Utah Philips. RIP

From the remembrance on his website.

Utah Phillips, a seminal figure in American folk music who performed extensively and tirelessly for audiences on two continents for 38 years, died Friday of congestive heart failure.

Phillips served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he had witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.

Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his “elders” with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.

I saw him perform in Michigan in the early 70’s. He was amazing. Highly political, a Wobbly at heart, howlingly funny too.

  • Ron Miles

    Utah Phillips will remain one of my all-time favorite teachers. I can freely say he was the man I knew to be least in denial, to the end. Clear! Indelible! He’s one of that cadre who taught me that Life, if I don’t live like I consider it sacred, doesn’t owe me a thing! “… if Death really held a knife, we’d all be beggars of life.” Mortality is equal opportunity — whether on the rods or the plush, all tickets are punched.

    Then there’s that measure of immortality — those true beauties seen, seized, and shared in this mutual eating society. Clear-eyed, Utah ate at the back of so many food lines, usually having first served the others’ deep hungers for freedom, peace and justice.

    Soulman James Brown once said, “I want to live as long as I can, die when I can’t help it, and make folks love me.” Throw in a french harp, and it sounds like a new Utah Phillips song, with barnacles already on it!

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