Utah Phillips, security risk
FBI documents show agency spied on famous folksinger for most of the 1960s
In his remembrance of U. Utah Phillips, the folksinger and songwriter who died at the age of 73 on May 23 (”U. Utah Phillips leaves the stage,” CN&R, May 29), Alan Sheckter writes about the “ill will” Phillips’ leftist political leanings created in his adopted state of Utah.
In a 2005 interview with Sheckter, Phillips had described how he was working as a state archivist in 1968 when he ran for the U.S. Senate in Utah on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket. “I took a leave of absence from the state and took 6,000 votes,” he said. “The upshot was my job was no longer there. I was blackballed.”
Actually, it turned out to be “a godsend,” Phillips said. He followed friends’ advice and hit the road as a “traveling troubadour,” becoming an almost legendary figure among American folksingers. He finally settled in Nevada City.
Interested in learning more about Phillips’ early years in Utah, and particularly about the political animosity toward him, the CN&R submitted a Freedom of Information Act request seeking Phillips’ FBI records.
Several months later, in mid-November, a packet arrived containing more than 40 pages of material, all of it going back to Phillips’ Utah days. Phillips, it turned out, was under intense surveillance for several years.
Bruce Duncan Phillips, as he was then named, first came to the FBI’s attention in 1961, when he was part of the group “Life for Garcia” calling for the commutation of the death sentence of a convicted murder (it eventually was commuted). By the mid-1960s, Phillips was showing up at anti-Vietnam War rallies, where he often participated by singing union and anti-war songs.
The FBI duly noted his attendance, as well as the sponsoring groups’ relationship, always highly tangential, with the Communist Party of Utah.
Meanwhile, the FBI was interviewing Phillips’ co-workers at the Utah Historical Society, in Salt Lake City, where he was an archivist. One informant said he considered Phillips “self-centered; that his peace and related ideas have the basic purpose of attracting attention to himself, and that he does not think through his activities and attitudes.”
Another noted that Phillips was “an adequate employee but [was] a problem to the state because of his interest in peace activities and anti-capital-punishment activities.”
Under the heading “Miscellaneous Subversive Activities,” the dossier noted Phillips’ attendance at meetings of the Utah Council for Constitutional Liberties and the Public Affairs Forum of Utah County, two groups focused largely on anti-war activities. He also attended meetings of the April Committee, a student anti-war group, and other, similar groups. The FBI apparently had informants at all of them.
In February 1968, Phillips organized the People’s Party and became its chairman. Soon renamed the Poor People’s Party, it had a goal of getting candidates on the November ballot. By July, it had merged with the Peace and Freedom Party of California.
At a state convention held Aug. 24, Phillips was selected to run for the U.S. Senate. He did so only after party members agreed to come up with the $480 a month in lost income when he took a leave of absence from his archivist job.
Phillips traveled the state campaigning, with the FBI dogging his trail much of the time. After the election, in which he got just under 2 percent of the vote, he was out of a job.
During the years when it had Phillips under surveillance, the FBI talked with him twice. On Aug. 2, 1967, he told agents he was engaged in civil-rights, anti-Vietnam and related activities and that he “deplore[d] any resort to extremism which could involve violation of law or violence,” according to FBI documents. And on Jan. 2, 1968, he described his anti-war goals, adding that he was “personally opposed to communists, as are most of the peace people.”
What’s clear from the FBI reports is that the agency had an almost pathological obsession about the doings of the Communist Party of the USA, a group that by 1968 had little influence and dwindling numbers. Clearly, though, it served as a raison d'être—a kind of full-employment act, so to speak—for the FBI, which spent vast sums of money chasing down what amounted to ephemera.
Certainly it never had reason to scrutinize Utah Phillips. Finally, in February 1969, after Phillips had left Utah and embarked on his full-time music career, the bureau acknowledged as much. That’s when it decided he no longer met the criteria for the Security Index—the list of people the FBI monitored as possible security risks—and stopped spying on him.