Posts Tagged ‘Labour Songs’


Only a matter of days after I wrote about Utah Phillips here, this old Wob has passed on. Rather than write anything more myself, I’ll simply refer those who don’t know him to this video, and copy here the words of Jim Page that are circulating.

Rest well, comrade.


In the night of May 23, 2008, Bruce Duncan Phillips died in great peace,
asleep in his bed in Nevada City, California, with his wife Joanna by his

Amazingly, at the very same instant that the scholar Bruce Phillips finally
discovered his angle of repose, U. Utah Phillips flagged a westbound freight
train. Yes, a mighty fast rattler, on a long west-bound track. He needed no
ticket, he was welcomed on board.

The immediate family and neighbors of Bruce Phillips, along with any
Wobblies who happen to be passing through, are gathering in Nevada City to
do all the things that must be done. Please give them the quiet respect they
so need right now.

But you can wave “So Long!” to Utah when that train moves west. Hey, hear
the whistle? He’s passing by right now!


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I was 15 years old, and a friend of my folks’ made a few tapes of political music for me to take along for our year in Zimbabwe. That’s where I discovered Billy Bragg, Little Steven and a whole host of others. And it’s where I found Bruce “Utah” Phillips – storyteller, songwriter, keeper of the oral history of American workers.

Utah’s a wobbly – a member of the Industrial Workers of the World – and he’s the reason I became a wobbly, too. That first bit of music came off his We Have Fed You All for A Thousand Years, an album recorded during a tour he did of the Pactific Northwest in the 80s, exclusively of songs and stories out of the early radical union movement.

I listened to it intently, over and over, learning every one of those songs. I raced out and found whatever I could on the history of lahour generally, and the IWW in particular. I spoke to my grandfather and other elders who’d been active in their own unions, gathering their recollections and myths and songs. And then at some rally or other I got handed a copy of the Industrial Worker and saw for the first time that this old IWW was still kicking around. Not only that, it was being rejuvenated.

After a lengthy decline after being identified as the greatest domestic threat to US capital and state – a status that resulted in the imprisonment, exile and murder of countless organizers – the Wobs were for a long time a relic, more a historical society than anything else. But now, around 1990, this was union that was growing. Judi Bari and other EarthFirst!ers had come in, and were actively organizing around the northern California redwoods. Strippers at San Francisco’s “Lusty Lady” were talking union, and work was being done to organize collectives among sex workers. And it kept growing, particularly in those places of work disproportionately populated by over-educated and under-employed twenty-somethings – Starbucks, bike couriers, student newspapers including Langara College’s Gleaner right here in Vancouver.

Well I signed myself up, of course, getting my first red card in early 1991 and heading down to San Fran for that year’s IWW Convention, crashing with Clif Ross, a writer and radical who lived just outside of town. I watched and learned and marvelled. Utah sang and story-told. Judi and Darryl Cherney brought new music from the redwood struggle, and talked about the FBI campaign against them. (She’d been hurt in a car bombing a year earlier – then promptly accused of knowingly-carrying those explosives and plotting terror. I’ll try to blog on it in the future, but for now you can get the basics of her story here.)

Since that time I’ve only kept up my wob membership very intermittently. I was around for a while, engaging in the debates, doing some writing for the newspaper and so on. But it lapsed as I travelled and studied. I never stopped thinking of myself as a wob, though, whether dues-paying or not.

Anyway, back to Utah.

After a stint in the Army he worked a variety of jobs and wrote some songs, eventually falling in with Ammon Hennacy and the Catholic Workers – rooted in an earlier and more anarchist version of the radical Catholicism I’d find around the Central American revolutionary movement in the 1980s. Utah lived and worked in Hennacy’s Joe Hill house in Salt Lake City – Catholic Workers fairly regularly set up collective homes on the skids in various places, offering open doors, food, and so on for whoever needs them, and trouble-making as much as possible while they’re at it.

And then, when that house closed its doors in the late 1960s, it was mostly music for Utah, so he’s spent the last several decades writing, recording, performing, seeking out old stories, making up new ones, and generally trying to keep alive the tradition of political organization and education through song and humour and oral history.

Utah had his birthday the other day, but he’s not doing as much singing anymore. Heart trouble has plagued him for the last number of years, and he’s had to undergo some pretty extensive medical treatment. As you can imagine, singing on picket lines and telling radical stories ain’t much as a get-rich-quick scheme, no matter how much Ani DiFranco talks about ya.  So – and only now do we get to the real reason for posting this at all – Utah’s friends are in support mode, with benefit concerts being held across the States, and folks raising money to make sure this elder gets the care he needs.

To give some love and solidarity in the only form capitalism knows, visit here.

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Workers Cabaret

One of the things that’s been most exciting these past few months has been the re-kindling of my love of singing and guitar-playing. And particularly my soft spot for old labour tunes and protest songs. For the first time in quite a while I’ve been running through Joe Hill and the wobbly singer-organizers, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs and John Prine, It’s a blast, and has reminded me how much of a difference daily singing can make to my emotional state.

And if there’s one thing better than singing, it’s someone to sing with. Meg and I have been trading songs, learning some new ones, laughing as we stumble over wrong chords and forgotten lyrics. And those are some of the moments I most look forward to with her.

So I was especially thirlled with her suggestion that we pull together a few songs and play at a Workers’ Cabaret that’s held once a month at a local bar.

Yes, The End on Commercial Drive hosts these nights of labour ballads and resistance songs, and we’ve decided to throw ourselves into the mix sometime soon. No dates yet for our own singing – first we’ve got a pick out a few songs and practice up – but May 15 is the next Cabaret. My parenting schedules might keep me away that night, but I’ll see what I can do. And in any event, Meg will check our the scene and report back. I’m excited just at the prospect of hearing about it.

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