Remembering Utah Phillips: May 15, 1935 – May 23, 2008

Utah Phillips

Bruce Duncan Phillips, better known at Utah Phillips, passed away on May 23 2008, just eight days after his 75th birthday due to a long battle with heart problems.

Phillips was known for his 50 years of folk music but was described by long-time friend Ken Sanders as an “anarchist, wobbly, hobo, railroader, folksinger, activist, great iconoclast, husband, father and all-around amazing human being.”

Technically, Phillips was a labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller, and poet and was dubbed the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest.”  He often promoted the Industrial Workers of the World in his music, actions and words.

His experience during the Korean War convinced him that nonviolence is the only sane way to live. During the 1960s, Utah worked as a state archivist and founded the Poor People’s Party in Utah. In 1968, he ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace & Freedom ticket. A leave of absence from state service turned into permanent dismissal and an opportunity to try his luck as a platform entertainer, sharing his tales and songs with the folk family in the style of a Celtic bard.

In 1997, he received both a Lifetime Achievement Award from The Folk Alliance and a Lifetime Service to Labor Award from the American Federation of Musicians, Traveling Musicians Local 1000.

Righteous Babe Records is celebrating the life and music of the oral historian and folk singer with a double-CD set entitled Singing Through The Hard Times.

The double disc contains 39 tracks, all but 10 of which are brand new recordings from Phillips.

While most of the songs were written by Phillips, some, like “Dump The Bosses Off Your Back” (sung by fellow songwriter and labor organizer Si Kahn) are folk songs relevant to Phillips’ life and passions. A few have never been recorded before, including the title track, which Phillips wrote in 2003 for his local Peace Center in Grass Valley, Calif.

Also included on Singing Through The Hard Times are performances from Emmylou Harris and Mary Black, Pete Seeger, Tom Paxton, John McCutcheon, Rosalie Sorrels, Gordon Bok, Ani DiFranco, Magpie, Jean Ritchie and many others – folksingers whose music springs from the same rich vein of the people’s history that Phillips chronicled throughout his life.

Back in 2005, Phillips had released a four-CD box set of his work entitled Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook, and I was fortunate enough to interview him about the monumental watermark in his career.

He was having heart problems at the time and had to take medicine and go to rigorous rehabilitation three times a week, but that didn’t break his spirit. Phillips was still tending to his garden at the time, and he told me amazing tales of his life I will never forget.

Upon asking where I was from, I told him a small town in Illinois “you probably never heard of.” He queried further, and I told him Danville, about 30 minutes from the University of Illinois. He knew where it was. In fact, he surprised me even more telling me he spent some time in Danville.

Phillips told me that back in the 1960s he was in the Midwest and he took a train, the Wabash Cannonball to be exact, and went from Detroit down through the states and stopped in Tolono, Ill. He had taken this trip many times, but this was the last run of the famous train. He also passed through Danville and stayed on a sand bar on the Vermillion River with other “train hopping hobo folkies” on his way to play the Red Herring in Urbana. He would also talk about this trip on the first disc of the Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook release.

I was amazed by this story. To think someone who I idolized stayed in the town where I live was something beyond what my mind could wrap around, and I will never forget that hour I spent with Phillips.

Bruce “Utah” Duncan Phillips’ mantra was “It’s better to be likeable than talented.” He was both and a whole lot more. Rest in peace my friend.

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