Farewell to Utah Phillips

Folksinger and storyteller Utah Phillips, a "national treasure" if there
ever was one, died last Friday, May 23.

His performances featured the songs, jokes and lore of hobos, tramps,
cowboys, migrant workers and Wobblies. Although he made a number of fine
recordings, he was most truly in his element in live performances, where he
knew how to draw the audience into a song or story and would leave us
cracking up with laughter at some outrageous punch line that would
unexpectedly pop up in the middle of his apparently rambling reminiscences.

You can get a little taste of this experience from this video of one of his
last performances, posted online in eight parts (totaling about an hour) --
1. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5wsFmcFMeME
2. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dd4yNMo5r14
3. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6D07S-m7h9Q
4. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks-LmHAGouQ
5. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7cQMvkDU558
6. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9C93WLtpYc
7. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OOscaTfHLFs
8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DZtJdNIUcC4

Here is his famous "Moose Turd Pie" story --

A few more video clips can be found here, along with various other
performers doing some of his songs --

For more recordings and links, see http://www.utahphillips.org/
The obituary below is drawn from that site.

* * *

"Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73"
Nevada City, California:

Utah Phillips, a seminal figure in American folk music who performed
extensively and tirelessly for audiences on two continents for 38 years,
died Friday of congestive heart failure in Nevada City, California, a small
town in the Sierra Nevada mountains where he lived for the last 21 years
with his wife, Joanna Robinson, a freelance editor.

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

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,
operated by Lena Spencer.

"It was the coffeehouse, the place to perform. Everybody went there. She fed
everybody," said John "Che" Greenwood, a fellow performer and friend.
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

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

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.

The family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223,
Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144