U. Utah Phillips: Folk singer-songwriter

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The Independent Online

U. Utah Phillips was a folk singer, songwriter and political activist, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, the radical trade union movement popularly known as the Wobblies. Building on the legacy of Woody Guthrie, he sang about the hobo and the homeless, railway workers and mining communities, cattle drover and busking musician, organised labour and the trade union movement.

The finest of his songs include "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia", "Goodnight Loving Trail", "Starlight on the Rails", "Orphan Train", "Miner's Lullaby" and "Moose Turd Pie". His songs have been recorded by Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Ani diFranco. He collaborated with diFranco in the 1990s; their second album, Fellow Workers (1999), received a Grammy nomination.

He was born Bruce Phillips in 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, the son of trade union activists who later moved to Utah. (He later called himself U. Utah Phillips, in tribute to the country singer T. Texas Tyler). His parents divorced when he was young. "I remember very little of my childhood," he recalled. "I think it was pretty good. . . Around the house was always books and talk." He ran away as a teenager, moving round the country before being called up for service in the Korean War. He was appalled by what he witnessed there, later recording his experiences in the song "Korea".

Returning home, he drifted into homelessness, destitution and alcohol abuse, eventually finding salvation in Salt Lake City, at Joe Hill House, a shelter "for transients and migrants" run by a Catholic anarchist. There he became a social worker and got involved with the Industrial Workers of the World. The Wobblies' belief in equality – regardless of creed, colour and craft – and unity against capitalism was in every fibre of his political being. His 1981 recording All Used Up: a scrapbook is a collection of his IWW-influenced work.

He started out performing traditional songs of the labour movement and by the 1960s was singing his own material. He fell in with the Caffé Lena coffee-house folk community in Saratoga Springs, New York. His contribution to the anthology Welcome to Caffé Lena was an early foray into recording in the 1960s. In 1968 he stood unsuccessfully as a senator for the Sloth and Indolence Party.

His breakthrough came with the album Good Though! (1968). "Utah didn't feel like someone who was just telling stories from a bygone age," explained the singer-songwriter David Rovics, "It was more like he was a bridge to that era." The heart-gripping "Orphan Train", a song covered by Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin on their 1997 album Heart Songs – The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips (1997), tells how organisations like the Children's Home Society "harvested kids from the street, abandoned kids". "Miner's Lament" concerns the little tins of morphine taken underground by miners, in case, as he wrote, they "got trapped or were in danger of burning to death or of being slowly suffocated". This was "secret knowledge" because many miners were European Catholic immigrants "for whom suicide was a mortal sin".

In conversation Phillips was an avalanche of wit, insight and humour. On stage, he would break off from singing to deliver monologues, replete with lines like "A melting pot is when the people at the bottom get burned and the scum rise to the top." Among his aphorisms were: "If you're set on having heroes, make sure they're dead so they can't blow it"; and a tramp "dreams and wanders; a hobo is someone who works and wanders; and a bum is someone who drinks and wanders".

Just as aphorism becomes proverb when its creator's name is forgotten, songs experience a similar fate. Humanity, as the poet and folk song collector Carl Sandburg reported, is awfully good at "forgettery". Phillips understood the anonymity of the folk tradition. In the notes for his four-disc collection Starlight on the Rails: a songbag (2005), he wrote: "The way I see it is this. If you take most of what you sing from people, sooner or later these songs will help you to disappear into the people."

Ken Hunt

Bruce Duncan Phillips (U. Utah Phillips), singer and songwriter: born Cleveland, Ohio 15 May 1935; four times married (two sons, one daughter, two stepsons); died Nevada City, California 23 May 2008.