R.I.P. Utah Philips


Utah Philips died on May 23, 2008.

I went on a road trip, sort of a pilgrimage, thinking I would find him where I he was living in Nevada City, CA. I didn’t make it that far – my wife and I found a bookstore to peruse instead in one of the little towns on the way, and had to turn back once we realized what time it was. I really regret that now, but you never know. You just never know. I have no idea what I would have said if I found him. I guess I just wanted more of a connection than just hearing his recorded voice.

I have at least four friends whose lives were changed, to a significant degree, by Utah Philips. Not by his music – as a musician, music wasn’t his great strength – but by his stories. He was a towering, tremendous, wondrous repository of stories. He described himself as a sort of story-collector, gathering up reflections of the lives he encountered as he traveled across the country. He was motivated by a moving love of this country, especially moving from my cynical and pessimistic point of view. He was a natural and relentless lover of people.

The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere is still one of my favorite albums of all time, any genre. The album is a collection of Utah’s stories (and one poem) embellished by an evocative soundtrack produced by Ani Difranco. It is incredible. I cry half the time when I listen to it. I try to do three things at least once a year – listen to that album all the way through, read the collected writings of Martin Luther King Jr., and watch the film Gandhi. It is…well, like I said, its changed the lives of at least four of my friends, and a cursory look at what people are saying about his death tells me that this happened to a lot of people when they heard him speak.

Maybe what is most amazing about him is that what he says has such an effortless weight. It just strikes you to the bone as obviously true, clearly true, undeniably true. His life, the lives he has collected stories about, just resonate with my life, even though there’s almost nothing on the surface in common between us. But when he talks about what it means to be alive – its so moving because I’m there with him, somehow.

When I talk about anarchism, Utah’s stories are quietly in the background, sharing the company of theologians and philosophers and revolutionaries. When I talk about pacifism, I am sometimes hearing his voice among all the other voices, which now reaches out to me even from beyond death, to remind me of what is true and beautiful in this world.

Its been a bad year so far for me in terms of people dying who I didn’t expect to die, and whose deaths are impacting me more than I’d expected.

A friend of mine blogged about Utah, and talked about a song that he heard him sing when he saw him in Chicago not long before he died. Here is a direct quote, because he says it better than I can:

The song was a perfectly simple call and response. He sang a line – “Dorothy said, swords into plowshares” and the audience responded “Ship’s gonna sail, gonna sail someday.” The chorus was equally simple:

We’re working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Ship gonna sail, gonna sail someday
Working on a ship, may never sail on it,
Gonna build it anyway.

Utah Phillips never got to sail on the ship. But he lived a life committed to building it, and to teaching others how and why to build it, and to telling the story of how it got to be built thus far. And now, even though we need that guidance as much as we ever have, he’s gone.

Ship’s still gonna sail someday.

Still gonna build it anyway.

But damn if it didn’t just get harder.

I honestly believe that the time for those in this world who worship violence and death and power at the expense of others – their days are numbered. I have to believe that, or else there is no point in believing anything at all. But the waiting until those numbered days run out…its a long, sad wait.

***

Anarchism is defined by The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics as “the view that society can and should be organized without a coercive state.”

“An anarchist is anybody who doesn’t need a cop to tell him what to do.” -Ammon Hennessey, as quoted by Utah Philips

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