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Utah Phillips campaigns Saturday at Kuumbwa

Utah Phillips campaigns Saturday at Kuumbwa


January 9, 2003
Sentinel staff writer

If U. Utah Phillips is ever elected president, he promises to do nothing.
ďI promise I will sit in the White House, scratch my butt and shoot pool,Ē said Phillips, storyteller, archivist, folksinger, peace activist, Grand Duke of Hobos and candidate on the Sloth and Indolence ticket.
Is the man, who performs Saturday night at the Kuumbwa, as lazy as he claims? Phillips says he learned the art of storytelling to avoid work. He just wants the rest of us to get out and change the world ourselves.
Telling stories and singing songs of workers and hobos, Phillips has been spreading the message of spirited self-determination and social change for more than 30 years. Though congestive heart failure has slowed his touring schedule in recent years, he still manages to raise a ruckus closer to home.
Phillips took time to talk to us from Nevada City about anarchy and exaggeration.

What do your stories and songs have to offer us now?

Utah Phillips: For many years I sought out elders who had lived lives of struggle. Many were immigrant loggers or miners who had committed their lives to struggle.
I have sat with them in small rooms and flop houses on skid row. When they gave me their stories, they gave me the substance of their lives.
They were extraordinary lives that canít be lived again. They were passionate and made a commitment for which there is no language.
At some point I realized what I had inherited and decided to put that into the world. I become their voice.
The question that comes out of the stories is: ďYou young people. with all you have, how can you do the same?Ē

How can we take those examples and apply them in such a different world?

Phillips: Itís a different world, but itís the same in many ways. The boss is still the boss.
People who work for wages are in the working class, whether theyíre a logger or work in a fast-food restaurant.
People in the working class have something in common, whether youíre a ditch digger or a college professor, and that is class consciousness. How you act on that is class struggle.
Some people say that class struggle is over, but it isnít. Itís been going on for thousands of years, and it goes on every day when you go to work.

Are your stories all true?

Phillips: Most of the stories Iíve collected are really tall tales, wild exaggerations, fabrications and Iíve made up my share. Iím a storyteller and a folk singer.
There isnít anything more lethal than an evening of political music. I canít just do an evening of class-conscious music, so I tell stories.
Whatís become important to me, particularly if Iím going to leave home and go some distance to sing, there ought to be something I want to get at.
And right now that has to do with war and oil.

Are you still learning songs and stories?

Phillips: I always make songs. Itís like breathing.
Take for instance the people found dead in a grain car in Denison, Iowa. They were migrants from a small village in Mexico.
I look around for a song about that. If I find one, I learn it and sing it. If itís just a story, Iíll turn it into a song. I never run out of things to make songs about.
Stories are a little more difficult. With this congestive heart failure, I canít get out as much. Before I got sick, I was visiting 120 cities a year and talking to people. Now Iím going out of town only once or twice a month, so I feel marooned.

So you need to talk to more people in the towns you visit?

Phillips: With coming down to Santa Cruz, Iíve been in training to give a serious burst of energy.
I want to learn more about the Homeless Garden, and find out if the Anarchist Cafe is still happening.
I want to check in on Free Radio Berkeley and get together with the Hobos From Hell, those great freight train riders.
So I store up energy like a battery. Go into training. Iím real careful about my diet. I get plenty of sleep and exercise and go to cardiac rehab class at the hospital.

Are you gearing up for your presidential campaign?

Phillips: Campaigning would be antithetical.
Itís really the campaign of You for President. Elect yourself to be president of the United States of You.
You can do things cheaper and better than they can by forming voluntary combinations with other people, and getting the work of the world done without boss and without state. Thatís what anarchy is about.
Iím working with a young peopleís group called Youth Against Whateverís Next. YAWN. Weíre getting ready for the next elections.

Anarchyís a pretty misunderstood concept these days.

Phillips: Oh, it has been since 1886 and the Haymarket Riot in Chicago. That movement was the beginning of the fight for the eight-hour day. It was an anarchist rally and someone threw a bomb, but they never found out who.
Since then, the image of the anarchist has been the guy with the bushy beard with the round bomb with the fuse sticking out. A lot of people think that anarchy means chaos. But anarchy is the exact opposite.
The main struggle I have with young anarchists is that they assume anarchy means ďyou canít tell me what to do,Ē when in fact it means ďyouíve got to learn to tell yourself what to do.Ē
If you assert the right and ability to make just and humane decisions in your life and if, when you blow it, you look at it as a chance to change then youíre an anarchist.
Contact Nancy Redwine atnredwine (at)
If you go

WHAT: Utah Phillips in concert.
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
WHERE: Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz.
TICKETS: $21 plus service charges. Available at EtcEtcEtc Antiques or online at
DETAILS: 479-9421.

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