By Erika Meyer
It takes a long time to shut up and listen – Utah Phillips
It was 1990, maybe. I saw a poster on campus for a show that looked good, so I went. It was probably a free show – maybe a hat was passed – but I don’t remember. It was held in a brightly lit room with rows of folding chairs and the stage in front. Utah Phillips sat there with his acoustic guitar, his overalls, and his long snow white hair and beard holding us all in rapt attention with his IWW songs and stories about Mother Jones and Joe Hill and feminism and pacifism and his experiences as a worker and a soldier and a train-hopping hobo.
(Ammon Hennacy said) “You came into the world armed to the teeth with an arsenal of weapons, the weapons of privilege: economic privilege, racial privilege, sexual privilege. If you’re gonna be a pacifist you’re not gonna just lay down guns and fists and knives and hard angry words, you’re gonna have to lay down the weapons of privilege and go into the world completely disarmed.” Well, you try that… Ammon died over thirty years ago, and I’m still at it. If there’s one struggle that animates my life, it’s probably that one. – Utah Phillps, Free Radio Santa Cruz & Democracy Now! 2004*
With a performance style similar to that of troubadours like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, Phillips wove stories into songs and songs into stories, his oral history and free-thinking philosophy lubricated with tall tales and jokes. Over the course of the evening he imbued upon me the sense that one could lead one’s life in a fully conscious, indepedent-thinking, and empowered manner. I bought two cassettes on my way out the door and listened to them often.
In the late 1990s I found myself tuning in to Phillips’ Loafer’s Glory nearly every week on southern Humboldt independent radio. There he played his favorite music and shared his favorite stories and talked about his life and his garden and the beauty of the northern California Sierra Nevada foothills where he lived. His radio show was cancelled in 2002. In 2008, he passed on.
Recently, sparked by the Amanda Palmer debate, a couple of songs (and one rhyming poem) that Phillips carried with him have been ringing in my ears. I want to share them here, and dedicate them to everyone in the music industry, especially the musicians.
1. The Preacher and the Slave
The lyrics to this parody of “In The Sweet By-and-By“, were written by Joe Hill. This song lampoons long-haired preachers for offering workers “salvation” while ignoring their STARVATION and suggests that instead of waiting for “pie in the sky”, working people gather together for strength and learn to feed themselves. The Pacific northwest, with its millworkers and longshoremen, was a hotbed of union struggle in the early and mid 20th Century, and songwriting organizers like Joe Hill were instrumental in bringing workers together in solidarity. This version is sung by Harry “Haywire Mac” McClintock.
2. Rebel Girl
In 1915 Hill was accused of murder, and after a (sham of a) trial (he refused to provide the alibi that would “prove” his innocence), he was executed by firing squad. While in jail, and before his death, Joe Hill wrote a song called ‘Rebel Girl’ for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Here it is, sung by Hazel Dickens. Whoever made this video turned it into a tribute to all rebel girls, including Emma Goldman, Helen Keller, Grace Silver, Lucy Parsons, Judy Bari, Mother Jones, Lesbia Harford, Amelia Siblich, Rosie Kane, Carolyn Leckie, Dorothy Day, Charline Sato, Faith Petric, Anne Feeney, Charlotte Anita, Suley Ayala, and Isis Sanez.
3. Hallelujah, I’m A Bum!
According to Utah Phillips, this song was “started” by Haywire Mac and became kind of an open-source folk song. There are many versions, and many different verses, out there. Utah Phillips’ version is still probably my favorite. According to my memory of that night in 1990, he performed it as a sing along – he sang his verses, and we joined in on the chorus. This is an older version, sung by Haywire Mac.
Finally, The Two Bums is a poem in ballad format passed on orally. Utah must have liked it, because he brought it out often. Here it starts about 1:30 (words below), and is followed by Phillips’ anthemic version of ‘Hallelujah, I’m A Bum’.
The Two Bums
The bum on the rods is hunted down
As the enemy of mankind;
The other is driven around to his club
Is feted, wined and dined.
And they who curse the bum on the rods
As the essence of all that is bad,
Will greet the other with a winning smile
And extend him the hand so glad.
The bum on the rods is a social flea
Who gets an occasional bite;
The bum on the plush is a social leech,
Blood-sucking day and night.
The bum on the rods is a load so light
That his weight we scarcely feel,
But it takes the labor of dozens of men
To furnish the other a meal.
As long as you sanction the bum on the plush,
The other will always be there,
But rid yourself of the bum on the plush
And the other will disappear.
Then make an intelligent, organized kick,
Get rid of the weights that crush;
Don’t worry about the bum on the rods,
Get rid of the bum on the plush!
This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 at 9:43 pm. It is filed under Erika Meyer and tagged with Erika Meyer, Fryin' Pan Jack, Harry McClintock, IWW, Joe Hill, union songs, Utah Phillips, wobblies. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
We are Collapse Board. We have no fancy slogans or marketing speak. We love music, and we want to express that love, share that love, communicate that love in whatever way we can – through words, through visuals, through informed discussion and argument, through passion.