Ken Sanders ruminates on the passing of U. Utah Phillips—anarchist, Wobbly, hobo, railroader, songwriter, folksinger, activist, iconoclast, husband, father and all-around amazing human being.
The golden voice of the great Southwest, U. Utah Phillips, will sing and storytell no more. Bruce Phillips passed away at his Nevada City, Calif., home, May 23 from heart failure at age 73. After a lifetime spent on the road helping others, speaking and singing out against injustice wherever he found it, one of America’s great iconoclasts is dead with few worldly goods left over for himself. Eschewing monetary wealth his entire life, he made a conscious choice not to seek out a heart transplant that might have prolonged his life—not simply because he couldn’t afford it and had no health insurance, but in part because of quality-of-life issues.
U. Utah Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 15, 1935, during the Great Depression. He later served his country during the Korean War in the 1950s, where his political views and anti-establishment stance were formed. Musically influenced by Woody Guthrie and the emerging folk protest movements of the 1930s and ’40s, he styled his moniker, U. Utah Phillips, after his musical hero, T. Texas Tyler.
Phillips grew up in Salt Lake City and spent many years of his life here and always had a love/hate affair with his adopted state. It was in Salt Lake City that he met Ammon Hennacy, a Catholic anarchist and fellow Wobbly who founded the Joe Hill House, which Phillips and Hennacy ran for many years. A card-carrying member of the International Workers of the World (nicknamed Wobblies) for most of his life, Utah Phillips spent his life defending the rights of the working man, the homeless and the indigent and also had a lifelong passion for trains and hobos.
Around this time he first met fellow singer songwriter folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, who was the first to popularize and record songs by Phillips. Sorrels and Phillips became lifelong friends and performed dozens of concerts together over the decades. He ran for the U.S. Senate from Utah in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Ticket, garnering over 2,000 votes but defeated by long-term U.S. Senator Wallace F. Bennett. father of current long-term Utah Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett. His first recorded album was
Good Though, followed by
We Have Fed You For a Thousand Years, and he gained a whole new audience through his joint album with Ani DiFranco,
Fellow Workers. Many other musicians (Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Ian Tyson, Rosalie Sorrels, Ani DiFranco and others) have recorded Utah Phillips songs over the years, including such classics as “Moose Turd Pie,” “Rock Salt & Nails,” “Green Rolling Hills,” “ Daddy, What’s a Train,” and “Goodnight-Loving Train.”
For many years, Utah Phillips hosted his own radio show in Nevada City called
Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind and was a well-known community activist there. His storytelling abilities were legendary and any Utah Phillips performance was likely at least three-quarters stories with a few tunes thrown in. He was an ardent student of history and had a lifelong passion for trains and hoboes. His passing has rent a huge whole in the fabric of the universe which can’t be mended. He will be missed. Rave on, Utah Phillips!
Postscript: I first became aware of Utah Phillips as a youth in the ’60s in Salt Lake City back when Phillips was running for U.S. Senate. Phillips was also involved in the then-campaign to get the national anthem changed to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Through the Cosmic Aeroplane in the 1970s, I had the honor and privilege of getting to know Bruce as a friend and was involved in several concerts back in that day, including an environmental fund-raiser concert with Phillips and the late Edward Abbey, who although they’d never previously met, became friendly after that concert. Abbey tried to track Phillips down the next day to get him to show Abbey the exact spot in the old prison grounds where they’d shot Joe Hill. Later, we sponsored a concert with Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels at East High School through the Cosmic Aeroplane. Phillips hadn’t been back to Utah in a few years and, prior to the concert, police had dusted off an old outstanding warrant for his arrest and threw him in jail. We had to bail him out of jail in order for the concert to proceed that evening. Several years ago, after losing track of him over the years, our paths crossed at the Gold Rush Book Fair in Nevada City, Calif., where he was the guest of honor, and we renewed our decades-old friendship. I last saw Phillips and his wife Joanne exactly a year ago, at the same Gold Rush Book Fair, where Utah regaled my daughter Melissa with stories throughout that evening. Rock salt and nails, amigo, rock salt and nails.
Private Eye will return next week.