Utah Phillips, 1935 - 2008
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.
U. Utah Phillips cds are available from www.utahphillips.org