I will not easily forget the first time I heard U. Utah Phillips tell the story about the Moose Turd Pie.
It was around seven in the morning. I'd just come out of the shower. Somebody was playing a Phillips tape on, I guess KPFA (yes). I nearly swallowed my toothbrush.
In truth, I think I must have heard the story before. But I'd certainly not heard this story nor, come to think of it, any story, so well told with such pith and pace, so scabrously funny.
I made it my business to seek out a Phillips live show as soon as I could. In fact, it wasn't hard: in those days, he made regular appearances at the Palms Playhouse, an inimitable venue for counterculture entertainment at Davis, California, where I was living. I suppose I caught him there half a dozen times over the years before I got distracted and he started reducing his schedule.
Phillips is often billed as a “singer,” some sort of anarchic twin to Pete Seeger. The characterization is accurate only up to a point. For one thing, Phillips was no great shakes as a singer. Granted he could carry a tune well enough, and his voice was loud. But his voice (like his politics?) had no nuance, and his choice of material tended to obscure just those things that made him so wonderful.
But he was (or came very near to being) the best racounteur ever. The moose turd pie left me helpless on the bathroom floor. He did as well, I thought, with the famous last ride on the Goodnight-Loving Trail ("Chief, you can kill me if you want ... !"). And the one about the guy who tried to ventilate his bull with a moose call ("Any guy who don't know the difference..."). And any number of others which elude me at the moment, but which I hope I have somewhere on tape or disk.
Phillips' politics were like Seeger's, broadly speaking, in that they were both anti-establishment. But the differences far outweigh the similarities. Seeger, as I've argued elsewhere, has a manipulative streak that translates into an unwholesome phoniness. Phillips' politics were visceral, instinctive, and (hence) sincere—a sort of a left-wing John McCain. He wasn't a subtle man, and he didn't feel like he had to apologize for his lack of subtlety. He just knew that a lot of people were being screwed over, and he didn't like. He liked to call himself a Wobbly, and it's more than just an exercise in branding. From the beginning, the Wobblies have practiced a brand of leftism more driven by antic energy than by subtle casuistics.
All of which speaks to the other, even more attractive, aspect of Phillips' personality: his compassion, evidently sincere and heartfelt, for “the downtrodden." And not just any downtrodden: Phiillips didn't waste a lot of energy speaking out for innocent babes or for virtue outraged. I suspect he felt that others could do that job as well as or better than he. He saved his pity for the ones that are harder to love—the stumblebums, the ones who sleep on park benches, or huddle around bonfires in old oil drums, and who do not bathe, and who throw up on their shirt.
People, a cynic might say, much like Phillips himself, had providence not given him the grace of a subversive outlook and an antic sense of humor. But providence did give him that grace, and Phillips had the grace to enjoy it, and share.
There are two telling charges against the conventional left: one, that it is driven more by envy than by compassion and two, that it doesn't have a sense of humor. Neither charge is entirely fair, of course, but they are both close enough to the truth that they hurt. Lot of the left does lack a sense of humor, and even when left humorists do try to be funny, they too often fall into tendentiousness and rancor. Phillips in his weaker moments could veer towards tendentious himself But his compassion was vivid and sincere and as a story-teller, he had few peers.
U. Utah Phillips died May 23, 2008, at home in Nevada City, CA. I am among the mourners.
Update: Here it is (link)! Thanks, John.