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Utah Phillips

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Utah Phillips

Utah Phillips
Utah Phillips, 2006
Background information
Birth name Bruce Duncan Phillips
Born May 15, 1935
Cleveland, Ohio
Died May 23, 2008(2008-05-23) (aged 73)
Nevada City, California
Genres Folk music
Occupation(s) Songwriter, performer, raconteur

Bruce Duncan "Utah" Phillips (May 15, 1935 – May 23, 2008)[1] was an American labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller, poet and the "Golden Voice of the Great Southwest". He described the struggles of labor unions and the power of direct action, self-identifying as an anarchist.[2] He often promoted the Industrial Workers of the World in his music, actions, and words.


  • Biography 1
    • Early years 1.1
    • Career 1.2
    • Later years 1.3
  • Discography 2
  • Notes and references 3
  • External links 4


Early years

Phillips was born in Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies) headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. His parents divorced and his mother remarried. Phillips was adopted by his stepfather, Syd Cohen, at the age of five. Cohen managed the Hippodrome Theater in Cleveland, one of the last vaudeville houses in the city. Cohen moved the family to Salt Lake City, Utah, where he managed the Lyric Theater, another vaudeville house. Phillips attributes his early exposure to vaudeville through his stepfather as being an important influence on his later career.[3]

Phillips attended [4] He served in the United States Army for three years beginning in 1956 (at the latest). Witnessing the devastation of post-war Korea greatly influenced his social and political thinking. After discharge from the army, Phillips rode the railroads, and wrote songs.[5]


While riding the rails and tramping around the west, Phillips returned to Salt Lake City, where he met [4] Phillips assisted him in establishing a mission house of hospitality named after the activist Joe Hill.[6][7] Phillips worked at the Joe Hill House for the next eight years, then ran for the U.S. Senate as a candidate of Utah's Peace and Freedom Party in 1968. He received 2,019 votes (0.5%) in an election won by Republican Wallace F. Bennett. He also ran for president of the United States in 1976 for the Do-Nothing Party.[8]

He adopted the name U. Utah Phillips in emulation of country vocalist T. Texas Tyler.[9]

Phillips met folk singer Rosalie Sorrels in the early 1950s, and remained a close friend of hers. Sorrels started playing the songs that Phillips wrote, and through her his music began to spread. After leaving Utah in the late 1960s, he went to Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was befriended by the folk community at the Caffé Lena coffee house. He became a staple performer there for a decade, and would return throughout his career.

Phillips speaking at Waldheim Cemetery, Forest Park (outside Chicago) in May 1986 during ceremonies commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Haymarket affair.

Phillips was a proud member of the Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," "The Preacher and the Slave," and "Bread and Roses."

An avid trainhopper, Phillips recorded several albums of music related to the railroads, especially the era of steam locomotives. His first recorded album, Good Though!, is an example, and contains such songs as "Daddy, What's a Train?" and "Queen of the Rails" as well as what may be his most famous composition, "Moose Turd Pie"[10] wherein he tells a tall tale of his work as a gandy dancer repairing track in the Southwestern United States desert.

In 1991 Phillips recorded, in one take, an album of song, poetry and short stories entitled I've Got To Know, inspired by his anger at the first Gulf War. The album includes "Enola Gay," his first composition written about the United States' atomic attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Phillips was a mentor to Kate Wolf. He recorded songs and stories with Rosalie Sorrels on a CD called The Long Memory (1996), originally a college project "Worker's Doxology" for 1992 'cold-drill Magazine' Boise State University. His protégée, Ani DiFranco, recorded two CDs, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (1996) and Fellow Workers (1999), with him.[11] He was nominated for a Grammy Award for his work with DiFranco. His "Green Rolling Hills" was made into a country hit by Emmylou Harris, and "The Goodnight-Loving Trail" became a classic as well, being recorded by Ian Tyson, Tom Waits, and others.

Later years

Though known primarily for his work as a concert performer and labor organizer, Phillips also worked as an archivist, dishwasher, and warehouse-man.[12]

Phillips was a member of various socio-political organizations and groups throughout his life. A strong supporter of labor struggles, he was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers (Mine Mill), and the Travelling Musician's Union AFM Local 1000. In solidarity with the poor, he was also an honorary member of Dignity Village, a homeless community. A pacifist, he was a member of Veterans for Peace and the Peace Center of Nevada County.[12]

In his personal life, Phillips enjoyed varied hobbies and interests. These included Egyptology; amateur chemistry; linguistics; history (Asian, African, Mormon and world); futhark; debate; and poetry. He also enjoyed culinary hobbies, such as pickling, cooking and gardening.[12]

He married Joanna Robinson on July 31, 1989, in Nevada City.[12]

Acetate stencil commemorating the life and death of Utah Phillips (1935-2008)

Phillips became an elder statesman for the folk music community, and a keeper of stories and songs that might otherwise have passed into obscurity. He was also a member of the great Traveling Nation, the community of hobos and railroad bums that populates the Midwest United States along the rail lines, and was an important keeper of their history and culture. He also became an honorary member of numerous folk societies in the U.S.A. and Canada.[12]

When Kate Wolf grew ill and was forced to cancel concerts, she asked Phillips to fill in. Suffering from an ailment which makes it more difficult to play guitar, Phillips hesitated, citing his declining guitar ability. "Nobody ever came just to hear you play," she said. Phillips told this story as a way of explaining how his style over the years became increasingly based on storytelling instead of just songs. He was a gifted storyteller and monologist, and his concerts generally had an even mix of spoken word and sung content. He attributed much of his success to his personality. "It is better to be likeable than talented," he often said, self-deprecatingly.

Until it lost its funding, Phillips hosted his own weekly radio show, Loafer's Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind, originating on KVMR and nationally syndicated.

Phillips lived in [5]

In August 2007, Phillips announced that he would undergo catheter ablation to address his heart problems.[14] Later that autumn, Phillips announced that due to health problems he could no longer tour.[15] By January 2008, he decided against a heart transplant.[5]

Phillips died May 23, 2008 in Nevada City, California, from complications of heart disease, at the age of 73.[1] He was survived by his wife, sons Duncan and Brendan, and a daughter, Morrigan.[5] Following a private service, a public memorial was held on June 1, in Pioneer Park, in Nevada City. His service was officiated by Meghan Cefalu, a Unitarian Universalist pastor. Phillips is buried in Forest View Cemetery in Nevada City.


Solo albums

Other albums

  • 1985 Don't Mourn - Organize!: Songs Of Labor Songwriter Joe Hill - Various Artists (Smithsonian Folkways)
  • 1992 Rebel Voices: Songs of the Industrial Workers of the World - Various Artists (Flying Fish)
  • 1996 The Long Memory - Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels (Red House Records)
  • 1997 Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips - Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin (Rounder)
  • 1997 Legends of Folk - Utah Phillips, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Spider John Koerner (Red House Records)
  • 2001 The Rose Tattoo Live - Trains, Tramps And Traditions The Rose Tattoo (Cookie Man Music)
  • 2008 May Day At The Pabst - Utah Philips, Larry Penn, recorded live in Milwaukee in 2006 (Cookie Man Music)
  • 2008 Strangers in Another Country: The Songs of Bruce "Utah" Phillips - Rosalie Sorrels (Red House Records)
  • 2009 Singing Through the Hard Times: A Tribute to Utah Phillips - Various Artists (Righteous Babe Records)
  • 2011 Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips - Various Artists from the Region of Utah, USA. (Waterbug Records)

Notes and references

  1. ^ a b "Utah Phillips Has Left the Stage", KVMR, Nevada City, California, May 24, 2008. Accessed 2008-05-24.
  2. ^ "Voting For the First Time". Retrieved 2007-12-27. I'm an anarchist and I've been an anarchist many, many years. 
  3. ^ Phillips, Utah. June 2002 interview, Retrieved 2013-12-7.
  4. ^ a b "Folk Revival in Salt Lake City?",, Retrieved 2013-12-7
  5. ^ a b c d Pelline, Jeff; Butler, Pat (2008-05-26). "From hobo to fame".  
  6. ^ Rattler, Fast. "Utah Phillips on the Catholic Worker, Polarization, and Songwriting" (interview). Retrieved 2008-03-01. 
  7. ^ Crane, Carolyn. "Interview with Utah Phillips" (interview, Z Magazine). Retrieved 2008-03-01. 
  8. ^ Hawthorn, Tom. "Unapologetic Wobbly folk singer found a second home in Canada" (obituary,  
  9. ^ Direct quotation from his biography in The Washington Post, May 30, 2008.
  10. ^ Phillips, Bruce. "Moose Turd Pie" (mp3). Retrieved 2008-01-12. 
  11. ^ Merritt, Stephanie. "Life Support". London. 
  12. ^ a b c d e "Bruce Phillips".  
  13. ^ Russell, Tony (24 June 2008). "Utah Phillips: Folksinger, songwriter and bard of the last days of the US railroad".  
  14. ^ Phillips, U.Utah. "The Latest From FW Utah Phillips" (announcement). Retrieved 2008-02-24. 
  15. ^ Phillips, Utah. "Retirement Announcement" (mp3). Archived from the original on 2008-02-27. Retrieved 2008-03-01. 

External links

  • Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73 - Picture gallery and official obituary provided by family.
  • September 2003 Interview in The Progressive
  • Biography from the 1997 Folk Alliance Lifetime Achievement Awards
  • Summer 2005 Interview in "Unlikely Stories"
  • Fall 2005 Interview in YES! Magazine
  • Turtle Vision photo gallery of Utah Phillips
  •   (Radio broadcast)
  • The “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest”, Utah Phillips memorial page on Democracy Now!
  • Utah Phillips interview with David Kupfer, The Progressive, September 2003.
  • "Voting for the First Time", by Carolyn Crane. The Nation. October 12, 2004.
  • cover performance of "All Used Up" by Suzanne Langille in London, May 14, 2011 on YouTube.
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