Utah Phillips is a folk singer who tours the United States, delighting audiences with his outlandish stories and challenging them with the ruthless honesty of his insights. A veteran of the US Army who served in Korea, he rode the trains for years after coming home in despair from what he’d witnessed overseas. He met Ammon Hennacy in Utah at the Joe Hill House for Transients and Migrants and discovered anarchy and pacifism.
These tenets have since shaped his life and work. Phillips and I live in the same Northern California town, Nevada City, where he was one of the founders of our thriving Peace Center of Nevada County. It was from the community radio station there that he produced Loafer’s Glory, a collection of stories, poems and songs set to the accompaniment of Woody Guthrie-influenced guitarist Mark Ross. And it was to that radio station he went in late September to share with his community an important political decision he’d made, which caused him great difficulty and pain.
You surprised many people who are familiar with your work with your announcement that you were going to register to vote for the first time ever.
This is not easy for me. I’m an anarchist and I’ve been an anarchist many, many years. The anarchy that I’ve followed and practiced all of that time came to me through Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers, through Ammon Hennacy, the great Catholic anarchist and pacifist. Ammond taught me, as he did, to treat his body like a ballot. My body is my ballot. And he said, “Cast that body ballot on behalf of the people around you every day of your life, every day. And don’t let anybody ever tell you you haven’t voted.” You just didn’t assign responsibility to other people to do things. You accept responsibility and see to it that something gets done. That’s the way he lived and that’s the way the past forty, going on fifty, years that I have lived. It’s a way to vote without caving in to the civil authority I’m committed to dissolving.
But, we are in a desperate situation here. And it’s not just us in the United States. There are people all over the world who are affected by these people who have staged a coup on our government. I can see a shopkeeper in Damascus who’s threatened by being bombed out. I can see a schoolgirl who’s collaterally killed by the action of these people. There are millions of people in the world who are affected by the actions of this government, and they can’t vote in this election. I have no use for Kerry. I have no use for Bush. I don’t like either one of them, but these folks can’t vote in this election. They have to have people vote for them. And I intend to be one of those. What’s the best chance they’ve got to keep them from being bombed and killed? I don’t know. Kerry is an unknown quantity. Bush is a known quantity. A crapshoot, isn’t it? But I’m going to stand in for one of these people. And if I’m wrong, I’m wrong by myself.