Celebrate Labor Day with songs and stories by Utah Phillips | TheUnion.com

Celebrate Labor Day with songs and stories by Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips invites community residents to celebrate Labor Day a day early with him when he presents labor songs and stories Sunday at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains in Grass Valley.

“The name of the whole thing will be ‘Labor: untold stories,'” Phillips said Monday. “I’ll talk about the importance of music, of songs of the labor movement from the early 1800s on. Songs historically were a major part of the labor movement. With the advent of television and radio, that has waned in recent years. But it’s coming back because of people like me. There’s a lot of labor singers.”

Phillips learned his songs directly from the source – longtime labor organizers.

“During the early 1900s, the work force in the West was largely immigrants, many of whom spoke little English and had never been to school,” Phillips said. “The songs were used to boil down complex economic ideas into language everyone could understand.”

The labor songs were also beneficial, Phillips noted, because they were used to prevent violence on the picket line.

“Organizers knew that when people were singing, they weren’t throwing bricks or punches,” he said. “I’ll be singing these songs and telling these stories in tribute to those who gave us the eight-hour day, child labor laws and all the things we take for granted today.”

Phillips doesn’t just sing about the labor movement, he belongs to unions, including the American Federation of Musicians, Traveling Musicians Local 1000, of which he was a charter member and recipient of its Lifetime Service to Labor Award in 1997. This is his 50th year as an Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) member.

“I’ve devoted the past 40 years to labor education through song and stories,” said Phillips, who has also sung about riding trains and the common man.

The Nevada City resident just returned from riding freight trains in Santa Cruz so he could connect with the younger generation.

“A lot of young people are on freight trains. I wanted to get close to the young folks and find out what they were thinking,” Phillips said. “I find among these young rail riders a creative spark, imagination, love of adventure and commitment to social change, which gets overlooked when we think of young people on the street.”

Phillips takes the stage Sunday at 11 a.m. His one-hour presentation is free; donations will be accepted for the church.

The Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains is at 246 S. Church St. Call 274-9253 for more information.

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