Farewell, Utah: Folksinger Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips Dead At 73

“Golden Voice Of The Great Southwest” Is Gone To The Coffeehouse In The Sky

by Daniel P. Dern ©2008

If, any of a few times a year during the 70s, 80s or 90s, you were in Harvard Square (in Cambridge, Mass.), and went around the back of the Harvard Coop (pronounced “coop” as in “chicken coop,” although it is short for “Co-operative”) to one end of one-lane alley 47 Palmer Street, where a half-flight of stairs led down to the door of the Passim Coffeeshop, you might have encounted a man who looked like a cross between Kris Kringle and a cowboy, wearing a largish hat, sporting a full curly white beard, making deep-voice duck-quack noises (“a base canard,” he would note) and warning would-be buyers to avoid the upcoming performer. In election years, he might have been stumping for president, as candidate for the “Do-Nothing” party — “If elected, I will do nothing.” Or he might simply have been greeting friends in the line.

That would, of course, have been the late folksinger, songwriter, storyteller, humorist and historian Bruce “U.Utah” Phillips, “the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, America’s most-feared folksinger,” in town for another of his always entertaining, thought-provoking, educational, historical shows.

U. Utah Phillips (image from <www.TheLongMemory.org>)
Utah died Friday night, May 23, 2008, of congestive heart failure. He was 73. He had been having health problems for the past several years, which, among other things, forced him to retire from actively touring and performing. According to reports, he passed away peacefully, in his sleep, at his home for the past two decades in Nevada City, California.

This is the place where one might say “he is with us no more,” but Utah left a long, large (and loud) legacy, including his recordings on albums and CDs, videos, and radio programs; the dozens or hundreds of songs he wrote; and the many — tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people he touched in his performances and his life.

I had the pleasure of seeing Utah many — dozens, I’ll guess — of times, starting in the early 1970’s — early in his career, although I didn’t know that. I don’t remember whether I first heard Utah here in Boston, at Passim (back when Bob and RaeAnne Donlin were alive and running the place), at the Philadelphia Folk Festival (an annual three-day event, now in its 47th year, held Schwenksville, Pennsylvania, a good hour or so west of Philadelphia), or somewhere else.

In the course of interviewing him for various folk music reviews and other articles, starting in the early 1970’s, I also got to be friends with him; at least, that’s how it seemed to me — friends enough that he recognized me and remembered my name, always seemed happy to chat with me for a few minutes before or after his performance, and didn’t hesitate to call me long-distance once or twice, years back, with some questions on “this Internet stuff.” (As in, why would he, a folksinger, care.)

I won’t be able to review any more of his performance, or interview him again — or bring him more small goofy toys for his stage kit and personal amusement. But I do want to join the many others who are writing up their own memorials to Utah, with my own. (I’ve also put together a more formal obituary-style piece, suitable for a newspaper or other outlet — email me if you’re interested.)

I’ve divided this up into four parts:

  • Part 1: Utah Phillips, Folksinger/songwriter, Racounteur And Joke-teller is stuff you might have learned from listening to Utah perform (live, on the radio, or through his recordings), or from publicly-available information, e.g. liner notes, articles and blog posts, and several of the obituaries — some of which I didn’t know before my web research for this memorial. (I can’t vouch for the accuracy of it all; some, I’m trusting my sources.)
  • Part 2: A Partial Stroll Through Utah’s Recordings And Books — a partial discography/etc of Utah’s recordings and other materials, which you can buy (or borrow).
  • Part 3: Some Personal Memories & Stuff — A few words from fan and mostly-former folk music reviewer: Some of my own recollections, and other odd factoids I’ve accumulated.
  • Part 4: See and Hear Utah For Yourself: Free Online Songs and Videos — MP3s and videos of Utah performing that I’ve turned up, including a four-segment half-hour video interview of Utah, and some quasi-videos — his songs, accompanied by pictures and images. It’s enough to give anyone who wasn’t familar with Phillips a sense of the performer and his material. And for those of us who were, enough to make us laugh again… and cry, because we won’t see him again, except through these recordings. (I haven’t watched these all through yet, I’m not ready.)

Part 1: Utah Phillips, the Folksinger/songwriter, Racounteur And Joke-teller

Bruce Duncan Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935, to a pair of labor organizers. He was an Army private in Korea; as he has told it (and according to the family-provided obituary, when he returned to the United States, he rode the rails — freight trains. He wound up in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the Joe Hill House, which was a homeless shelter run by Christian anarchist Ammon Hennacy, who Phillips has talked about in many of his monologues, like in this video.

It was in Utah that he met Rosalie Sorrels, who would be one of the first to record his songs, and who toured and performed extensively with Phillips for many years. One of his jobs during the 1960s was as an archivist for the State of Utah, which, according to the official obituary from his family, “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.”

In 1968, Phillips lost this job after a failed run at U.S. Senate, and had to leave Salt Lake City. He ended up in Saratoga, New York at the Caffè Lena, which is where his career as a folksinger began.

Like many folksinger/songwriters, Utah seems to have wandered or fallen into his career by a mix of accident and fate, rather than any planning.

Here’s how Phillips ended up in show business in his own words — an excerpt from one of, perhaps the last, letter from him to the world at large:

When I hit a blacklist in Utah in 1969, I realized I had to leave Utah if I was going to make a living at all. I didn’t know anything abut this enormous folk music family spread out all over North America. All I had was an old VW bus, my guitar, $75, and a head full of songs, old- and new-made.

Fortunately, at the behest of my old friend Rosalie Sorrels, I landed at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York. That seemed to be ground zero for folk music at the time. Lena Spencer, as she did with so many, took me in and taught me the ropes. It took me a solid two years to realize I was no longer an unemployed organizer, but a traveling folk singer and storyteller—which, in Utah at the time, would probably have been regarded as a criminal activity.

Phillips became a regular performer at Harvard Square’s Club Passim (one of the first — and the last — of the places I saw him), and at other Massachusetts venues, as well as at coffeehouses, folk festivals and other events across outside the United States, Canada and Europe starting in the early 1970’s. He continued this until a few years ago, when health problems kept him from touring. I had the good fortune to see him at Passim in March 2007, at what was probably one of his last East Coast performances. (Folksinger and journalist Scott Alarik was there, and conducted a live, on-stage interview, FYI.)

A Partial Stroll Through Utah’s Recordings And Books

There’s a fair amount of Utah’s work still available for sale. Also try (or from your local library and/or their inter-library loan service, not to mention your folkie friends’ collections.

Phillips’ his first album was Good Though!, for Philo Records, distributed through Rounder Records.
contained a mix of traditional songs as well as some that Utah wrote, like “Daddy, What’s A Train?” … and the tall tale that, for better or worse, became one of his most well-known bits, “Moose Turd Pie” (Here’s the MP3 from his site.)

His second album, “El Capitan,” was mostly more songs of trains and the West, like “The Goodnight Loving Trail,” but also includes “The Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” recorded by Emmy Lou Harris and others, and “Enola Gay,” a song about the B-29 Superfortress plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during World War II.

Phillips’ subsequent albums are increasingly historical, humorous, and political, and auto-biographical, on topics including Wobblies (the Industrial Workers of the World), anarchism, politics, plus more of his poems, jokes and ruminations-at-large. Some he did on his own, some accompanied by or otherwise featuring Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolfe, and Ani DiFranco, and one of a concert with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, and Spider John Koerner. There are also a few albums listed here of Utah’s songs, performed by other people.

For several years, Utah also did a weekly radio show, Loafer’s Glory — 100 episodes, which the site describes as “collages of rants, poetry, tales, and reminiscences mixed in with little known music and talk from over 1,000 tapes of everything under the sun. A few shows are jungle stews cooked up for his own satisfaction, but most are thematic: from tramping and labor (historic and contemporary) to baseball and old friends … and always music. Each show is one hour long.”

CDs of Loafer’s Glory shows have been available; hopefully, Phillips’ family or others will continue to offer them.

If you only buy one Utah Phillips thing, and can spring for $40, get

Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook
— “The definitive, newly released 4-CD set of 61 original songs (each accompanied by a descriptive story) sung mostly by Utah, with certain songs by special guests Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf, and more.” This includes not only the songs, but spoken introductions with a lot of background and other information. (You can hear a surprising amount of each selection online.)

And if you want to read more about Utah’s songs, and see the words and some of the music, get
Starlight on the Rails and other songs: by U. Utah Phillips — Music and Lyrics.

Part 3: Some Personal Memories & Stuff

Utah Phillips was best known — if that phrase can be used meaningfully for any folksinger outside of a small handful like Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Woodie Guthrie, Odetta, and Pete Seeger — for many things, ranging from his love of railroads and trains and the West, to hobos, the IWW (“Wobblies”), and his sense of humor, ranging from puns and zingers to long tall tales… and he knew how to use them. He could rattle off long stories and other recitations by the handful… and he had the precise timing of a Borscht Belt comedian, as demonstrated by his standard opening and closing joke/monologue/songs, his “capper” story “Moose Turd Pie,” and stories like the Egg-Sitting Horse.

I remember the Philadelphia Folk Festival, listening to Utah (I think he was MC’ing) from the main stage, so far away it was a blur, but clearly audible.
lambasting the audience with zingers. The one from then I still remember (but am retelling badly): “A man tells the truck driver to take a load of penguins to the zoo. The next day, he asks the driver how it went, and the driver said, ‘Great, and we had such a good time that today we’re going to the museum.'”

During the years the Chris Lydon was hosting The Connnection radio show on WBUR-FM, Utah was one of the few* I heard who was unflummoxed by Lydon’s long, grammatically wandering questions. Instead of making any effort to address what he’d been asked or Lydon had otherwise said, Utah simply seized upon some nugget of thought from Lydon’s ramble, and launched into one of his own bits.

(* Another was author Samuel R. Delany. And then there was Harlan Ellison, in Boston for a reading… who got up and walked out halfway through the life show, when Lydon referred to Harlan as a science fiction writer, despite Harlan having made clear to the producer ahead of time that was not an option.)

Some things you probably didn’t know about Utah that you won’t find out from the web (as far as I can tell):

  • He was guest of honor at a science fiction convention. (I haven’t been able to verify which yet.)
  • He was an amateur magician, enough to know many of the terms and gimmicks.

Part 4: See and Hear Utah For Yourself: Free Online Songs and Videos

First, here’s eight short video segments of Utah performing at the 2007 Strawberry Music Festival, courtesy of whoever took them and posted them to YouTube:

  • “Railroading On The Great Divide,” Part 1 of 3

    Utah’s standard opening was the song “Railroading On The Great Divide,”
    interspersed with a joke, story and badinage-filled monologue, including some local and topical humor and political barbs:

  • “Railroading On The Great Divide,” Part 2 of 3

  • “Railroading On The Great Divide,” Part 3 of 3

  • “The Egg Sitting Horse”

    Utah claims is the funniest joke around.

  • “I’m Walking Through Your Town In The Cold”

  • “Fry Pan Jack (Get The Bum Off The Plush)”

  • “Christian Anarchist Ammon Hennessey”

  • “Hallelujah, I’m A Bum/So Long, It’s Been Good To Know You”

    Utah’s usual closer song, again interspersed with jokes galore.

Here’s some other live videos of Utah performing:

  • Judi Bari tribute & “The World Turned Upside Down””

    A tribute to environmental, labor and social justice leader Judi Bari, followed by Leon Rosselson’s song about the Diggers, “The World Turned Upside Down” (you may know this from Billy Bragg singing it)

  • Utah Phillips & the Strum Bums, 1 of 2

    Utah Phillips leads Strum Bums in “Yessir That’s My Baby” and “Remember Me,” at the Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, California

  • Utah Phillips & the Strum Bums, 2 of 2

    “Utah Phillips performing “Little Brown Gal,” with Cool Hand Uke’s Strum Bums in Nevada City, California, to help get the group to the 2007 New York Ukulele Festival.” (Hard to describe, but worth it for the jokes and the
    walking sushi! – DPD)

  • From Utah’s March 7, 2007 performance at Passim

  • “Bread and Roses

  • Utah talking about voting with your body ballot

  • Utah Phillips, Mark Ross and Butte Montana

    Utah Phillips, Mark Ross and Butte Montana

Interview by Amy Goodman interviews for Democracy Now! in 2004:

(Thirty-six minutes of video interview!)

  • Part 1: “Utah’s Approach To Music”Part 1: Utah talks about his approach to music and learning from his audiences.
  • Part 2: “On War and Non-Violence”Part 2: Utah discusses his own military service and becoming a pacifist.
  • Part 3: “His Name, the IWW, and War Resistance”Part 3: Utah explains how he got the name “U. Utah”, the history of war resistance, and the Wobblies.
  • Part 4: “The Role of the Media”Part 4: Utah talks about television, storytelling, capitalism, and alternative media.
  • Part 5:”Making a Living, Not a Killing”Part 5: Utah tells how he started out in New York, fired his agent, and decided not to play music for profit.

And Here’s some “photo/graphic videos (music videos?) — songs done by Utah, with added visuals —
and some snippets of Utah singing:

And lastly, some other text/photo links:

Farewell, Utah. I’ll miss you. All your fans will. Rest in peace.

– Daniel Dern, June 2008

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