Public enemy

FBI documents show agency spied on folk singer Utah Phillips for most of the 1960s

Utah Phillips, menace to society.

Utah Phillips, menace to society.

Photo By Michael Scollard

When Nevada City resident U. Utah Phillips died at the age of 73 on May 23, America lost one of its last great traveling folk singers. Like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger before him, Phillips combined progressive activism with traditional folk music and a genuine love for the common man into an art form that enamored him with a large audience of like-minded individuals across the country.

However, in the 1960s, the same leftist political beliefs Phillips would channel into a career spanning nearly four decades caught the attention of a very different audience: the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which placed Phillips on its “security index,” a list of people to be monitored as possible security threats, according to FBI documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

Born Bruce Duncan Phillips, the native of Utah 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 murderer (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 State 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.”

Two heroes of progressive thinking stand shoulder to shoulder: U. Utah Phillips and Dave Smith, of Phillips’ father’s generation of political radicals. Smith was a machine gunner in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Photo By Michael Scollard

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 August 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 Phillips was under surveillance, the FBI talked with him twice. On August 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 January 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 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.

Phillips believed he was blackballed from his job with the state archives after his Senate run, but the loss turned out to be fortuitous, since it provided him the opportunity to pursue his music full time.

At any rate, the FBI files show that the agency never really had a reason to scrutinize Utah Phillips. In February 1969, after Phillips left Utah and embarked on his music career, the bureau acknowledged as much. That’s when it decided he no longer met the criteria for the security index and stopped spying on him.