Utah Phillips


Ken Sanders doesn’t blog. He’s probably much too busy maintaining the superb condition of his business, Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City. Ken, like Ray Obermayr, was on my list of interviewees last winter, and I saw them on successive days. Both interviews, in the way of things, acknowledged contributions to Rocky Mountain thinkers and characters and their contributions to our own intellectual and cultural development, and so, inevitably, there was to be mention of Bruce “Utah” Phillips eventually.

I knew him for forty years, and his old buddy and work partner, Ammon Hennacy was of singular importance in helping me to grapple with and resolve certain emotional and educational conflicts that had been growing in my mind as the result of facing induction into the armed forces of the United States in 1965, at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that preceded LBJ’s “surge” of US forces into Vietnam.

Hennacy spoke to the Idaho State University student body in assembly, and for several hours afterward to a small group of supremely intent listeners, detailing a view of the Left in US political history so appealing and at the same time disturbing for its contrast with the official, and far more widely accepted, views. My life was never the same afterward, and it probably would have been a lot easier, and definitely greedier, if I hadn’t paid such careful attention to his words. But that’s enough about me. Below is the text of Ken Sanders’ email, that greeted me when I lit up the screen this sunny Sunday Seoul morning. If you want to know what it was like to hang around Utah Phillips, type his name into the YouTube search window. Either you already have been, or you will be amazed. As an American radical, like Rosalie Sorrels, he enjoyed greater popularity outside the US, where the masses prefer far more flavorful brands of Kool-aid that most of our fellow Americans have traditionally been willing to settle for, but thanks to the W effect, our taste buds are significantly recovered.

If Heaven, despite all our certain confidence to the contrary, is a place where good souls go after our mortal bipedal marathon is finished, a train runs through it, and that’s where we’ll hear his guitar and that golden voice rising above the clickety-clack, laughing and singing, singing. Goodbye, Utah. Long live Utah.

THE GOLDEN VOICE OF THE GREAT SOUTHWEST IS GONE:

A rumination on the passing of U. Utah Phillips, anarchist, wobbly, hobo, railroader, folksinger, activist, great iconoclast, husband, father and all-around amazing human being. By Ken Sanders, a friend.

The golden voice of the great southwest, U. Utah Phillips, will sing and story tell no more. Bruce Phillips passed away at his Nevada City, California home, last evening, May 23rd, 2008 from heart failure, at age 73. After a lifetime spent on the road and speaking and singing out against injustice wherever he found it, one of America’s great iconoclasts is dead. After a lifetime spent helping others, Utah Phillips had little of worldly goods left over for himself. Eschewing monetary wealth his entire life, he made a conscious choice not to seek out a heart transplant that might have prolonged his life; not simply because he couldn’t afford it and had no health insurance, but in part because of quality of life issues.

U. Utah Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, May 15th, 1935 during the great depression and later served his country during the Korean War in the 1950s, where his political views and anti-establishment stance were formed. Musically influenced by Woody Guthrie and the emerging
folk protest movements of the 1930s & 40s, he styled his moniker, U. Utah Phillips, after his musical hero, T. Texas Tyler. He grew up in Salt Lake City, Utah, and spent many years of his life here and always had a love/hate affair with his adopted state. It was in Salt Lake
that he met Ammon Hennacy, a Catholic anarchist and fellow wobbly, who founded the Joe Hill House, which Phillips and Hennacy ran for many years. A card carrying member of the IWW for most of his life, Utah Phillips spent his life defending the rights of the working man, the
homeless and the indigent and also had a lifelong passion for trains and hobos.

Around this time he first met fellow singer songwriter folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, who was the first to popularize and record songs by Phillips. Sorrels and Phillips became lifelong friends and performed dozens of concerts together over the decades. He ran for the U.S. Senate from Utah in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Ticket, garnering over 2,000 votes in a defeat to long term U.S. Senator, Wallace F. Bennett, father of current long term Utah Republican senator, Robert F.
Bennett. His first recorded album was Good Though, followed by We Have Fed You For a Thousand Years, and he gained a whole new audience through his joint album with Ani DiFranco, Fellow Workers. Many other musicians (Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Ian Tyson, Rosalie Sorrels, Ani DiFranco & many others) have recorded Utah Phillips songs over the
years, including such classics as “Moose Turd Pie,” “Rock Salt & Nails,” “Green Rolling Hills,” ” Daddy, What’s A Train,” and “Goodnight-Loving Train.”

For many years Utah Phillips hosted his own radio show in Nevada City called “Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind” and was a well-known community activist there. His story telling abilities were legendary and any Utah Phillips performance was likely at least three quarters stories with a few tunes thrown in. He was an ardent student of history and had a lifelong passion for trains and hoboes His passing has rent a huge whole in the fabric of the universe which can’t be mended. He will be missed. Rave On Utah Phillips! RAVE ON!

POSTSCRIPT: I first became aware of Utah Phillips as a youth in the 60s in Salt Lake through the old Cosmic Aeroplane, back when he was running for the U. S. Senate. I believe Bruce was also involved in the then campaign to get the national anthem changed to Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land.” Through the Cosmic Aeroplane in the 1970s, I had the honor and privilege of getting to know Bruce as a friend and was involved in several concerts back in that day, including an environmental fundraiser concert with Phillips and the late Edward Abbey, who although they had never previously met, became friendly after that concert. Abbey tried to
track Utah down the next day to get Bruce to show Ed the exact spot in the old prison grounds where they shot Joe Hill. Later we sponsored a concert with Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels at East High through the Cosmic Aeroplane. Bruce hadn’t been back to Utah in a few years, and
prior to the concert, the police dusted off an old outstanding warrant for his arrest and threw him in jail. We had to bail him out of jail in order for the concert to proceed that evening. Several years ago, after losing track of him over the years, our paths crossed at the Gold Rush Book Fair in Nevada City California where he was the guest of honor and we renewed our decades old friendship. I last saw Bruce and his wife Joanne exactly a year ago, at the same Gold Rush Book Fair, where Utah regaled my daughter Melissa with stories throughout that evening. Rock salt and nails, amigo, rock salt and nails.
Ken Sanders

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