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Utah Phillips, Will Rogers, and Tall Tales of America's First Radio Broadcast

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 - 12:27 PM

WNYC

“I guarantee, that if I am elected, I will take over the White House, hang out, shoot pool, scratch my ass, and not do a damn thing.  Which is to say, if you want something done, don't come to me to do it for you; you got to get together and figure out how to do it yourselves.  Is that a deal?” - Utah Phillips

"Never blame a legislative body for not doing something. When they do nothing, that don't hurt anybody. When they do something is when they become dangerous." - Will Rogers

In this clip from a 1982 WNYC concert broadcast, Utah Phillips recalls Will Rogers' first appearance on the radio with both his typical humor and - perhaps - questionable historical accuracy. 

Although born nearly sixty years apart, Utah Phillips and Will Rogers were kindred spirits.  Both were masterful entertainers whose comedic wit cut to the heart of their generations' political malfeasance.  Phillips and Rogers gave a voice to the country's neediest, and their folksy aphorisms cleverly underscored their critiques of the U.S. political system.  

Phillips was a raconteur of the first order. Weaving together stories gathered from years spent in hobo encampments and rail yards across America, he could could stretch a three minute version of “Hallelujah I'm a Bum” into a half hour discourse on urban gardening, the politics of outhouses, turn-of-the-century robber barons, or late-stage capitalist economies. He would rarely play a song straight through and his performances were replete with maxims like: "If you're set on having heroes, make sure they're dead so they can't blow it"; and a “tramp dreams and wanders, a hobo works and wanders, and a bum drinks and wanders". He had an acerbic wit, and he masterfully illustrated in both comic and morose terms the trials and tribulations of America’s laboring class.

Philips was a lifelong labor organizer and a wayward politician. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he ran both for the U.S. Senate in 1968 and for president in 1976 for the Sloth and Indolence Party. On the 1996 album, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, Phillips explained:

So I created my own party. It's called the Sloth and Indolence Party, and I'm running as an anarchist candidate in the best sense of that word.  I've studied the presidency carefully. I have seen that our best presidents were the do-nothing presidents: Millard Fillmore, Warren G. Harding. When you have a president who does things, we are all in serious trouble.  If he does anything at all, if he gets up at night to go the bathroom, somehow, mystically, trouble will ensue.

It is hard to image that Phillips was not influenced by Will Rogers.  Rogers was America's pre-eminent humorist in the 1920s and '30s.  A political rabble-rouser, he had a folksy style and was often called the "horse-sense conscience" of the nation.  A dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, Rogers supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, was the featured speaker at the 1932 Democratic national convention, was briefly the mayor of Beverly Hills, and served as a goodwill ambassador to Mexico in 1927. Like Phillips, Rogers' politics were simultaneously replete with humor and biting critique. "I don't make jokes”, Rogers once said, “I just watch the Government and report the facts.”  

In this clip from May 12th 1935, Rogers delivers a humorous attack regarding his entry into the Congressional Record.

 

Like Phillips, Rogers also "ran" for president.  In 1928, he launched what may have been the first in the history of faux presidential campaigns.  Running as the “bunkless candidate” of the Anti-Bunk Party, his only campaign promise was that, if elected, he would resign.  Life Magazine initiated the campaign and Rogers' nomination was eventually endorsed by prominent figures including Babe Ruth, Henry Ford, Grantland Rice and Life’s president, Charles Gibson. Rogers answered the call by writing a weekly Life column, in which he skewered the electioneering politics, until the week before the election. [1] 

[1] Jefferson Public Radio. "Lessons from the Anti-bunk Party". Kramer, Ronald. http://www.ijpr.org/

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