Good though: Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73

Utah Phillips died Friday. He was 73. He died at his home in Nevada City, California.

Wonderful tribute at Fifteen Iguana.

Utah Phillips publicity shot

Utah Phillips (publicity photo via Bluegrass Today)

Phillips’s website lists planned tributes, memorials and the funeral in Nevada City, California. KVMR Radio’s site has an obit and links to other tributes.

Singer Utah Phillips left a colorful legacy

If your wages were low and your hands calloused, his songs – and his heart – were all yours.

By Stephen Magagnini –

Published 12:00 am PDT Sunday, May 25, 2008
Story appeared in METRO section, Page B1

Folk singer, anarchist, social reformer and man of the people Bruce “Utah” Phillips died in his Nevada City home Friday night of congestive heart failure.

Phillips, 73, was beloved on two continents for his big heart, along with his wit, wisdom, wild, white beard and willingness to stand tall for his beliefs.

He ran for president but never voted. Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits and his friend Arlo Guthrie all sing Utah Phillips songs, but he refused to let Johnny Cash make an album of his standards, his eldest son said, because he didn’t trust the record industry.

“They’re housing 25 to 30 people every night,” said longtime friend Jordan Fisher Smith. “Instead of asking the government to do it, they solicited the help of their friends and neighbors and local churches and just created services for these people that weren’t there.

“Bruce at his core was an anarchist,” said Smith, who befriended him 20 years ago when he moved to Nevada City. “The name ‘Utah’ stuck because he’d lived in Utah, riding freights in the West.”

In “All Used Up,” Phillips sings of a boss who “used up my labor, he used up my time, he plundered my body and squandered my mind. Then he gave me a pension, some handouts and wine,

And told me I’m all used up…

“They use up the oil, they use up the trees

They use up the air and they use up the seas

But as long as I’m breathing they won’t use up me

Don’t tell me I’m all used up.”

The son of labor organizers, Phillips was a lifelong member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, Smith said.

He served in the Korean War, then came home devastated by the misery he’d seen and began drinking and drifting.

In the late ’50s, broke and broken-hearted, Phillips rolled into Salt Lake City on a freight train and ended up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter run by anarchist Ammon Hennacy.

He helped out at Joe Hill House and became a pacifist and a performer influenced by folk legends Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, country stars Hank Williams, T. Texas Tyler, comic Myron Cohen and novelist Thomas Wolfe, Smith said.

Phillips ran for U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Ticket in 1968 and lost, then left Utah for Saratoga Springs and became a fixture at the Caffe Lena.

After his first record, “Moose Turd Pie,” about laying track for the Sante Fe railroad, hit the airwaves in 1973, Phillips hit the road.

He toured North America and Europe, and was the first – and last – performer at the iconic barn and roadhouse in Davis, the Palms Playhouse, which closed in 2002 and was reborn in Winters.

About that time, Phillips began his struggle with chronic heart disease but never lost his wit or passion for social justice.

At the Strawberry Music Festival last spring, Phillips mesmerized the crowd using “a guitar handed down by my grandfather – unfortunately he was still on the ladder when the cops came.”

His oldest son, Duncan Phillips of Salt Lake City, who reunited with him 15 years ago, said, “He was truly a man of the people – he represented the working class, the working poor, the homeless, he was part of them.

“He spoke for them in many ways, through song and activism. He’s probably the most principled person I’d ever met – he would stick to what he believed in no matter what, and he’d sacrifice for it.”

Duncan Phillips recalled the day Johnny Cash called “and wanted to record his songs, and my dad wouldn’t let Johnny do it because he didn’t like what the record industry stood for.”

Mr. Phillips’ own label was called “No Guff.”

He ran for president in 1976 as an anarchist with a do-nothing platform, and told Bee reporter Blair Anthony Robertson, “I guarantee that if I took over the White House I would not do anything. I would scratch my butt and shoot pool.”

Mr. Phillips, for all his activism, “never voted,” his son said. “He said he cast a vote every day he went out in the world and did something. If you want to make change, go out and actually do it yourself. He didn’t need to hand over any responsibility to politicians who aren’t beholden to the working class.”

Duncan Phillips said he’ll never forget all the people who would come up to his dad in the lobby before the shows “and say he’d changed their lives.”

Phillips, who declined a heart transplant earlier this year, died in bed with his wife around 11:30 p.m.

“You would never know his problems by talking to him,” he son said.

“He was a very engaging, very upbeat, very happy person. He was like that when I last talked to him.”

Photo and caption below from Sacramento Bee archives:

Utah Phillips and homeless man, photo by Carl Costas, Sacramento Bee

Folk singer Utah Phillips, left, chats with a man who identified himself as Ziggy Agalugus during a food giveaway for Nevada City’s homeless. Phillips was a fighter for those who needed help, a friend recalled. (Carl Costas / Sacramento Bee file, 2005)

4 Responses to Good though: Folksinger, Storyteller, Railroad Tramp Utah Phillips Dead at 73

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Thanks for dropping by, Mitch.

    I chose a spot over looking a spot overlooking the place where the Goodnight Lovin trail cuts through an notch in a ridge where is avoided the railroad company toll at Raton.

    There’s a little bit of history I’ll bet is tough to find anywhere.


  2. cactusmitch says:

    I posted a memorial to Utah Phillips on a geography site. I forgot which one. I was on a lot of them at the time. I chose a spot over looking a spot overlooking the place where the Goodnight Lovin trail cuts through an notch in a ridge where is avoided the railroad company toll at Raton.


  3. jd2718 says:

    the opening line of the title is the only joke my step-father has ever told… Didn’t know anything about the man though. Thanks for running this.



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