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It was my privilege and pleasure to have basked in the presence of Utah Phillips in Nevada City, California, where he died May 23rd. The stories he told in poetry and song expressed his love for underdog working people and all human populations against whom the deck is stacked. Like a latter-day Johnny Appleseed, Utah planted in his audiences the spirit of populism and compassion that characterizes America’s noblest legacy. At a bend in our history when we hear continuously of corporate wars and hostile takeovers and little of workers or labor, Utah Phillips devoted his whole life to the cause of social justice. Every day this spirit is disappearing from the world. News of his death quiets and saddens me.
– Al Young
In October of 2003 guitarist-songster Marc Silber holds up announcement for an upcoming Utah Phillips performance at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage. Marc and Al, who once played folk music together, have been friends for half a century, since college days at Ann Arbor.
Utah Phillips Dead at 73:
Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp
by Jordan Fisher Smith and Molly Fisk
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.