Utah Phillips - Biography
By J Poet
Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips ironically billed himself as The Golden Voice of the Great American Southwest, but he lived up to his own billing with a lifetime of singing, songwriting, storytelling and fighting for social justice. He didn’t make or sell many albums, but anyone who ever met him or saw him perform, came away with their spirits lifted and jaunty bounce in their step. Like Pete Seeger, he believed that folk music had the power to bring people together and make them want to change themselves and their communities for the better. After a lifetime of ramblin’ and tall tale telling, Phillips passed peacefully in his sleep on May 23rd, 2008.
Strictly speaking, Phillips wasn’t really a folk singer, but what he was, is hard to pin down. He used his life and the stories of the people he’d met in his 40 years of bumming around the country as source material, weaving the tales into the songs he sang in a free flowing presentation, but Performance Artist seems a bit high falutin’. He did sing folk songs, and his own heartfelt folk-like compositions, but the meat of his stage shows, radio shows and street corner performances was his between song, and inter-song banter. To borrow his own term, he was a gaffer, a working class grifter who figured out how to survive without working, although he worked pretty hard at what he did.
Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935. His parents were labor organizers and almost anti-music. When they divorced, he moved to Salt Lake City, Utah, with his mother. He tried playing Hawaiian music on the ukulele when he was a teen, but he was more interested in country music, and started calling himself U. Utah Phillips in honor of country star T. Texas Tyler. A summer job in Yellowstone park, working on the road crew, exposed him to old drifters who sat around the campfire at night picking tunes by Jimmy Rodgers and Goebel Reeves who wrote “Go to Sleep You Weary Hobo.” They showed him how to make guitar chords on the ukulele, and he started making up songs about what was going on around him, rather than playing what was in Ukulele Ike’s Song Book. His first real guitar was a cheap Stella. “Making chords on that thing was like a body building course,” he said in an interview just before his death. “If you can play a Stella, you can play anything in the world.”
Phillips enlisted in the Army in 1956 and was sent to Korea. Combat scrambled his brain. Back in Salt Lake City, he worked for the pacifist Catholic priest Ammon Hennacy at Salt Lake City’s Joe Hill House. When the police raided the house on some trumped up charge, Phillips took off and landed at the Café Lena in Saratoga, NY, one of the most important folk clubs in the US. He took to the folk scene and combined performing, songwriting and organizing for the rest of his life. A friend who lived in Nashville took some of Phillips early songs to country artists - Flatt & Scruggs cut “Starlight on the Rails,” and Joan Baez covered “Rock Salt and Nails”, increasing his credibility as a songwriter. Later on Emmylou Harris had a hit with his “Green Rolling Hills” and both Ian Tyson and Tom waits recorded “The Goodnight-Loving Trail”.
He became a regular on the folk circuit; helping other performers book shows, do publicity and liaison with club owners. In the late 60s he started recording for the songwriting label Philo and made El Capitan (1969 Philo), Good Though (1973 Philo), which includes the classic “Moose Turd Pie”, All Used Up: A Scrapbook (1975 Philo), and We Have Fed You All for a Thousand Years (1984 Philo) a live set that gives you an idea of Phillips freewheeling style.
I've Got to Know (1991 Alcazar) was recorded in one long session for a tiny Vermont folk label, shortly after Gulf War I started. It’s a studio recording, but includes Phillips’ usual stories, asides and rants about war and capitalism. It includes “Enola Gay” one of the first songs he wrote, composed while he was in the Army in Korea. In the early 90s he met Ani DiFranco, who became a big fan. She edited 100 hours of his between song stories into The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (1996 Righteous Babe), dubbing in acoustic and electronic background music. The made two more albums together Fellow Workers (1998 Righteous Babe), mostly songs by Phillips delivered withy the help of DiFranco and her band and The Past Didn't Go Anywhere (1998 Righteous Babe), songs DiFranco and Phillips composed together. In 1997 he put together a collection of early songs for his friends Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin who recorded them as Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips (1997 Rounder). The album was nominated for a Best Traditional Folk Album Grammy.
The DiFranco connection gave Phillips what the kids call street cred, and while his career didn’t take off, he did start seeing younger faces at his concerts. Greg Brown’s Red House Records signed him and released Loafer's Glory (1997 Red House) a collection of hobo songs and stories and Moscow Hold (1999 Red House) a live concert recording. Philo capitalized on Phillips new popularity with The Telling Takes Me Home (1997 Philo), a 20 track collection of his early albums for the company.
In the late 90s his health problems slowed down his touring to a series of “Farewell Concerts,” but he did them regularly until his death. Not one to sit around between shows, he put together a syndicated radio program for station KVMR called Loafer's Glory; it ran for 100 episodes between 1997 and 2001. Unable to continue on the radio, he put together one last album, from his collection of live tapes. Making Speech Free appeared on his own Utah Phillips label in 2005. Phillips dies May 23, 2008 due to complications from heart disease. He was 73.