Of Mentors and Intellectuals

A recent loss reminds Rob Weir of the importance of looking for ideas in unorthodox places.

May 29, 2008

The last strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” have ascended into the ether and the world’s remaining sheep graze secure in the knowledge that their skins are safe for another year. Graduates and their mentors are left with memories of the bittersweet ceremony in which the hope of possibility commingled with the sadness of parting. Some graduates -- especially those whose immediate futures are richer in ideas than job offers -- will continue to solicit advice from their professors, but we might do well to perform a final act of guidance and (gently) encourage them to find new mentors. Remind them to look in unorthodox places.

I’m thinking of this because on May 23, just hours before the last graduation ceremonies took place in western Massachusetts where I live and work, I lost a mentor when Bruce “Utah” Phillips died. He was about as far from the hallowed halls of academia as one can get, but he’s the reason I’m in higher ed. That’s because he mentored in pragmatic things such as how to see the world, how to extend one’s education, and how to live.

If you’re not a folk music fan, you’ve probably never heard of Phillips, but his biography would enliven any lesson on social activism, organic intellectuals, or grassroots public scholarship. He was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935 to labor organizer parents, but his life took a left turn when the Army sent him to Korea in 1956. That experience left him so shaken by the wastefulness and devastation left by the recent war that today we’d probably think Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. For Phillips it was an intellectual crisis that expressed itself in alienation, wanderlust, and self-education. At about the age of our graduates, Phillips became the Dean Moriarty of the rails. He dropped out of society, hopped freight trains, lived in hobo jungles, wrote songs, and joined the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), though its radical views invited persecution during the ongoing Red Scare.

Luckily for Phillips, he jumped off a boxcar in Salt Lake City, where he met Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Workers Movement. Hennacy helped Phillips kick a booze habit, channel his discontent, and let his natural curiosity, humor, intellect, and musicality guide him. For six years Phillips worked at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter, where he added to his hobo repertoire, read voraciously, became a pacifist, played music, dabbled in politics, and acquired his nickname, “Utah.” Later he’d refer to life on the bum and at the shelter as his “university education,” and it’s hard to argue with that. By the time he left Utah and hit the folk music circuit in 1969, he was a man who knew what he believed and could cite chapter and verse why. Plus, he’d make you laugh until your sides ached. But I wouldn’t discover that for another 10 years.

Phillips became a mentor, depending on how you parse such things, by serendipity or grand plan. In 1979 I was newly married, living near Burlington, Vermont, and reveling in escape from my backwater Pennsylvania hometown. A poster tacked to wall of Burlington’s all-too-aptly-named Warehouse Hall advertised “U. Utah Phillips -- the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest.” Who could pass up a promised evening of songs, stories, and “lies?” “Golden Voice” was actually one of the “lies;” as Phillips joked of his non-mellifluous voice, “I can make it loud or soft, depending.” As an even worse singer, I admired the moxie of his raw performance, but the stories floored me.

By then I was finishing an M.A. in medieval history at Shippensburg University, and I was so enthralled by Phillips’s yarns about the Wobblies and rushed up to tell him, “Mr. Phillips, I never heard any of these stories during my years in college.” He crinkled his eyes, told me to knock off the mister crap, and replied, “Well, young man, let me tell you...” and proceeded to do exactly that. I finished my M.A. after using an elective to take a labor history course from the late Richard McLeod, an important intellectual mentor. That wouldn’t have happened without the Warehouse Hall evening. Nor would I have entered the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1986, where I learned American labor history from one its best practitioners: Bruce Laurie.

I can never repay McLeod or Laurie, nor can I shake Phillips’ accidental mentoring. We never became close friends, but our paths crossed, mostly because I’m also a music reviewer. By the 1980s, Phillips was a part-time folksinger and a full-time character, but he was always generous with his time and couldn’t resist sharing his treasure trove of tales. I told him I became a labor historian because of him, but he was never terribly impressed by official credentials (and there’s a lesson for all of us). Before he died he spun tales on a radio show, did work with Ani DiFranco, and worked at a homeless shelter near his home in Nevada City, California, stuff he cared about more than titles.

What I learned from Phillips was universal stuff we all need to learn -- profs and graduates alike. He taught me that my discipline is history and if the tale one tells is so full of historical “forces” and “material conditions” that there’s no room for people, why would anyone want to hear it? He taught me that neither life nor its best stories are found in textbooks, and that more people sleep on floor mats than on the top bunk, so if you want to teach something accessible seek out the voices and experiences of the common folk. As he put it, “No root, no fruit.” He showed that sometimes fruits are metaphorical. Phillips instructed through the lure of lore -- that a whopper decoded can reveal more about what people really think than official pronouncements. He certainly taught that music enriches all of life. (For historians, his collections of IWW music are primary source gold.)

Phillips was also the sworn enemy of pretense and was the practiced master of self-deprecating humor. I learned from him not to use big words and invented terms if plain speech will do and not to take myself too seriously. By example he showed that praxis makes perfect, and that one has responsibilities as well as rights. (I’ve read a lot of philosophy, but being a fly on the wall of an exchange between Phillips, Si Kahn, and Tom Paxton is the best ethics lesson I’ve ever had.) What else? Patriots aren’t the same as parrots. A touch of showmanship can be a good thing. Whenever possible take the wind from the sails of ideologues and bloviators -- especially if you’re the guilty party! Preaching is a form of intellectual scabbing, so let people make up their own minds. Laugh, dammit. You never know when you’re doing good, so just try to do it. Laugh some more, dammit. And always remember, “A long memory is the most radical idea in America.”

Now that the caps and gowns have been mothballed we should remind our graduates that education isn’t confined to classrooms, that it doesn’t end with sheepskins, and that how one lives is more important than philosophizing about life’s meaning. Encourage them to seek organic intellectuals and new mentors. Tell them to leave you behind and hop their own boxcar (figuratively, one hopes!) and see where it drops them off.


Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of five books, is the executive secretary of the Northeast Popular/American Culture Association, and reviews folk music for Sing Out! Magazine, The Valley Advocate, Global Rhythm, and Celtic Heritage.


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