Utah Phillips

Tribute to Bruce "Utah" Phillips who passed away Friday May 23, 2008


It is with great regret that Red House Records mourns the loss of our friend Bruce "Utah" Phillips who passed away Friday the 23rd at his home in Nevada City, California. In a time when words like "icon" and "legend" are bandied about too freely, Utah was the real deal: a consummate songwriter, labor historian, humorist and towering figure in American Folk Music. A true original, we will not see his like again and it was our great privilege to have been able to partner with him on a number of record releases. Our deepest condolences go out to Utah's family and many friends and the countless fans who will profoundly feel his absence. His family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144 www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, he was the son of labor organizers. Whether through this early influence or an early life that was not always tranquil or easy, by his twenties Phillips demonstrated a lifelong concern with the living conditions of working people. He was a proud member of the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as "the Wobblies," an organizational artifact of early twentieth-century labor struggles that has seen renewed interest and growth in membership in the last decade, not in small part due to his efforts to popularize it. Phillips served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country.

His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day. Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his "elders" with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow. "He made me understand that music must be more than cotton candy for the ears," said John McCutcheon, a nationally-known folksinger and close friend.

In the creation of his performing persona and work, Phillips drew from influences as diverse as Borscht Belt comedian Myron Cohen, folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and country stars Hank Williams and T. Texas Tyler. A stint as an archivist for the State of Utah in the 1960s taught Phillips the discipline of historical research; beneath the simplest and most folksy of his songs was a rigorous attention to detail and a strong and carefully-crafted narrative structure. He was a voracious reader in a surprising variety of fields.

Meanwhile, Phillips was working at Hennacy's Joe Hill house. In 1968 he ran for a seat in the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. The race was won by a Republican candidate, and Phillips was seen by some Democrats as having split the vote. He subsequently lost his job with the State of Utah, a process he described as "blacklisting." Phillips left Utah for Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was welcomed into a lively community of folk performers centered at the Caffé Lena. Over the span of the nearly four decades that followed, Phillips worked in what he referred to as "the Trade," developing an audience of hundreds of thousands and performing in large and small cities throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. His performing partners included Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, John McCutcheon and Ani DiFranco. "He was like an alchemist," said Sorrels, "He took the stories of working people and railroad bums and he built them into work that was influenced by writers like Thomas Wolfe, but then he gave it back, he put it in language so the people whom the songs and stories were about still had them, still owned them. He didn't believe in stealing culture from the people it was about." A single from Phillips's first record, "Moose Turd Pie," a rollicking story about working on a railroad track gang, saw extensive airplay in 1973. From then on, Phillips had work on the road.

His extensive writing and recording career included two albums with Ani DiFranco which earned a Grammy nomination. Phillips's songs were performed and recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and others. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997. Phillips, something of a perfectionist, claimed that he never lost his stage fright before performances. He didn't want to lose it, he said; it kept him improving. Phillips began suffering from the effects of chronic heart disease in 2004, and as his illness kept him off the road at times, he started a nationally syndicated folk-music radio show, "Loafer's Glory," produced at KVMR-FM and started a homeless shelter in his rural home county, where down-on-their-luck men and women were sleeping under the manzanita brush at the edge of town. Hospitality House opened in 2005 and continues to house 25 to 30 guests a night. In this way, Phillips returned to the work of his mentor Hennacy in the last four years of his life.

Phillips died at home, in bed, in his sleep, next to his wife. He is survived by his son Duncan and daughter-in-law Bobette of Salt Lake City, son Brendan of Olympia, Washington; daughter Morrigan Belle of Washington, D.C.; stepson Nicholas Tomb of Monterrey, California; stepson and daughter-in-law Ian Durfee and Mary Creasey of Davis, California; brothers David Phillips of Fairfield, California, Ed Phillips of Cleveland, Ohio and Stuart Cohen of Los Angeles; sister Deborah Cohen of Lisbon, Portugal; and a grandchild, Brendan. He was preceded in death by his father Edwin Phillips and mother Kathleen, and his stepfather, Syd Cohen.

UTAH PHILLIPS (written 1997)
by Tony Montague

Although he has an instinctive aversion for most ready-made labels and tags, Utah Phillips is content to be described simply as a folk-singer and a storyteller. Above all however, he likes to be thought of as a tramp. "And I'm a good tramp too," claims Phillips, speaking from his home in Nevada City, California. "You see, a bum drinks and wanders; a hobo works and wanders; a tramp dreams and wanders. Tramps are the intelligentsia of the travelling nation, people constitutionally incapable of having a boss, which means you've got to figure out other ways to get through the world. That's called a gaff - and folk singing is an iron-clad gaff, let me tell you."

For the past 30 years Phillips has been, by his own gleeful admission, spare-changing his way across a continent on the strength of spinning a good yarn and singing some great ditties. He belongs in equal measure to the linked traditions of humourous Western storytelling - with a razor-sharp wit and penchant for aphorisms worthy of Mark Twain - and of the working-class songwriting typified by Joe Hill and Woody Guthrie. But though his roots run deep and strong, Phillips is unequivocally an original - and his art is the product of a life devoted to free-thinking and free-wheeling radicalism.

Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, and raised by his mother and step-father in a Yiddish-speaking neighbourhood. But, by his own admission, he didn't grow up there; in fact he didn't grow up at all. "I looked at grown-ups when I was little and they were flying combat airplanes and running banks and I thought 'I don't want to turn out that way.' So I decided to grow out, or through, or by, or around, or under - but God help me not up."

In 1947 the family moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, where Phillips completed high school and started on the tramp. "I didn't run away from home. My mother began packing my lunch and a road map," he recalls. "I went to Yellowstone on the freight trains to find work, and afterwards to southern Utah and the Navaho reservation. Then I joined the army and was sent to Korea. Hated and despised that. Got home, rode on the freights another three years trying to sort my thoughts out, and finally fetched up back in Salt Lake City as a member of the I.W.W. [Industrial Workers of the World - popularly known as the Wobblies] with the thorough realization that everything was wrong, that it all needed to change, that I had to be a part of the change - and that it had to start with me."

It was in Salt Lake City that Phillips met Ammon Hennacy, a man he describes as an "anarchist, pacifist, conscientious objector during two world wars, tax refuser, vegetarian, one-man revolution in America," who ran the Joe Hill house of hospitality for tramps and migrants there. Hennacy gave him the ideology and the positive attitude with which to live as one of mainstream society's born outsiders. Phillips subsequently worked on behalf of various labour struggles, and for causes such as the abolition of capital punishment in Utah and the recognition of (what was then termed) mainland China, before standing, as an anti-war candidate and a veteran, for the U.S. Senate in 1968 - on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. "We got 6,000 votes, but as a consequence of it all I lost my job as a state archivist, and I was unable to get work anywhere in Utah. I was blacklisted."

A friend suggested to Phillips that he should leave the state, and try to make a living telling his stories and singing the songs he had begun writing. "I thought it was absurd or impossible," Phillips confides. "But I did leave - with $75 in my pocket, and an old VW bus, I headed East. That's when I encountered the enormous folk music family, all over this country and Canada, which took me in. I found I could make a living, and was able to own the means of my production, and not have a boss - which incidentally is s.s.o.b. spelt backwards. I never had any aspirations to punch through to the industrial level in terms of the entertainment business, which I regard as venal, corrupt, and artistically bankrupt. But working at an elegant and ancient trade where I make all the creative decisions was fine by me. So I did that until a couple of years ago, when I found out that my heart was starting to give out, and I had to quit the road."

Phillips still gives himself one commitment per month as a touring artist. "But I have to be very careful. I'm just home from the Old Songs Festival in Voorheesville, New York. I went out and came back on the train. It was a couple of weeks and I'm damned tired. I know that when I do this sort of thing I'm going to pay for it. But I feel like there's a community of which I'm a part, and want to remain a part."

Despite his semi-retirement Phillips has been able to connect with a whole new generation of listeners in the past couple of years. New York punk-folkie Ani DiFranco, who shares the same booking agent as Phillips, picked up one of the tapes of his verbal ramblings and became so inspired by it that she decided to produce an album of his work for her own Righteous Babe label. "She wrote me a letter with the proposal, saying she wanted something the kids who listen to her music could pop into the cassette deck of a car," Phillips recalls. "I'll quote it exactly: 'There's nothing wrong with the stories as they stand, but I'm familiar with the vertigo that a young audience experiences when the music stops and they're left in the presence of the words and the ideas.' When I heard that I said 'Bingo! This is the person I want to work with.' So I agreed to send her 100 hours of live performances people had sent me since I left the road."

DiFranco listened to it all, in the course of a drive from Buffalo to Austin, Texas. There she recorded and mixed the album, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (1996) adding an instrumental groove to most of the tracks and an occasional backing vocals. "Ani picked out the stories, and put them in the order I would have used - on pure instinct," says Phillips admiringly. "She did all the engineering. She's responsible for that record. And one of the effects of it is not just that the stories are being exposed to people I would otherwise have no access to, but that the kids are attracted to music they've never really listened to before. A bunch of them, with pierced noses and pink hair, showed up at the Old Songs Festival last week because they'd heard, or heard of, the album and had seen my name on the billboards and posters for the festival. They felt out of place at first, but part of the way through you could see them relax, and eventually they really began to sing along."

Songs and stories, and the affirming beliefs that underlie them, are the weapons Phillips wields in his continuous fight against the capitalist system he so despises for stripping men and women of their dignity and hope. "I believe that people are born good, and that children abandoned to institutions over which they have no control wind up becoming warped images of what they might have been had they been left alone. I believe that we struggle - that part of an anarchist's struggle is to help people get back to what we were before a lot of bad choices were made for us - to grow down, and then grow a different way. I really believe that what holds things together is evident all the time. Right now I'm looking out at the garden. I know what happens when I plant a seed. I regard the earth as my mother, and the sun as my father, and when the sun shines my mother and father embrace - out of which comes everything I eat, I wear, I live in. It's as simple as that - learning to live beyond symbols, but within the means that are provided."