Adrian Lam photo
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
December 19, 2007
The tracks of the Esquimalt & Nanaimo railway run behind Bruce Brackney's cottage. A train called the Malahat rumbles past twice a day.
“Music to my ears,” he says.
In his younger days, he hopped aboard the freights that crisscross the continent, riding for free in what he calls the “sidedoor Pullman.”
Mr. Brackney, 60, has long sported a mutton-chop beard. He dressed against the rainy-morning cold in a vest. Cufflinks with the crossed initials of the Southern Pacific railway are on his shirt. He looks like a conductor.
Instead of calling out destinations, though, he picked up a guitar to sing a tune written by a good hobo friend who won't be able to perform the song in Canada any time soon.
U. Utah Phillips's ticker has gone wonky. Again. The singing storyteller, the Will Rogers of trampdom who has been a legendary figure at music festivals for more than 30 years as the self-proclaimed Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, has been ordered by his doctor to desist. He can no longer ride the rails, nor hit the road. He has cancelled all his touring dates, including several in Canada.
But if Utah can't play for the people, then the people will play for Utah.
Fans declared December to be Utah Phillips Month. Mr. Brackney has helped launch a grassroots campaign to raise money for the 72-year-old poet and philosopher, a troubadour whose poor health has cost him his livelihood as he faces growing medical bills.
In Toronto, folk singer Eve Goldberg raised $2,000 with a show at Hugh's Room on Monday. In Winnipeg, a benefit concert including the Duhks brought a hefty $7,000 on Saturday. The money and whatever else is donated in the coming weeks will be sent south by Mr. Brackney, who first met Mr. Phillips after a concert in Eureka, Calif., in 1976.
The two free spirits hit it off, sharing not only a love of the railway but membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, the revolutionary union.
Mr. Phillips and Mr. Brackney also formed a union of another kind in the Rose Tattoo, a gathering of like-minded musicians that is more social club than band. The initiates – “a motley crew, and far flung” – are branded with such monikers as Smokestack and Boomer Bob and Mama Pipes and Cream City Slim and the Feather River Kid. Utah is known as Bow Tie, while Mr. Brackney is called Haywire Brack. All bear a permanent ink-etching of a red flower. Haywire was tattooed many years ago in San Francisco by Lyle Tuttle, a renowned practitioner of the venerable if not always respectable art.
Last year, the wandering musicians gathered around a campfire for 7 ½ hours of nothing but railway songs, not a tune repeated.
Haywire has lived the kind of life in which he can say “my earliest memory is of an orphanage.” His parents were too poor to care for him, although he returned to them after a few years.
As a young man, Haywire worked a placer gold claim in California. “I didn't mine much,” he said, “but it was an excuse to live in the wilderness and pretend it was 1876 instead of 1976.” He tramped from Minnesota by catching passing freights over the hump, often stopping in Spokane to visit Utah. Riding the rods is an experience he no longer recommends.
“It's terribly dangerous now. There's no more migrant workers, just gangs of the severely drug addicted who will kill you for your shoes.”
One of his last rides was one of his most memorable. He and a buddy spotted a deadhead – “clean and empty” – in the yards and climbed aboard just as it pulled away in the predawn hour. Turns out the box car was not quite empty. The stamped metal floor had divots the depth of a golf ball sliced in half and each of those hundreds of small depressions was filled with ash from the volcanic eruption at Mount St. Helens. Luckily, they had kerchiefs to protect their noses and mouths.
“Utah was appalled,” he remembered. “We looked like ghosts. He hosed us off in the yard.”
Haywire laughed at the memory, before picking up the phone to dial a number in California.
On the other end of the line, Utah reminisced about performing at the Mariposa folk festival in Orillia, Ont., and at the Frostbite music festival in Whitehorse. He talked about meeting veterans of the On-to-Ottawa Trek of the 1930s and he sang the praises of Stompin' Tom Connors.
After having played so many benefits himself, and having joined striking workers on picket lines, he was asked what he made of being on the receiving end of generosity.
“It's family coming through,” he said. “The family's coming together to give us a hand.”
Haywire doesn't know when next he'll see his old friend. When they do get together, guitars will be pulled out, old songs will be sung while old lies will be reworked to sound fresh.
At Haywire's house, a room off the kitchen is closest to the tracks.
Twice a day, display cabinets rattle as the Malahat passes. Haywire collects railway china, beautiful pieces that once rested on white linen tablecloths in fancy dining cars the insides of which a hobo like himself never got to enjoy.
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