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Something everlastingly true about riding freight trains is that it's boring," says U. Utah Phillips. Among other disparate and curious credentials, he is a songwriter, a poet, a storyteller, a peace activist, a broadcaster, a collaborator with Ani DiFranco, and a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World -- a Wobbly. And, for five decades, he has worked in the tradition of humming, strumming rail riders like Woody Guthrie and Ramblin' Jack Elliott, whose cars pulled them west and whose politics leaned left. Phillips, however, was never part of the '60s Folk Revival -- he barely even knew it was happening. Then, just as now, he stood apart from the pack of folkies and singing hobos.
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"I think that the romance [of riding rails] gets pounded out of you after the fourth or fifth try because those empties, they ride rough when there's nothin' in 'em, and I had to ride 'em for a thousand miles squatting on my heels because you couldn't sit down without getting pounded to death. The jolly hobo singing with his guitar? You can't hear anything! Too loud," he exclaims.
No one would dare describe Phillips as a jolly hobo, though he'd make a jolly Santa with his full head of gray hair, great gray beard, and gentle manner. It's the middle of a November day in Nevada City, the one-time gold mining town near the Sierra Foothills, and Phillips is dressed in coveralls, a red plaid shirt, red bow tie, and felt fedora; he looks the picture of traditional mining town resident and iconoclastic codger. Within minutes of walking the downtown promenade, he settles inside his cozy farmhouse up the road a piece. "Three years ago, Nevada City had a downtown barbershop, a hardware store, a movie theater, and a drugstore," he says. "Those have all been upscaled, mainly by the landlords who wanted to make more money, mainly boutiques, wine shops, and so on. So there's not a lot of reason for the people who live here who need those services to go into town. We all love Nevada City, but people go to Grass Valley or to Brunswick, one of America's great shopping cities, for their services."
Phillips first discovered the area in the late '70s, and he and his wife have called it home for over 20 years. He has made it his business to know his history, not only of the Sierra Foothills, but of the people and regions he visits about once a month in other parts of the country, guitar in hand, as a traveling raconteur -- recent congestive heart failure and continuing treatment notwithstanding.
Born Bruce Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935, Phillips' family relocated to Utah, that bastion of Mormondom, in 1947. His father owned a movie theater that premiered the classics of the day and featured live entertainment, while his mother worked for the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the union group that ultimately merged with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). His upbringing had a two-pronged effect on the young Phillips: He loved the arts, but perhaps more significantly, when Phillips' mother insisted the ropes that segregated races in her husband's theater come down, the Phillips clan made Utah history. After an unsuccessful escape to Yellowstone by freight train to work for the National Park Service and a few other attempts at running away from home, Phillips served as a soldier in the Korean War. He had picked up the ukulele as a kid and strummed a bit around campfires during his rail-riding years; overseas, he played in a canteen band.
Upon his return from the war, feeling angry and dispossessed, he hopped the rails again in an effort to find a place and pound it out of his system. It didn't work. But something happened during that time overseas and in those bumpy cars: Phillips experienced an awakening of sorts. During the late '50s, Phillips found a mentor in Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a religious pacifist and labor organizer who was contributing his services at the Catholic Workers House. Hennacy, perhaps best known for his fasting in protest of prisoners awaiting execution, ultimately died of a heart attack on a protest line in 1970, but by then he had already helped co-found and oversaw the Joe Hill Houses of Hospitality (named for the martyred Wobbly organizer, songwriter, and subject of many songs himself, the most famous of which is "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night").
"Ammon told me I had to learn to become a pacifist to save my life, just like an alcoholic has to learn to go into the program to save his life," says Phillips. "I found out from Ammon, all that takes is courage. Courage is the principal virtue, because without it you can't practice any of the others." It was also Hennacy who contributed to Phillips' "conversion" into a political or topical songwriter; when Phillips speaks of him, it is with the hushed tones that one reserves for the people whose lives and work have profoundly changed one's own. In 1968, Phillips ran a serious campaign for Senate in Utah as a Peace and Freedom candidate. He won 600 votes, and when he returned to work, his job was gone. "I couldn't get work in the state anywhere. That's why I'm sitting here right now. I had to leave Utah. Ammon told me, 'Some people learn things the hard way and you're one of them.' I've never forgotten it. After a long period of rubbing against the world from place to place, I realized what Ammon was up to: There are more fundamental changes that need to take place before the ballot box works."
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