Utah Phillips is dead

Bruce “Utah” Phillips died on on Friday. Commenter Dan Schatz tells us:

Sadly, we lost Utah on Friday. He died peacefully in his sleep next to his wife. Utah had been a founding member of his [Unitarian Universalist] fellowship in Nevada City, CA, and though he often made light of his UUism, it was extremely important to him. He was sometimes known as “U. Utah Phillips” (a take-off on the country singer T. Texas Tyler); a few weeks ago I joked with him that it stood for “Unitarian.” “Well, you figured it out,” he said.

The various benefit concerts and other projects that were planned for Utah are still going ahead, as a memorial and a way to make sure Utah’s family remains well supported. If one of the concerts is in your area, I advise you to go to it. If you see a Utah Phillips CD, pick it up — the songs will astound you with their beauty.

Thanks for letting us all know, Dan. On the the Utah Phillips Web site, his son Duncan reports:

Utah’s wish was to not be embalmed and laid to rest in a plain, hand made wooden coffin to expedite his return to the earth, which we will honor. He will be laid to rest in the cemetery down the road from his home in Nevada City.

Ecologically sensible, just as you’d expect — what a good last act of a profoundly caring life. As soon as I finish typing this, I think I’ll go find a Utah Phillips CD and listen to it. Obituaries and press notices after the jump…

There have been a few press notices of Utah Phillips: one in his local paper, the Grass Valley (Calif.) Union, and one from his home state in the Salt Lake Tribune. Indymedia and other independent leftist news outlets are noticing his death, but I don’t expect anything in the national papers. And the full “official” obituary, from his Web site:

Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73

Nevada City, California, May 24, 2008 (obituary as provided by his family)

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 Tyler.

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 about.”

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 improving.

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.

6 thoughts on “Utah Phillips is dead

  1. Patrick Murfin

    Thanks for the entry. Utah was an old freind and Fellow Worker. We were among the few folks who were both Wobblies and UUs. For my reminicances and some other links check out my blog “Heretic, rebel, a Thing To Flout” at

  2. Lois Reborne

    Thanks for this notice, Dan. I was so lucky to be a part of a leftist/folk culture promoting organization in Kansas City called Foolkiller/Cross Currents for many years, where Utah was a great favorite. His music and spirit live on –
    inspiring me to look for the song and the humor in any grim situation.
    Blessings to his family and loved ones.

  3. mskitty

    I have sung many a Utah Phillips song, mostly in Colorado, where he came and performed regularly when I lived there through 1999. The one we all sang the most lustily, which I think was never published anywhere, since I can only find a couple of references to it on google, was “The New Colorado State Song”. The chorus goes:
    “Well you can visit now and then,
    Bring your money, bring your friends,
    Bring your campers and your Winnebagoes too.
    Bring your festivals and dope, and we all sincerely hope,
    That you don’t forget to leave when you get through.”

    Colorado was, at the time (and maybe still is), being bought up by Texans and Californians and we were all of a mind that since we’d gotten there first (huh?), they should all go home. Hmm…

  4. Echo (Linda Ray)

    I am also fortunate to be a member of the Foolkiller/Crosscurrents community in Kansas City who once had the opportunity to host The Rose Tattoo. I’ll never forget walking toward the campfire on Friday night and hearing Utah reciting “The Highwayman”. That was truly a memorable weekend and produced a great CD. It was a privelege to share one short weekend with this remarkable human being.

  5. Jamie Jacks

    This is grim news, and I am sorry to come across it. It came across it while I was searching for news about The Foolkiller in Kansas City.

    Like another former Foolkiller member who has posted, I had the privilege of attending some of Utah’s concerts.

    Moose Turd Pie is my most memorable Phillips song, mainly because I make coffee or provide services for some voluntary organizations whose members like to drink coffee and complain about the coffee. Moose Turd Pie always comes to mind.

    He’ll be missed, but he will not cease to be remembered with kindness.

    Jamie Jacks


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