When newspapers across America noted the passing of Bruce "Utah" Phillips on May 23 of congestive heart failure, they used plenty of words to describe the man, including raconteur, activist, itinerant folk singer, unionist, peacenik, agitator, hobo and even "poet of the railroad." I recall Utah Phillips as a Santa Claus-like, guitar-strumming hell raiser who journeyed from place to place, playing his music free of charge (or for a tiny fee). I heard him twice -- once at a peace demonstration in the 1980s and then at an event for the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) in Salt Lake City in the mid-1990s.
He sang folk songs about down-and-out people -- men and women living on the edge -- and he sang old labor songs and ballads about the railroads and hard-traveling people. He was the real deal, as authentic as they come. Born in 1935 in Cleveland to labor activist parents, Utah Phillips worked in a number of different jobs growing up. He was also a Korean War veteran. Along the way through life, he learned the art of folksinging from other hard living people. As Phillips told the Boston Globe back in 1999: "I worked with lots of old drunks only fit to shovel gravel. But, they all knew songs, and they showed me how to play them. The reason I wound up doing what I do now, I guess, was that the songs these guys sang were so close to their lives, to what they were experiencing in their work and loves and afflictions."
Utah Phillips' debut album appeared in 1973. Over the years, he recorded numerous songs and several records. He collaborated in the late 1990s with Ani DiFranco and the two of them were nominated for an Emmy for their work together. He was a singer in the tradition of Joe Hill, Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. He possessed a purity -- not a self-righteous purity, but a purity of authentic decency -- that showed in the songs he sang. When I saw him, he played for small crowds on outdoor stages, but he performed with the same enthusiasm you'd expect from someone singing their heart out at Woodstock.
Phillips was also a radical. He was a lifelong member of the I.W.W. He was an anarchist and a humanist. He'd be the first to agree with the old bumper sticker that said, "Capitalism is Organized Crime." He knew that the only way that poor and working-class people would see any improvements in their lives would be if they fought like hell to change society for the better. Utah Phillips was colorful, creative, outspoken and fearless. He worked hard his entire life. He made the people in his audiences -- young and old, male and female -- laugh, cry, hope and, perhaps most importantly, he emboldened them. He was one of those remarkable people who wasn't afraid to live on the fringes of society and yet, ironically, there was also something so quintessentially American about him.
Bruce "Utah" Phillips (1935-2008)