Utah Phillips and other dead patriots
Posted by James McPherson on May 25, 2008
This is the weekend that we honor those who died while serving their country. I also appreciated Bob Schieffer’s “Face the Nation” words from this morning: “Let us remember as well the wounded, those who came home from the battle not as God made them, but as war has left them.” Schieffer’s comments came after he offered a short eulogy for Jimmy Carter’s former chief of staff Hamilton Jordan, who died last week.
Of course this weekend is and should be primarily about dead soldiers, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice while trying to defend the nation’s values. Their service is not made less honorable–though it is more tragic–because their deaths were often unnecessary, precipitated by criminally stupid national leaders who themselves sacrificed almost nothing. But the Memorial Day weekend also has become a time for many families to remember other loved ones who have died, and I would like to take the opportunity to note a couple of other men who died in the past couple of days.
One of my favorite patriots, Utah Phillips, died Friday night. He was a former homeless hobo and Korean War veteran who became famous as a folk singer and storyteller (coincidentally, I quoted him in a post just last week). After serving for three years in the military he became a pacifist and a major supporter of workers’ rights. I have a brief recording of Phillips reciting World War I anti-war poetry, which I use in my media history class. One of the poems, titled “I Love My Flag,” goes:
I love my flag, I do, I do.
Which floats upon the breeze,
I also love my arms and legs,
And neck, and nose and knees.
One little shell might spoil them all
Or give them such a twist,
They would be of no use to me;
I guess I won’t enlist.
I love my country, yes, I do
I hope her folks do well.
Without our arms, and legs and things,
I think we’d look like hell.
Young men with faces half shot off
Are unfit to be kissed,
I’ve read in books it spoils their looks,
I guess I won’t enlist.
While still in college in the 1970s, I became a member of a loose-knit “Utah Phillips Fan Club” made up mostly of a group of my father’s friends, which “convened” on occasion to drink Olympia beer, tell stories (some from Phillips, most generated by members of the club) and listen to music. Though I’m sure many others have done the same, I’m the only person I know who saw him perform in three different states: in Idaho while I was in college in the late ’70s, at a private home when I lived in Arizona in the late ’80s or early ’90s, and later when I was in grad school at Washington State University. My wife was with me on the latter two occasions, and Utah memorably told her daughter–who had proclaimed him her new “hero”–not to have any still-living heroes, because they’d inevitably end up disappointing her.
“Good Though” (Moose Turd Pie) was Utah’s most famous story, but my favorite morality tale of his involved a little bird that postponed its flight south for the winter, nearly froze to death, was warmed by cow manure and then, after singing happily, was eaten by a cat. The moral: “The one who craps on you isn’t necessarily your enemy, the one who digs you out of a pile of crap isn’t necessarily your friend, and if you’re up to neck in crap it’s best to keep your mouth shut.”
Another noteworthy passing, from yesterday, is that of Dick Martin. He was most famous for “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In,” which debuted in 1968, which Richard Nixon speechwriter Patrick Buchanan called the worst year in American history. What many people forget today, when it has become commonplace for political figures to appear with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, is that in September of that year Nixon appeared on “Laugh-In.” Less than two months before being elected president, the famously uptight Nixon intoned one of the show’s catchphrases as a question, “Sock it to me?” Perhaps a 25-year-old Bob Woodward and a 24-year-old Carl Bernstein were watching.
Below: Utah Phillips, in one of his later appearances, shares some of his politics.