgte aldrig at undskylde kold misbrug af menneskeliv. Benhårdt og ætsende, med stor menneskekendskab og viden om historien, anklagede han krigsmagere, menneskefjendske arbejdforhold, racistiske politikere og kyniske autoritetspersoner.

Han havde varme, sjæl og humor. Han elskede de skæve eksistenser, de store slidere og den ligefremme ærlighed lige så meget som han hadede bornerthed, hykleri og mennesklig kulde. Han var en lun og lidt fjollet humorist og en ætsende revser; han kunne få tingene ned på jorden og tale i et dagligdags sprog, som alle kunne forstå. Men det var ikke almindeligheder og banaliteter, han fortalte – han fortalte vittigheder og skurvognsanekdoter side om side med historier fra sin tid som soldat i Korea i 50’erne, levende beskrivelser af stærke personligheder, revolutionære sange og glødende appeller om medmenneskelighed, fred og solidaritet.

Han var en eksponent for den del af USAs historie, som Hollywood gerne vil have os til at glemme. For militærnægterne, for de strejkende arbejdere, som udover fattigdommen måtte forsvare sig mod væbnede paramilitære kops for at opbygge et værdigt samfund i USA under industrialiseringen.  For de kræfter, som betalte dyrt for at nægte at deltage i de militære eventyr i den anden ende af verden. For alle de mennesker, som kæmpede hårdt for at trække USA i retning af et solidarisk, menneskeværdigt samfund, hvor ikke bare de abstrakte friheder, men også mad på bordet og tag over hovedet var en menneskeret, som ikke måtte nægtes nogen. Kræfter, som om nogen opbyggede Amerika, og som idag mødes med fortielse, forglemmelse og forklejnelse fra det oficielle corporate USA.

Hans mission er godt sammenfattet i billedet ovenfor, som jeg her:

Børn har ikke en lillebror, som arbejder i kulminerne. Børn har ikke en lillesøster, som hoster sine lunger ud i væverierne i de store stofmøllebyer i Nordøsten. Hvorfor? Fordi vi organiserede os! Vi knækkede nakken på dette lands sweat shops. Vi har love imod børnearbejde. Disse love er ikke storsindede gaver givet os af en kompetent ledelse. Der blev kæmpet for dem, blødt for dem, folk døde for dem. Arbejdende mennesker døde for dem, folk som os. Børn bør vide den slags… Det er derfor jeg synger de her sange. Det er derfor jeg fortæller de her historier, fandeme! Uden rødder, ingen frugter!

Utah døde mens han sov. Hans hjerte, som havde givet ham problemer i omkring 15 år, holdt op med at slå. En stor personlighed er hoppet på sit sidste godstog vestpå. Jeg håber, jeg kan ære hans ånd en smule ved at fortælle historien om ham, på samme måde som han fortalte historierne om Joe Hill, Mother Jones, Elisabeth Flynn, Amon Henacy, Frying Pan Jack og utallige andre personer, der har formet det andet USA.