Jack Saturday

Friday, June 06, 2008

Wise Old Man 4: Utah Philips, May 15, 1935 -- May 23, 2008

“One thing my constitution couldn’t stand is the theory and practice of having a boss… to give your brain to someone else for eight hours in the hope that they'll give it back in an unmutilated condition.”
Utah Philips

Jenny and I were on a BC Ferry from Swartz Bay to Tsawwasen, bound for the Vancouver Folk Fest—I was going to see Utah Philips, the hobo folksinger and storyteller. We sat in the middle of a large seating area toward the bow of the big boat. An old guy with an impressive white beard was walking beside a good-looking older woman. They wended their way around, turned to go find a seat themselves, and Utah Philips came and sat right beside me. The woman was Rosalie Sorrels. We shook hands and chatted. At that time I was not confident enough to engage him, an old Wobbly and philosophical anarchist, on ideas like Guaranteed Livable Income. I was so mad at myself for not doing so that I forced myself to phone a CBC call-in show on work almost as soon as I got back from Vancouver.

I have a clip of Utah talking about his heart condition:

He (a doctor) said ‘are you worried about performing?’ I said look, I’m not a natural, I backed into this trade, this wasn’t a trade of choice, I did it because I got blacklisted in Utah and had to find work. I’ve been sprayed on stage every time I go on, it never changes, I’m a worried, frightened performer. He said ‘OK, if you just hammer your heart with adrenalin for thirty years, you pays your money and you takes your choice.’

Utah Philips had songwriting talent. Johnny Cash wanted to record his songs but Utah didn’t want to buy into the corporate machine. There was plenty of unemployed wealth around that could have saved Mr. Philips from his fear and consequently his death. A simple guaranteed basic livable income, something advocated by half of Nobel economists, and we could have the works of such artists created in leisure without fear of the economic abyss—that is the best soil for the flower of art.

What’s that you say? Artists need their suffering and hardship to make art? Bullshit. William Blake said it:

“…some say that Happiness is not Good for Mortals & they ought to be answerd that Sorrow is not fit for Immortals & is utterly useless to any one-- a blight never does good to a tree & if a blight kill not a tree but it still bear fruit let none say that the fruit was in consequence of the blight.”


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