Utah Phillips was born Bruce Duncan Phillips in Cleveland, Ohio in 1935. He decided early on that he would dedicate his time to social justice. By the mid-1950s, he was a veteran of the Korean War, damaged from the sights and sounds around him, a drifter with a taste for drink. Ending up in Salt Lake City, then 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 humanist and socialist Dorothy Day. Hennacy had a tremendous impact on Phillips, not only helping him to get clean and focused, but also by way of his radical beliefs. Phillips absorbed these ideas and, with the added influence from Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Borscht Belt comedians, and various country musicians, Phillips "created" U. Utah Phillips, the character whose life he’d live throughout the decades. Hennacy also introduced Phillips to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Utah 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 1968 run for the Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket), he will always be remembered as a folksinger. Making full use of the amazing IWW heritage of songs, Utah came to champion the IWW and their Little Red Songbook. His rounded baritone adorns more than one collection of recordings. In between writing many powerful originals songs, such as "All Used Up," Utah brought to life the ballads of Joe Hill, Ralph Chaplin, T-Bone Slim, and the "Unknown Proletariat."
Utah became something of a cult figure with the college crowd in later years. Two CDs with Ani DiFranco also brought him a bit of notoriety. But Utah always remained, well, Utah.
At a benefit concert on April 24, a month before he died, Utah spoke to a full auditorium. It didn’t matter that it was his disembodied voice speaking over a cellphone held up to a microphone by Pete Seeger, one of the event’s headliners. I was happy to be there to hear Utah’s response to our benefit concert on his behalf, happier still to witness his warm exchange with Seeger, another elder fighting the good fight. The room on that sunny spring day in Rosendale, New York was dedicated to Utah Phillips. We’d come to help this man who’d been there for the greater "us" for decades. Utah told us of his life and plans for the future. Sure, he sounded tired, but we all thought that Utah would get through this latest challenge. He told us so. None would believe that he would pass away about a month later. At least we can say that it took a lot to silence him. But the echo of his work rings loudly, as sonorous as the music onstage that day from Seeger, Dar Williams, Redwood Moose, Sarah Underhill, Norm Wennet, Bill Vanaver, Flames of Discontent, and others.
Each time we take up a guitar, put pen to paper, speak our minds, or count our blessings, let’s pause a moment for Utah Phillips.
John Pietaro is a labor organizer and cultural worker from New York (www. flamesofdiscontent.org).