On the passing of Utah Phillips

By Staff

An old friend says goodbye to the folksinger, activist, iconoclast and all-around amazing human being who once lived in our midst and adopted our state;s name for his own.

by Ken Sanders


The golden voice of the great southwest, U. Utah Phillips, will sing and story tell no more. At age 73, Bruce Phillips passed away in his Nevada City, California, home May 23rd from heart failure, after a lifetime spent on the road, speaking and singing out against injustice wherever he found it.


U. Utah Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, May 15, 1935, during the Great Depression. His military service during the Korean War in the 1950s was instrumental in shaping his political views and anti-establishment stance. Musically influenced by Woody Guthrie and the emerging folk protest movements of the ’30s and ’40s, he styled his moniker, U. Utah Phillips, after his musical hero, T. Texas Tyler.


Phillips grew up in Salt Lake City and spent many years of his life here; he always had a love-hate affair with his adopted state. In Salt Lake he met Ammon Hennacy, a Catholic anarchist who founded the Joe Hill House, a "house of hospitality" which Phillips and Hennacy ran from 1961-1968. A card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (known as the Wobblies) for most of his life, he defended the rights of the working man, the homeless and the indigent. Phillips also had a lifelong passion for trains and hobos.


Phillips ran for the U.S. Senate from Utah in 1968 on the Peace and Freedom Ticket against long term U.S. Senator Wallace F. Bennett, father of current Republican Senator Robert F. Bennett. Phillips garnered over 2,000 votes, but was defeated in the race.


Fellow singer-songwriter Rosalie Sorrels was the first to popularize and record songs by Phillips. They became lifelong friends and performed dozens of concerts together. His first recorded album was "Good Though" (1973) followed by "We Have Fed You For a Thousand Years." More recently, he gained a new audience through his joint album with Ani DiFranco, "Fellow Workers." Other musicians, among them Tom Waits, Emmylou Harris, Ian Tyson and many more, have recorded Utah Phillips songs, including such classics as "Moose Turd Pie," "Rock Salt and Nails," "Green Rolling Hills," "Daddy, What’s A Train" and "Goodnight-Loving Train."


For many years, 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.


Rave On, Utah Phillips! RAVE ON!




This article was originally published on June 1, 2008.