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Labor Day & U. Utah Phillips


I wanted to do a post honoring our Labor history. I got my first clue of what that past was like when I was given a tape of some labor union songs by my friend Jane Blume's husband, Phil. The songs "Joe Hill" and "Pie in the Sky" with lyrics like "don't mourn-- organize!"-- and "Work all day, live on hay, you'll get pie in the sky when you die-- now, that's a lie," opened my eyes to a past of workers who gave everything, their lives, their bodies to fight for better working conditions in this country. Things that we take for granted, the eight-hour day, the forty-hour work week, even weekends were fought for, not given by the powers that be.

This "American way" was fought for by immigrants, men and women, who faced off policemen with billy clubs, deportation and imprisonment and violent death. The Blumes didn't have to tell me any history, because it was all right there in the songs. That's why I recommend this Labor Day to take some time from hitting the sales, or the bbq and go out and buy this album, Fellow Workers featuring the storytelling and songs of the labor movement and sung by U. Utah Phillips and Ani DiFranco. I was fortunate to get to know and listen to the stories of U. Utah Phillips when I lived in Nevada City, California, where he lives. It was an amazing education about our history.

In a review by Blogcritics.org, reviewer Richard Marcus says:
They are the stories of the men and women who fought for the right to work only eight hours a day, for safe working conditions, and for the dignity of working men and women across the United States. From the textile mills of Laurence Maine to the lumber camps of Spokane Washington the strikes and personal stories are recounted with reverence and dignity.

He tells us of Mother Jones, who at 83 was named the most dangerous woman in America by Teddy Roosevelt. She spent her whole life agitating for a better life for the miners of Kentucky and all the other coal producing states. We hear how when the Governor of Colorado sent out the militia to disburse the miners she went out on her own to face them down and won.

We learn about the young women who were sold into near slavery in the textile mills of Laurence; girls shipped over from France and the low countries in Europe who could speak no English and who were wedded to the looms. How that during an awful strike they had to send their children away to homes as far off as New York to ensure that they would be fed. That during the walk to the train station they were attacked by the militia in an attempt to break their spirit.

We are told of the attempts to silence Union organizers in the logging camps out in Washington by passing ordinances prohibiting public speaking. And how in response the unions gathered all the workers and lined them up for blocks and each one would climb up a soap box and start to speak only to be arrested. The cost of feeding four thousand workers proved too great so they had to rescind the law.

Utah's story telling is magnificent, his enthusiasm for the subject matter combined with an imposing gift for narrative make this collection both entertainment and an education. At times the musical accompaniment is appropriate, during the occasional song for instance("Pie In The Sky" is a hilarious send up of "The Sweet Bye and Bye" and the version on this c.d. is particularly good) but I'd have preferred they had left Utah's stories to stand on their own.

Although, Loafer's Glory, his old radio show on KVMR, the local community radio station in Nevada City is no more-- it lost it's sponsorship, you can order copies of his tapes from his website.

Here is an excerpt from a recent interview with Unlikely 2.0 in 2005:
"GR: Anyone familiar with your work is aware of the wealth of knowledge you possesses about the history of this country. The stuff that isn't taught in any high school textbook. What compelled you to seek out this information, collect it, and share it with other people?
UP: The world that I inhabit, the one that I have created for myself, is built out of speakers and listeners. I'm more comfortable in that world. I learn more easily from sitting in front of somebody and asking them questions and listening to what their answers than I do from books. I respect books. I have many of them around me. But I keep them in their place. The people that I've sought out lived extraordinary lives that just can't be lived again. And most of my great teachers were born in the century before last. I met many of them when they were my age now, seventy. Those were the immigrant workers, the industrial workers. They were the people working down at the bottom, in the forest, in the mines, in the wheat harvest. Old Jack Miller, who ran the Citizen's Center up in Seattle, Washington, once said, 'When we started in the forest, we spoke two different languages, and most of us had never been to school, and we couldn't read or write. We lived in our emotions, and we were comfortable there. We made decisions in our lives for which there is no language. We made commitments to change, to struggle for which there are no words. But those commitments carried us through fifty or sixty years of struggle. You show me people who make the same commitments intellectually, and I don't know where they'll be next week.' And then he added to that hardest of all things, he said that, 'We, speaking all those languages, hardly speak to each other. Armed only with our degradation as human beings, we came together and changed the conditions of our labor and the conditions of our lives. You young people, with all you've got, why can't you do that?' Now, that's a very serious charge to lay at our feet."
Jacqueline Keeler
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