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U. Utah Phillips

"The golden voice of the great American Southwest," Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips was not one to take retirement sitting down. Retired from touring after 1996 and plagued with heart problems that eventually ended his life in 2008 at age 73, the politically conscious Nevada City, CA-based singer and storyteller remained active and involved as long as possible, writing to his family and friends shortly before his death, "My body is weak but my will is strong, and I keep my disposition as sunny and humorous as I’m able." Utah Phillips added, "The future? I don’t know. But I have songs in a folder I’ve never paid attention to, and songs inside me waiting for me to bring them out. Through all of it, up and down, it’s the song. It’s always been the song."

Phillips' political awareness was inherited from his parents who were union organizers in the 1930s. His mother worked for the C.I.O. before it merged with the A.F.L. As a youngster, Phillips was influenced by his exposure to the theater after his parents were divorced and his mother was remarried to the manager of the Hippodrome in Cleveland, one of the last of the old vaudeville houses. His involvement with the theater continued after moving with his mother and stepfather to Utah in 1947. Although his stepfather founded Film Service International and his stepbrother went on to become a producer for Universal Studios, Phillips found his creativity pulled in another direction, running away from so much that his mother started wrapping his lunch in a road map.

After cutting his early musical teeth on a baritone ukulele on which he learned to play from Ukulele Ike songbooks, Phillips' musical direction was altered after he left home and traveled to Yellowstone Park to work on a road crew. The older workers on the crew, who played guitars and sang old Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry songs, taught Phillips how to turn ukulele chords into guitar chords by adding a couple of fingers. As a soldier during the Korean conflict, Phillips continued to find refuge in music and helped to form a band, the Rice Paddy Ramblers. A turning point in his growing political awareness came when he attended a concert in a Korean theater by black vocalist Marian Anderson. The experience caused Phillips to recall the anger that he felt when Anderson had come to Utah to perform at his stepfather's theater and she had been refused entry into the town's hotel.

Phillips' political awakening continued after he returned to the United States. Befriended by Ammon Hennessey at the Joe Hill House for Transients and Migrants, he was convinced to become a pacifist. Phillips' use of music as a political weapon was strongly influenced by Hennessey. On the way to a demonstration at a Hiroshima peace memorial, Phillips was encouraged to write his first song, "The Enola Gay." Writing the song stirred a new understanding of the power of music as Phillips realized that a song, besides being entertaining, could be inspirational. Phillips has been a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) for more than 40 years. Although he misplaced his membership card in Korea, he had it reinstated after returning to the United States.

While he sang in taverns where money would be thrown into his guitar case, Phillips had little understanding of folk music. The situation changed when Phillips was approached by folklorist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kenneth S. Goldstein, who had traveled to Utah to attend a folklore conference in 1960. Overheard by Goldstein, as he sat on his front porch singing, Phillips was invited to record his first album, No One Knows Me, on a rented tape recorder at the local university.

Phillips continued to balance his love of music with his political involvement. In the early '60s, he was involved with Fair Play for Cuba and the struggle for open housing laws in Utah. In 1968, he was nominated and campaigned for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket. Although he received 6,000 votes, the experience led to Phillips being dismissed from his job with the Utah State Archives. Following the election, Phillips remained in Utah for a year, working for the Migrant Council and living on a cot in the back of a big warehouse called "the Cosmic Airplane." Encouraged by friends, including folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, to try his hand at performing, Phillips moved to the East Coast in 1969. Temporarily stopping in New York's Greenwich Village, Phillips settled, for several years, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he became a regular performer at Caffe Lena.

In 1991, Phillips toured with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Spider John Koerner. Their performance at the World Theater in Minneapolis was taped and released as Legends of Folk the following year. Later in the '90s, an album of his stories and between-song patter set to music by Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, introduced his anarchistic persona to a young audience, while Loafer's Glory, a collection of stories, poems, and songs set to the accompaniment of Woody Guthrie-influenced guitarist Mark Ross, showed his longtime audience that he still had something of importance to say. In addition to two of his earlier albums -- El Capitan and All Used Up -- being released as The Telling Takes Me Home, Phillips' work was honored with an album-length celebration of his songs by bluegrass duo Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips, that received a Grammy nomination as Best Traditional Folk Album of 1997. Phillips and Ross initially worked together in the late '80s when Phillips contracted focal dystonia in his right hand, which prevented him from fingerpicking, and Dupuytren's contracture in his left hand, which made it difficult for him to make a chord. His collaboration with DiFranco was instigated by a letter that he received from the hard-edged acoustic performer. The stories that DiFranco set to music were culled from over 100 hours of his live performances.

Although he slowed his touring down to one performance a month in his later years before ceasing them entirely, he found other mediums in which to express his music and political concerns. Phillips, who had run for president annually since 1969, hosted a weekly one-hour radio show, Loafer's Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind, broadcast by KPSA in Berkeley, CA over the Pacifica network between 1997 and 2001. In addition to being aired on the five stations owned by Pacifica, the show was made available to any community radio station at no charge. Released in 1999, The Moscow Hold featured more of his stories and poems.

To the end, Utah Phillips remained acutely aware of what was truly important in life. "I spent a long time finding my way -- couches, floors, big towns, small towns, marginal pay (folk wages)," he wrote in his final letter to family and friends. "But I found that people seemed to like what I was doing. The folk music family took me in, carried me along, and taught me the value of song far beyond making a living. It taught me that I don’t need wealth, I don’t need power, and I don’t need fame. What I need is friends, and that’s what I found -- everywhere -- and not just among those on the stage, but among those in front of the stage as well." ~ Craig Harris, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography


Track List: Starlight On The Rails: A Songbook

Disc 1
Disc 2
Disc 3
Disc 4


When I met Bruce, both my wife and I felt we were in a special presence. He had an air about him that just made us want to see more. His stories were great, his message was special. We really do miss him.
-I met Utah at Expo '74 in Spokane WA where he was a consistent presence for the full six months. I was a volunteer. He would perform a few times a day along with other people. Utah was the stand-out and the performer that most people really responded to. I learned a lot about the Wobblies, inequality and the really important things in life from him. He showed me the three true values...pra c t i c a l , aesthetic and funk. If not one of these, get rid of it. I miss him...a lot.
I knew Utah in Salt Lake City. He and Rosalie Sorrels influenced me greatly. After my divorce in 1968 I took my backpack & my guitar & hit the road. I sang all over Europe & the far east. I am glad to connected with Utah's music again on Pandora.
What an apt statement there at the end of his bio...."what I need is friends". Where are the larger than life folk legends, like Utah Phillips, Kate Wolf and Woody Guthrie, of yesteryear? It seems we live in such a jaded age. Choosing a simple life where our decisions are based on what we love is still the most important thing. To express this in song is such a gift.
choperini117 0
Love "Bridges" on The Past Didn't Go Anywhere. Want to listen over and over until I absorb the meaning of every word. So much in there. Love his voice, too.
One of my long-time favorite singer/songw r i t e r s . One of my favorite songs from him is "I remember lovin' you". Priscilla Herdman wrote verses from the woman's perspective and they recorded it together on one of her albums.
A wonderful song writer, who wrote tunes like Rock Salt and Nails, Starlight on the Rails and Phoebe Snow, a great story teller and an astute observer of politics and lif, Utah Phillips was a true American, in the very best sense of the word.
Pandora continues to amaze me. I've been introduced to artists, such as Mr. Phillips, that I may have never had the pleasure to here. Thank you, Pandora. As soon as my budget allows...I'l l be upgrading with great anticipation ! ! !
Paraphrasing rebel Jungian analyst James Hillman "we need odd ladies and peculiar gentlemen in our lives so we can figure out who we are." When everyone looks and acts like everyone else it is difficult to figure out what really matters to us. Utah pushed us to think about what really matters. In addition he was one of the great singing storytellers of the last century. Get your hands on anything by him that you can... if you're reading this you'll probably like it and he'll make you think about
I've seen U. Utah Phillips many times and always enjoyed both his wonderfully soft yet strong voice as well of his great stories. He and the reknowned artist Jacob Lawrence were special guests at our union's 25th anniversity (Our union was SEIU Local 535, a California-w i d e local representing Social workers, nurses and other human service workers.) The current Internationa l President unfortunatel merged our union along with nine others into a new local he could control.
The song ," Stupid's song" is so true.
Here's a great example of what Pandora's all about. I grew up in the '60s...sang folk music till the wee hours and still once heard about Mr. Phillips.

I have to wonder if he, like many other folk singers, didn't live with a certain amount of despair daily. Only a small, VERY small handful of people ever took protest songs seriously enough to change their lifestyle. Certainly none of the warmakers did or do now. Sing all you like but let's have no illusions that you're making a difference.
Utah Phillips is sorely missed. With Studs Terkel gone, we have lost two of the great observers of the human condition. But our loss is the gain of a better place....
One can only hope that his powerful song "Enola Gay" would be required listening for those planning military operations.
He was the epitome of the one man and a guitar with something worth while and humane to say.
Utah passed away this May - one of the great humans of our time -

He once said "that folk music is free music by the people - for the people. By definition there is no Republican folk music."

He would often start concerts by asking any body with a job to raise their hands. After a long pause he would wryly laugh "suckers!" and going into a ramblin hobo song.

He believed you have to f*** with people - we take ourselves too seriously.
I don't know much about what you call class, but the upper and middle can all kiss my a**!
I have met Utah on a couple of occasions and he has always been a jovial and enjoyable man. Long live Utah and the Wobblies.
A. Westergreen

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