U. Utah Phillips leaves the stage
Word has passed from the Sierra Nevada foothills that legendary traveling troubador and champion of the common laborer U. Utah Phillips died at his home in Nevada City Friday (May 23) at age 73. The cause, it’s said, was congestive heart failure.
Phillips was perhaps second only to Pete Seeger in longevity and prominence in leading the musical fight for the rights of American workers, the homeless, the politically oppressed and more. And he always spoke his mind in a way that was all at once witty, caustic and poetic.
Take his reaction to TV sets: “Don’t have one; don’t like ’em,” Phillips said in a 2005 phone conversation we shared for the Enterprise-Record, in advance of a Chico benefit concert. “I like to talk to my wife and my neighbors.
“Television is the way that corporate America can sink its fish hooks into your brains. Last one I had, I shot. Dragged it to the back yard, put a bandanna around it for a blindfold, stuck a cigarette to it and lit it.”
Phillips was full of such whimsy, a cumulative result of writing songs and telling tales of his travels for more than 50 years.
Since serving in the Korean War, Phillips befriended countless people on freight trains, at performances and through his involvement with the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies, a workers’ rights advocacy union that counted Phillips as a member for more than 50 years).
“Labor creates all wealth, so wealth belongs to labor,” Phillips said. “All the union does is bring things together you can’t do alone. People wake up in the morning and go to work in a non-democratic situation. I think the most important ballot you’ll ever take is the one that brings the vote into the workplace.”
Phillips, whose given first name was Bruce, adopted the stage name U. Utah Phillips. The “Utah” moniker is easy to figure out. He spent much of his adult life there. That is, until his political leanings created some ill will.
“I was a state archivist, an employee for the state,” he said. “In 1968 I ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. I took a leave of absence from the state and took 6,000 votes. The upshot was my job was no longer there. I was kind of blackballed.
“Finally, friends convinced me to leave the state and make a living telling stories. And that was a godsend. I discovered a community that was all over, below the media’s notice.”
Phillips said rather than just come into a town, do a show and leave, he enjoyed spending time learning the local culture. His Chico visit in December 2005 was a typical one: He dropped by a local community shelter and the Chico Peace and Justice Center before performing a solo concert that night for the Butte Folk Music Society.
“In this trade, I discovered I was in fact paid to go to school, and every town is a classroom,” Phillips said, “and it’s up to me to ask the questions and seek out the odd and unusual. And in every town there are things that just people who grew up there know—events, places, even a phrase.”
In recent years, Phillips—who worked on and recorded two successful projects with Ani DiFranco in the late 1990s—released Starlight on the Rails in 2005, a combination songbook and 61-song, four-CD set. He also had a long-running syndicated radio show, Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind, that originated at Nevada City’s community radio station, KVMR-FM.
Despite his strong convictions, Phillips said, “I don’t want people to get the idea that I’m gonna get onstage and beat them on the head with politics. I want them to get loose and laugh. I have things I want to say, but if I have a goal at all, it’s to have people feel better when they leave than when they came.”