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


Anonymous dan said...

Paint me red, but this stuff still rings true for the average everyday working guy. I guess this explains the popularity of lotteries. It gives the lucky "small guy" a chance to wave that middle finger at the boss, rather than having the boss constantly wave it at him.

May 30, 2008 6:51 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Dan, You are right about these songs still ringing true. The powers that be ensure that average working folk remain dependant on a paycheck. I thought that the workers had made some progress in the past decades, but those meager gains have been lost in recent years.

As for lotteries, I've always viewed lotteries as a tax on people that do not understand math.

June 01, 2008 7:34 PM  
Blogger HAPPY IN NEVADA said...

What a great time I had on your blog!

I've got music playing on every blog I've created, so I know how much BETTER any web-site or blog reads, when you've got the choice of listening to music.

It was a fun 'trip on your blue bus'. Diane

June 16, 2008 8:41 PM  
Blogger Lisa H said...

Thanks for this sensitive and detailed bio of Utah. A great man indeed, and never complacent.

I had the pleasure of being part of a group that knit him a "healing blanket", which was delivered a few weeks before his death. Here's a picture of him, with my spiral square over his knees:

The Kate Wolf festival in Laytonville, CA at the end of June will also be in memory of Utah this year. God, that makes me cry--it's probably the first time he's ever missed it, though he was in the audience rather than performing last year. Ani diFranco is headlining, and they've renamed one of the workshop stages for him.

So thanks for being part of carrying on his tradition!

Best wishes,
Lisa H.


And here's a great story from Carol McComb (of '60s sister duo Kathy & Carol) that was posted to the e-list of the San Francisco Folk Music Club:

>From Carol McComb:

My first introduction to Utah Phillips was at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Kathy and I were there to play in the "New Folks" concert. This was one HUGE festival, its primary claim to fame being the venue for Dylan's first performance backed by Paul Butterfield's electric blues band. In addition to that famous performance there were scores of other performances in a vast array of roots style music. Each style of music had its own concert. Utah was the emcee for the ballad singers concert, held on the main stage. There were ballad singers from Nova Scotia, Scotland, the Ozarks, you name it. Some of these folks were pretty colorful characters in their own right; they all knew each other and Utah was the perfect person to introduce them. Through some of his intros you could tell there was a little contest going on between the performers as to who could outdo the other. Not a competition sort of thing - it was more like Utah trying to catch the next performer off guard by saying something unexpected, giving that performer a chance to give Utah his due. I had the impression they were all pretty close. So, when Utah got up to introduce the Ozark mountain unaccompanied ballad singer Almeda Riddle, he said something like, "And now Almeda will bore you with her endless unaccompanied ballads from the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas". Almeda was probably close to 70 years old. She calmly walked on stage and kicked Utah in the shins.

I think my favorite Utah Phillips song has always been Rock Salt and Nails. In addition to his wonderful, timeless songs, I'll remember Utah most for making me laugh until my sides hurt, and then making me cry by singing some beautiful song.


June 18, 2008 3:21 PM  

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