Sunday, May 25, 2008

Utah Phillips

Folksinger, storyteller, poet and activist Utah Phillips passed away Friday. He was 73 years old.

Born Bruce Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio, he ran away from home as a teenager to ride the rails, adopting the hobo lifestyle and learning folk songs. He joined the Army in 1956 and was stationed in postwar Korea; the devastation of war that he witnessed in that country influenced his future views. After leaving the Army, Phillips settled in Salt Lake City and began working with Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Worker Movement. Together they established the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter named after the famous labor activist. He spent eight years working with Hennacy, and in 1968 ran for the US Senate on the Utah Peace And Freedom Party ticket.

During this period he also met folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, who began singing his songs and encouraging Phillips to perform as well. He adopted the name U. Utah Phillips after that of a singer he admired, T. Texas Tyler, and over the years became a fixture on the folk circuit.

He was not exactly a household name. Most likely, if you're not familiar with folk music or active in progressive politics or the labor movement, you probably never heard of Utah Phillips. Over the years, though, Phillips has been important in keeping American folk music traditions alive. He maintained his love of the railroads and had an impressive repertoire of rail and hobo songs. Possessing a wry sense of humor, he recorded songs like "Moose Turd Pie", a tall tale about repairing track in the southwestern desert. He also recorded and performed a number of labor and antiwar songs. Among his fans was Ani DiFranco, who recorded with Phillips and signed him to her Righteous Babe label. Without Phillips and other performers like him, many of America's great musical traditions might be lost.

An excellent interview with Phillips appeared in the Progressive magazine a few years ago. Also, here's Phillips performing at the Strawberry Music Festival in California in 2007:

I spent a long time finding my way—couches, floors, big towns, small towns, marginal pay (folk wages). But I found that people seemed to like what I was doing. The folk music family took me in, carried me along, and taught me the value of song far beyond making a living. It taught me that I don't need wealth, I don't need power, and I don't need fame. What I need is friends, and that's what I found—everywhere—and not just among those on the stage, but among those in front of the stage as well. . . . The future? I don't know. But I have songs in a folder I've never paid attention to, and songs inside me waiting for me to bring them out. Through all of it, up and down, it's the song. It's always been the song.