Monday, May 26, 2008

Utah Phillips, 1935 - 2008

Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips died of congestive heart failure peacefully in his sleep at his home in Nevada City, CA, Friday, May 23. He was 73.

Utah Phillips was a folksinger, storyteller, railroad bum, and lifelong activist for the working class. He played a major roll in my own interest in folk music, and in particular, the songs of the working class.

Phillips was the son of labor organizers and a proud card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as “Wobblies”. He served in the U. S. Army during the Korean War. Phillips was deeply affected by the human misery he saw during the war. When he returned he was a broken man financially, as well as in mind and body.

The struggles of returning combat veterans is better understood today, but when Phillips returned from war in the 1950s there was little help available. Phillips, destitute and homeless, took to the bottle and the rails. He drifted, riding the rails across the country until he got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and made his way to the Joe Hill House. Named for the legendary labor activist and founding Wobblie, the Joe Hill House was a homeless shelter run by anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement.

Hennacy gave Phillips a job at the Joe Hill House and soon he found work as an archivist with the state of Utah. In 1968 he ran for a seat in the U. S. Senate representing the state of Utah. Phillips ran on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket and when the race was won by the republican candidate Phillips was seen by the ruling Democrats as having split the ticket and lost a democratic seat. He lost his job with the state and was blacklisted from state government employment by the ruling party.

Utah Phillips was once again out of work and homeless. He headed to Saratoga Springs, New York and the lively folk music community that centered around Lena Spencer and the Caffe Lena. For the past four decades Utah Phillips has been entertaining audiences with his songs, stories, and tall-tales. I always enjoyed when he played radical old songs from the Wobblies Little Red Book. In fact, Utah Phillips’ reputation as a champion of the working class was acknowledged by the government when Joe Hill’s ashes were belatedly returned, they were given to Utah Phillips.

His own songs have been recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and others. In 1997 he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance. He has performed with Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, John McCutcheon and Ani DiFranco. Phillips and Ani DiFranco have recorded two excellent albums together.

Utah Phillips introduced two new generations to the songs of the working class struggle and the songs and stories of the Wobblies, whose membership has been on the rise in the past few years, due in part, to Utah Phillips songs, stories, and never-ending activism for the working class and homeless. In recent years his health limited his ability to tour. In 2005, Phillips repaid the kindness shown him many years before by helping to found Hospitality House of Western Nevada County, California, a shelter for homeless men, down on their luck as he once was.

Utah Phillips was a legend of American folk music and will be sorely missed. His music and fight for the common folk lives on.

Utah Phillips - Pie In The Sky.mp3

Utah Phillips - Dump The Bosses.mp3

U. Utah Phillips cds are available from

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Memorial Day Weekend

Shared with kind permission from True North Records

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Popular Songs as State Representatives

Looking back over the last few posts, I realized that some of the songs I posted are recognized by a few states as official State Songs. Every state, with the exception of New Jersey, has at least one song officially designated as a State Song. Most are obscure, forgettable numbers played only at official functions, but several states have adopted more memorable songs.

In the Stephen Foster post, I included two songs that have been granted special status by state legislatures, “Old Folks at Home” (Way Down Upon The Swanee River) is the official song of the state of Florida. Floridians also honor Stephen Foster with a state park on along the banks of the Suwannee River. The Stephen Foster Folk Culture Center State Park is home to the wonderful Florida Folk Festival.

“My Old Kentucky Home” is another of Stephen Foster’s timeless songs to be adopted as an official state song. Kentucky also recognizes an official State Bluegrass Song, native Kentuckian Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Just over the southern border from Kentucky, Tennessee felt that no one song could capture the essence of that great state, so they have no less than seven official state songs. “My Homeland, Tennessee,” “When It's Iris Time in Tennessee,” and “My Tennessee” may not be well known outside of the Volunteer State, but two of Tennessee’s officially recognized songs are recognized around the world. “The Tennessee Waltz” was written by Redd Stewart and Pee Wee King in 1947 and first recorded by Roy Acuff. “The Tennessee Waltz” has crossed musical genres and remained popular for over six decades. The song has been recorded by a diverse group of musicians such as Patti Page, Guy Lombardo, Petula Clark, Otis Redding, and Emmylou Harris, to name a few. “The Tennessee Waltz” was adopted as the fourth official song of the state of Tennessee in 1965.

Another of Tennessee’s state songs also has international appeal. Sometime in the early 1980s, my wife and I were enjoying a few pints and some good local music at a pub in Toronto. When the band took a break they joined us a our table, when they found out we owned a record shop and coffeehouse their first question was to ask me to write out the lyrics for “Rocky Top” for them. It seems they received a constant flow of requests for the popular song.

Louisiana is another state with more than one official state song. “Give Me Louisiana” is the one played at official functions, but the state of Louisiana has also honored one of its former governors, Jimmie Davis, by officially recognizing his song “You Are My Sunshine.”

The prairie state of Kansas has but one state song, but it is often regarded as the anthem of the American West. “Home on the Range” was first published by Dr. Brewster M. Higley in 1873. The song was carried throughout the western prairies by settlers and cowboys.

As “Home on the Range” has become an anthem for an entire region, “Yankee Doodle” has come to be associated with all of New England, and to many around the world, the United States as a whole. An early version of the song was originally sung by British troops prior to the Revolutionary War to mock the “doodle” (simpleton) colonists. “Yankee Doodle” is the official state anthem of Connecticut.

My own home state of Virginia has, in the past few years, retired its official state song, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny”, because some felt that the lyrics were offensive. “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” was written by black minstrel, James A. Bland, shortly after the Civil War and expresses an ex-slave’s nostalgia for his plantation home. The song was given emeritus status while the search for a new song is being undertaken. In 2006 the Virginia General Assembly voted to make “Shenandoah” the “interim official state song” until a proper replacement could be found. “Shenandoah” was originally a river chantey sung on barges along the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers. The song found its way to the Ohio River and from there down the Mississippi River to the ocean-going vessels along the Gulf Coast.

These songs, all declared as official representatives of their respective states, have also become standards in the American songbook.

Harry MacDonough - My Old Kentucky Home - 1906.mp3

Bill Monroe - Blue Moon Of Kentucky.mp3

Roy Acuff - Tennessee Waltz - 1948.mp3

Osborne Brothers - Rocky Top – 1967.mp3

Charles Mitchell’s Orchestra with Jimmie Davis - You Are My Sunshine.mp3

Michael Martin Murphey - Home on the Range.mp3

Hank Penny - Yankee Doodle.mp3

Louis Armstrong and The Mills Brothers - Carry Me Back To Old Virginny - 1937.mp3

Rebecca Hogan - Shenandoah.mp3