Good company

Utah Phillips brings 70 years of songs and stories to CP&JC benefit

Courtesy Of Fleming & Associates

Butte Folk Music Society presents An Evening with Utah Phillips (a fundraiser for the Chico Peace & Justice Center). Sat., Dec. 3, 8 p.m. First Congregational Church, 1190 E. First Ave. Doors: 6:30 p.m. for browsing of Fair Trade items for sale More info: (530) 895-1952 or, or (530) 893-9078 (Chico Peace & Justice).

Seventy-year-old Utah Phillips is a folksinging, storytelling icon—and humorist, historian, activist, Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) member, hobo, Grammy nominee (for his 1996 collaborative album with Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere) and self-described “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” among other things. Some of those “other things” include: founder of the Poor People’s Party in the state of Utah in the 1960s, Peace & Freedom party candidate for U.S. Senate in 1968, and repeat Presidential candidate on the Sloth & Indolence ticket since 1972.

“For nearly 30 years,” says Phillips on his Web site (, “I’ve traveled the U.S. and Canada telling stories and singing songs in every kind of situation imaginable. My performances have been patchworks of tall tales, labor songs and stories, tramping and railroad lore, and a general and often comic assessment of the passing parade. At the same time, by delving into my surroundings and the lives of the people I’ve encountered out there, I’ve harvested an abundance of their tales, songs, poems and mixed blather.”

But, even though Phillips isn’t able to travel so much these days for health reasons, the Butte Folk Music Society is bringing Mr. Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips to town for a couple of days of activism and music—thanks to the ongoing hard work (two years in the making) of Society members Laurel Paulson-Pierce, Kansas Wortham and Darla Novak, along with the Chico Peace & Justice Center.

Phillips spoke recently from his Nevada City home, which he shares with his wife, fellow peace activist Joanna Robinson.

Besides the Dec. 3 performance, Phillips, “one of the founders of the Nevada County Peace Center,” said he is also coming to Chico to talk with our P&JC people Dec. 2 to help develop an anti-war “counter-recruitment program” in response to ongoing high school military recruitment activity.

Phillips and his wife have been instrumental in finally getting a homeless shelter project going in Nevada County, and they will also be meeting with folks from the local shelter project, Chico Community Shelter Partnership, during the day of his performance, “to get some ideas and guidance to help our program advance.”

That afternoon, Phillips will meet with BFMS to discuss ideas to help promote organized folk music, which he describes as “probably one of the best and healthiest things that’s happening in this country these days.”

Phillips eagerly spoke, in his warm and resonant voice, of the “community building” that springs directly from the music, dancing and storytelling of organized folk music gatherings, such as the “singer circles"/ potlucks which are popping up and flourishing all over the country, “in living rooms, in backyards.”

“You just go around the circle; there’s no pressure,” Phillips explained. “You have three choices: Sing a song, or tell a poem or story; make a request from one of the others; or pass. Some singer circles have themes, like sea shanties or mining.”

Phillips mentioned several successful models for what’s possible with organized folk music today: The Sounding Board in Hartford, Conn., Pickin’ and Singin’ in Albany, Calif., and the San Francisco Folk Music Club.

“Music, dance and storytelling are the glue that holds the community together, what’s always held community together,” Phillips stressed. “[The singer circles] are part of a grassroots movement to build community. That’s what we desperately need: community.”

As [well-known mythology/ comparative religion author] Joseph Campbell said, ‘All we really want is to be completely human and in each other’s company'.”