Utah Phillips: The Little "Caboose' That Did

I was shocked to find it was still there: the flanger where Utah Phillips lived when he recorded four records for Philo Records. On a rainy July day, I slogged across a muddy North Ferrisburgh, Vermont field populated by bemused llamas to pay my respects to an accidental mentor.

Sometimes we choose our mentors, sometimes they choose us, and sometimes it just happens. With Utah, it could only be the last of these. I don't think there's an adequate word in the English language to capture his special blend of spontaneity, eccentricity, cantankerousness, charm, and free-spiritedness. He could get organized, but mostly he preferred not to. I wouldn't say we were friends—more like casual correspondents who occasionally met at folk festivals and concerts. I suppose he must have planned his touring schedule and I know he had a few publicists, but it always seemed as if Phillips blew into town—even back in 1979, when first we met in Burlington and he was living in that old railroad car about 40 minutes away. This was my introduction to his colorful tales about the "Wobblies," members of the Industrial Workers of the World. 

Much as Samuel Clemens performed Mark Twain, Duncan Bruce Phillips (1935-2008) inhabited the persona of U. Utah Phillips, "the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest." Nice moniker for a guy actually born in Cleveland! He was a master storyteller because his life—though not always easy—was so rich and varied he never lacked for material. At turns he worked in a vaudeville house, did a stint in the military, organized for the Wobblies, and was a hobo of the jumping freight trains variety. He also struggled with alcoholism and nihilism for a time, which turned out to be a good baptism of fire. He eventually drifted into Salt Lake City, where he met Ammon Hennacy, an anarchist activist with the Catholic Worker Movement. Hennacy allegedly asked Phillips if he intended to do something worthwhile or be a cynical bum his entire life. Phillips ended up helping him run the Joe Hill House, a combination shelter, settlement house, and community center. All of this was great stuff for a gravely voiced guy honing his guitar skills, building up a repertoire of hobo and labor songs, and discovering that humor was a more effective weapon than cynicism. By most accounts, Rosie Sorrels (1933-2017) encouraged Phillips to take up the folk music circuit and the two became lifelong friends. 

Sometime around 1968 or 1969—rolling stones seldom circle things on the calendar—Phillips made his way to Vermont, paid $500 for an old rail car from the Central Vermont Railroad, and hauled it into the side yard of what was then Philo Records. It looks like a caboose, but a flanger is actually a retrofitted boxcar. Rolling stones don't tend to collect a lot of excess gear either. Although Utah's flanger has been empty since the 1980s, it never had much in it: clothes, a small wood stove, two berths, a bookshelf, odds and ends….  I always intended to visit him there. When I told him I was most of the way through an MA back in '79 but had never heard most of the stories he related about the Wobs, he volunteered to tell me more—as long as I promised never to call him "Mr. Phillips" again as long as either of us lived!

You know how it goes. Because it could happen anytime, it never did. I learned lots of stories from Utah, but at the aforementioned concerts and festivals, by U.S. Mail, from his records, and (later) email. I was busy as a high school teacher, he was on the road, I was probably a tad too shy, and good intentions never paved the road to North Ferrisburgh. We both moved from Vermont in the 1980s and I simply assumed his "caboose" was long gone. Then I heard of a campaign to raise money to have it moved to California, where his son Duncan hopes to convert it to a Utah Phillips museum. This time I had to see it before it was gone for good.

About the mentor thing: Utah impacted me several ways. As a historian, I learned from him the enormous power of a good tale. Unlike the born-to-embellish Phillips, I tried to make mine true, but I'm not above strategic improvements upon reality. This is especially the case when it comes to using humor. I've had lots of people who taught me more about the discipline of being a scholar, but none who made it as much fun. What's more fun that someone who ran for political office on the Sloth and Indolence ticket? Phillips made me see that those tales, songs, facts, and small struggles that seldom make the history books tell us more about what actually happened in the past than airbrushed official narratives. I wish I had Utah's knack for being simultaneously cranky and funny but, to date, I mostly do them one at a time.

I do not exaggerate when I say that he was one of three people who made me into a labor historian. I've done some things that might be remembered but in my mind, one of the coolest accomplishments is that that both Utah Phillips and Pete Seeger read a chapter of my doctoral dissertation. Maybe that's not much, but—to use the title of one of Utah's records—I'm glad I saw the old flanger and told this tale because "the telling takes me home."

Rob Weir 

No comments: