Lauded for a labor of love
Utah Phillips’ work of the past 35 years was validated once again Monday night as he received a national award for his commitment to the labor movement.
Nevada City folk musician Phillips received the Joe Hill Award for Arts in Labor at the 26th annual Great Labor Arts Exchange in Washington, D.C. Union members, union staff, union officials, artists and labor educators who link art with bolstering the labor movement attended the three-day arts exchange sponsored by the Labor Heritage Foundation.
Although by now Phillips is used to receiving awards – including the 1997 North American Folk Alliance lifetime achievement award, which Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie also received – Monday’s lifetime achievement award was particularly significant to Phillips.
That’s because he considers individuals such as labor songwriter Joe Hill, who also campaigned for working class causes and belonged to Industrial Workers of the World, as his mentors.
“It’s a very odd thing to say,” Phillips said Friday before flying to Washington to receive his award, “but most of my great teachers were born in the century before last (the late 1800s). I met them when they were old men and women. They’re the ones who lived the struggle for the eight-hour day, the child labor laws, the mine safety laws, all the things we have today that are taken for granted.”
Decades after learning about their experiences, Phillips said he is honored to share their historic stories at union meetings, concert halls and festivals across the country.
“In the telling, late at night in some cheap bar or mission, I received a history of our working people,” Phillips said. “This was more powerful, more exciting and ultimately more useful than the best history book I ever read.”
Monday’s award was accepted in behalf of these elders, including all the hard-rock miners, loggers and mill hands who, according to Phillips, “led those extraordinary lives which could never be lived again.”
“The labor movement is to help the working class get back the wealth,” Phillips said. “The working class is anyone who has a boss and works for wages. Whether you’re a college professor or a ditch digger, if you’re either, you better be proud of it.”
Phillips doesn’t just sing about labor issues; he is just as active in unions. Besides belonging to Industrial Workers of the World for 50 years, Phillips is a lifetime and charter member of American Federation of Musicians, Traveling Musicians Local 1000 and a member of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers Union Local 598 in Sudberry, Ontario, and the Canadian Auto Workers unions.
Even before Phillips was given the lifetime achievement award Monday night, festival attendees already were praising him.
“Besides being so musically competent in his stage presence, his experiences have given authenticity to his art and to his actions,” said Martha Cohen of the Seattle Labor Chorus that afternoon. Monday night, her group would sing with Phillips, marking their fourth collaboration in the past few years.
“He’s fantastic, he’s walked the talk, he’s been there, he knows what he’s singing about,” Cohen added. “The story is only as memorable as the telling; with him, we’re in music labor 101.”
Shelley Kessler, a board member of the Labor Heritage Foundation, which is part of the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), has admired Phillips for 18 years.
“We’re honoring Utah because of his many years of dedicated agitation on behalf of workers and against the power structure that keeps them downtrodden,” Kessler said. “He’s considered to be a thorn in the side of the bosses and proud of it. We’re trying to train laborites to be cultural activists. People did not learn solidarity on the Top 10 hit parade. Utah’s an inspiration for us.”
Performing nationally every month, Utah Phillips will appear locally during the “New Old Time Chautauqua” shows Aug. 6 and Aug. 7 at the Center for the Arts in Grass Valley.
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