May 27, 2008
"It’s one long stream, one long river. One flows into the other, year after year, song after song. And I’m in it all."
We lost a legend the other day. A huge void has appeared upon our cultural landscape. Utah Phillips, the loveable gruff-voiced vagabond troubadour with the piercing eyes and the knowing smile, has doffed his floppy hat and set down that big old Guild guitar for the last time. "The golden voice of the great Southwest" has ridden atop his last boxcar.
A man of hard-won courage and insight who made principled decisions and principled choices as a matter of form, young Bruce Phillips emerged from an Ohio boyhood of hours spent under the covers with a homemade crystal radio to become one of the truly singular voices of conscience within the American musical and social traditions.
Ending up in Utah with his mother after his folks split up, Phillips would hit the road early and often. Riding the rails quickly became his default mode of transportation and it was while working in a camp kitchen up in Yellowstone after just such an excursion that he would acquire the moniker by which legend would embrace him.
He talked so much about his idol, country & western songster T. Texas Tyler, that the cook, his boss, began calling him U. Utah Phillips. The name stuck and the myth was born.
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Into self-education from the get-go, Phillips would soak up each and every influence he encountered. Before long his ability to spin yarns and sling songs, all with undertones of social justice, or the lack thereof, would become classics within the more radical of folk music’s sub-genres.
A mid-1950s U.S. Army hitch in Korea, a festering bitterness over America losing its soul, and his own downward spiral would put him back boozing in the boxcars upon his return. It wasn’t until his cyclic meanders riding the rails with the hobo likes of "Hood River Blackie" and "Frying Pan Jack" deposited him back in Salt Lake City that he would discover the harmony for which he had longed.
The epiphany arrived in the form of a cantankerous Catholic anarchist and brother "Wobbly" named Ammon Hennacy who ran a homeless shelter and gathering place. "I got sorted out (including getting sobered up) by Ammon Hennacy when he took me into the ‘Joe Hill House’ and taught me to cherish my anger, but to apply it in a little different way," recalled Phillips in a 1999 interview in Sing Out magazine.
They quickly became brothers in arms, waging war against those who would exploit the poor and indigent. Soon, every hobo with a "kit and caboodle" knew he had friends waiting at the "Joe Hill House" in Salt Lake City. This would be the same brand of social activism that would guide the rest of his days.
The house also became a folk-music center of sorts where Utah Phillips and others of a similar persuasion could perform. A scene would develop, of course, and it would be within this sphere that he would meet and develop a lifelong friendship and close musical relationship with famed Utah folksinger Rosalie Sorrels.
It could be said that Phillips developed an unwavering firmness of character, a trait more attractive to some than others. Forty years ago, back during the political chaos that defined 1968, those locals of a like mind would convince their friend Bruce to run for the U.S. Senate on the "Peace and Freedom Party" ticket.
His open expressions of disdain for the self-serving foreign and domestic policies of the then-current administration (is this getting to sound familiar?) didn’t serve to make him many friends in high places, however, except, more than likely, the highest.
So Utah Phillips, the ardent and hilarious social activist and musical storyteller, would, once again, grab the next freight out of town and take his shtick on the road. A recording career, coupled with appearances at his favorite coffee houses and the odd festival, would follow. "Good Though!," a brilliant album featuring definitive live cuts recorded at Caffé Lena in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. would introduce him to the rest of the world.
Organizational work at the street level within whatever community he found himself also loomed at every turn. Once, during a concert at East High School, he lamented, between songs as was his way, the then-recent razing of Trent Alley in Spokane to make room for the World’s Fair.
Displacement of the have-nots for the benefit of the have-a-lots never went down well with Utah Phillips. In fact it served to fuel the tanks of both his art and his conscience two peas in a pod as it were. There would always be rage, of course, but, since Hennacy, it would be "cherished" and applied in a more subtle fashion.
Not that he couldn’t brandish his verbal scalpel when needed. Maybe his spirit will confront the Bush and Romney fundraising circus for McCain today when they set about "fleecing" Park City in the name of national security and the religious right.
If memory serves, there is the perfect line to suit the situation in "Cannonball Blues" from the "Good Though!" album: "The only place we get virgin wool from (in Utah) are from the sheep that can outrun the Mormons and the Republicans." Fleece that, scoundrels! Utah Phillips still rides the rails around these parts, and don’t you forget it!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and a free-lance writer with a background in commercial and community radio, among other pursuits. He has been a columnist and feature writer for various Park City publications going back to 1973.