Utah Phillips “Leaves the Stage”

From Amy Goodman at Democracy Now! comes this:

“Utah” Phillips died this week at the age of 73. He was a musician, labor organizer, peace activist and co-founder of his local homeless shelter. He also was an archivist, a historian and a traveler, playing guitar and singing almost forgotten songs of the dispossessed and the downtrodden, and keeping alive the memory of labor heroes like Emma Goldman, Joe Hill and the Industrial Workers of the World, “the Wobblies,” in a society that too soon forgets.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935, in Cleveland, by his midteens he was riding the rails. He told me of those days in an interview in 2004. By then, he was slowed down by congestive heart failure. His long, white beard flowed over his bow tie, plaid shirt and vest. We sat in a cramped attic of a pirate radio station that was frequently raided by federal authorities. In the early days, he met old-timers, “old, old alcoholics who could only shovel gravel. But they knew songs.”

I saw him in concert with Rosalie Sorrels way back, way back in one of the rooms upstairs in the BSU Sub. Saw Nanci Griffith there as well. Democracy Now provided an hour of Utah Phillips ‘in his own words’ on Tuesday.

The ‘body ballot’

And always – just himself . . . ‘the yahoo in the oval orifice.’

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2 Responses

  1. With the passing of U. Utah Phillips to that great Hobo Jungle in the Sky, this great country of ours has lost more than most people might imagine. Poet, songwriter, political activist, pacifist, union organizer, anarchist and humanitarian – he lived a very full life indeed and he had a very personal, positive influence on my life – although he would not have seen anything positive in the life of someone who ended up as a lawyer and a Democrat.

    I first saw Bruce Phillips when he played with the Utah Valley Boys, a bluegrass group, in Salt Lake City, Utah, circa 1964. That was during the “Folk Era” and Bruce was a folkie, a contemporary and friend of Rosalie Sorrels, a Boise girl temporarily transplanted to Salt Lake City Utah. Bruce and Rosalie were something akin to the King and Queen of the folk movement, such as it was, in Salt Lake City during those days.

    Although I first knew Bruce Phillips as a folksinger, came to know him several years later as a political activist. He was just Bruce Phillips in those days and on Friday evenings he’d often bring his big Blond Guild Jumbo guitar to the Joe Hill House which was at that time located near the D&RG’s Roper Yards in South Salt Lake.

    The Joe Hill House was a homeless shelter before we ever heard the term “homeless” and it was run by Ammon Hennesy, the first true anachist/pacifist I ever met. Ammon had been sent West by the Catholic Workers movement to establish the Joe Hill House and he “preached” pacificism and anachism every Friday night in the “living room.” It was an interesting, mixed audience of high school students, college students and railroad bums (the 60’s were sometimes really like that). When Bruce was there he’d add variety to the “service” by playing an old IWW tune, or Woody Guthrie’s “I’d Like to Know” or, less often, one of his own, beautifully crafted songs.

    I helped on his campaign for U.S. Senate when he ran on the Peace and Freedom Party Ticket in 1968. Needless to say, he lost that election (he did manage to get something like 30,000 votes) and soon after he picked up the guitar again, became U. Utah Phillips and headed out to play venues across the country before settling down in Oregon.

    I’d run across him from time to time over the years and always tried to catch his shows. He hosted the very first Northern Rockies Folk Festival here in the Wood River Valley in 1977, my first year as a resident of Blaine County, Idaho.

    I have always held people like Utah Phillips in the very highest regard – people who learn early on that they cannot, by themselves, change the world but, by never accepting the way the world is and by responding to it with wit and wisdom, have a positive influence on their fellow human beings. These are people who have always seemed to be to be in this world but not of this world.

    With the death of Utah Phillips we have lost a bridge to the past. He was card carrying Wobblie who had served in Korea – where he lost any faith he might have had in the government of this country – a loss never restored. When he returned from that war he spent some time riding the rails – drunk most of the time. Long after he’d sobered up and become a minor icon, those railroad bummin’ days remained a big part of who he was and how he viewed the country and the world.

    He disdained Democrats and Republicans alike. He had no more use for liberals than he did for conservatives. His political views were more like those of his old mentor,Ammon Hennesy than FDR or JFK. He once said: “I am not a Catholic. As a matter of fact I am not a Christian. That doesn’t matter. I don’t care what people believe, it’s how they behave that concerns me, and Catholic Workers behave in such a way as to bring compassion and joy to the world around them.”

    He was a raconteur of the first stripe. He had the ability to channel Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs and Mother Jones and toss in a fair measure of Will Rogers so that his comments on current events seemed to be spoken in a voice from the past – critiquing the people, issues and events of today from a perspective formed as the 19th Century was dying and the 20th Century was being born – when the Pullman strike and the Hay Market Massacre and the execution of Joe Hill by a Utah Prison firing squad were the shared experience of American radicals.

    If you have never listened to the album Utah did with Ani DeFranco, “Fellow Workers”, you should. Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin’s “Heart Songs” is a beautiful collection of Utah’s songs played with loving appreciation for the simplicity and truth of their composition. Many, if not most, of Utah’s recorded work is out of print but “Good Though”, his “breakout” album is still available as is “Starlight on the Rails.” Utah’s “Rock, Salt and Nails” ranks, at least in my view, as one of the finest songs ever written and has been covered by Joan Baez, Joe Ely, and many others.

    “The past is always with us, it never goes away”, Utah was fond of saying. Here’s to you Mr. Phillips – I hope you are right now ridin’ the tops, high above the roarin’ wheels, watching the prairie roll! Thank you for stopping here and sharing yourself with us.

    R. Keith Roark

  2. Danggg!! That’s a heck of a response, Keith. Ah, the Wobblies. I had an old, amazing anthology of Wobblie ‘lit’ but lost it in a move; I’ve been looking to replace it since 2002.

    Ammon Hennesy, absolutely. That’s my tradition in Catholicism….Dorothy Day, Maurin, the Berrigan brothers,

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