Utah Phillips spoke directly to each of us in that filled auditorium here on April 24. It didn’t matter that it was his disembodied voice, speaking over a cell phone held up to a microphone, held aloft by Pete Seeger, one of the event’s headliners. The strength of Phillips’ message was as clear as the vitality in his tone. I was happy to be there to hear his response to our benefit concert on his behalf, happier still to witness the warm exchange between him and Seeger, another elder of fighting the good fight.
But this room on that sunny spring day was dedicated to Utah Phillips. We’d all come with the intention of helping this man who’d been there for the greater “us” for decades. He told us of his life and plans for the future. Sure, he sounded tired, but none could accept that he would not get through this challenge. He told us so. None would believe that he would pass away about a month later on May 23.
Damn, at least we can say that it took a lot to silence Utah. But the echo of his work rings loudly.
Phillips was born Bruce Duncan Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935. Not simply because he was a Depression baby, not only due to the powerful example of his parents’ work in the militant labor movement, but perhaps due to a calling, Phillips decided early on that he would dedicate his time to social justice.
By the mid-1950s, he was a rambling veteran of the Korean War, damaged from the sites and sounds around him. Phillips was a drifter with a taste for drink. Ending up in Salt Lake City, 20-year-old Phillips arrived at the Joe Hill House, a shelter that was a part of the Catholic Worker movement facilitated by Ammon Hennacy, an anarchist and associate of noted humanist and socialist Dorothy Day.
Hennacy had a tremendous impact on the young Phillips, not only aiding him to get clean and focused, but by way of his radical beliefs and tales. Phillips absorbed these ideas and, adding in the influence of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Borscht Belt comedians, raconteurs and various country musicians, Phillips created “U,” Utah Phillips, the character whose life he’d maintain as his own throughout the decades. Hennacy also introduced Phillips to the Industrial Workers of the World, and he became a life long dues-paying member and activist with this global labor organization. He would later use many of Hennacy’s teachings and statements in his oratories, at once satiric, sentimental and revolutionary.
Though Phillips engaged in several noted career journeys (including an unsuccessful run in 1968 for U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket), he will always be remembered as a folksinger. Making full use of the amazing heritage of song within the Wobbly repertoire, Phillips came to champion the IWW and their Little Red Songbooks. His rounded baritone adorned more than one collection of IWW recordings. In between writing many powerful original songs such as “All Used Up,” Phillips brought to life the ballads of Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, T-Bone Slim and the “Unknown Proletariat,” who could have been most any of us. But he never failed to see the importance in the smallest of the small.
Oddly enough, Phillips became something of a cult figure with the college crowd in recent years. Two strong CDs with Ani DiFranco brought him a bit of notoriety, but he remained, well —Utah. Sometimes singing and fighting are just that interchangeable. Each time we lift up a guitar, put pen to paper, speak our mind or simply count our blessings, let’s pause a moment for Utah Phillips.
John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker in New York.