Folksinger, Storyteller, Political Activist Utah Phillips Dies

Utah PhillipsThere are people who influence us for our entire lives who never know us. One of these for me was Bruce Phillips, who died this weekend at 73 of congestive heart failure.

Most people knew him as the folksinger and storyteller Utah Phillips. For a long time no one knew who he was except hard-core folkies, but, to my surprise, the obits say he won a Grammy nomination for work with Ani DiFranco, and his death has gotten a fair amount of press coverage.

His performance at the Strawberry Music Festival, just a year ago, is on a series of YouTube videos, along with videos from other recent performances. I haven’t gone through them all to see what he’s performing — for a hilarious, very Utah Phillips-stype non-political story, see if you can find the story “Moose Turd Pie.” But any of these videos will give you a good sense of his performances, usually long, funny stories with songs, either traditional or his own, in between.

But I met him before that, in — of course — Utah.

In the summer of 1967, I was between high school and college, the anti-Viet Nam War movement was ramping up, and I was trying to define myself politically. Utah was (and is) dominated by the conservative Mormon religion, politically somewhere to the right of the right wing of the Republican party. The anti-war movement was small, with the feeling of a subversive movement, with the “brotherhood” and sense of moral superiority — and the anguish — of knowing you’re right while scorned by the majority.

That’s where I met Bruce. “Met” is an overstatment — Bruce could never have remembered meeting me, though I have remembered him all these years.

WWI anti-draft posterAmmon HennacyThe Salt Lake anti-war movement was in some sense centered at the Joe Hill House, a Catholic Worker-style “hospitality house” (now we’d call it a homeless shelter) founded by former Catholic Worker and World War I draft resister Ammon Hennacy (pictured). As a young man, Ammon was involved with the Wobblies, the International Workers of the World, and went to jail for refusing to register for the draft in WWI. In jail, as he told the story, he had one book, Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God is within You, which added Christian pacifism to his Eugene Debs-inspired anarchy. He met Dorothy Day and got involved with the Catholic Worker movement, but in time split with them. When I knew him he called himself a Christian anarchist.

Ammon and some other people he described as “pacifists, anarchists, subversives, and Catholics too radical for our bishop” founded the Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City. Joe Hill was a Wobblie who hopped freights and was framed for murder and executed in Utah. The JHH mostly housed railroad bums (as Ammon called them), men riding the rails the way they did in the 1930s.

Friday nights were a sort of open house at the JHH. People would come, Ammon would talk. A friend took me to the Joe Hill House one spring night when it was full of young people from the University of Utah. When I went back — first with a friend, then on my own — during the summer (I was finally old enough for a driver’s license), instead of the room full of people, there might be five or six of us. The regulars were Ammon, Bruce, a Frenchman named John, and me. I would come in, sit, listen, and leave without saying a word, happy to watch and listen. (I wonder what the guys thought of this very young, naive, quiet woman all by herself.)

Bruce was always there. Ammon was in his 70s then and not really up to handling the guys, especially around the first of the month when those on some form of public assistance got their checks, but Bruce helped Ammon deal with the guys.   Bruce, I now learn, came to the JHH as a freight train riding hobo himself, though at this time he was living in a completely empty suburban-style house with a girlfriend  (he invited us all out there for a party one night: I had my first beer and my first and very frightening experience of driving home drunk). I now read that Ammon had to close the JHH the following year — I do remember driving out there the following summer and finding it no longer there.

Ammon would always at some point bring out mimeographed copies of a Wobbly song book (what happened to political groups with songs?), and Bruce would play the guitar and we would sing. Bruce would ask Ammon questions about the music, the movement, all kinds of things. Sometimes Bruce would ask one of the bums (as he and Ammon called them) to “talk me a song” while Bruce played. This is where, I’m sure, Bruce learned a lot of the songs and stories that remained core to his performances.

I wasn’t sure about Ammon — he was either a saint or a nutcase, and I wasn’t sure which. But Bruce’s clear respect for Ammon (and the added safety of having him around) reassured me.

That summer, there was a series of kidnappings and murders of gas station attendants, which culminated in random shooting in a city “tavern” (bar) and the arrest of two men named Lance and Kelback for all those crimes. The cold-blooded-ness of these killings had many of us nominally anti-death-penalty advocates wondering whether there might be exceptions. Ammon, however, argued forcefully that even they should not be executed.

In 1970 Ammon died of a heart attack, picketing the state capitol (as he always did when an execution was planned) to spare Lance and Kelback from the death penalty.

songbook coverOver the years, I followed Bruce’s career from a distance. He billed himself as U. Utah Phillps; then Utah Phillips. He performed traditional music (including what we had all sung with Ammon) as well as his own political (and funny) songs, and was a wonderful story-teller. He remained true (as much as I could tell from a distance) to his political beliefs and his role as an outsider.

Politically it looks like (from the YouTube videos and other evidence) Bruce stayed much closer to Ammon’s ideals than I was ever comfortable with. But I have always respected his consistency and his willingness to speak out, as I respected Ammon’s principled dedication and activism.

Utah Phillips continued to perform as long as he could, despite health problems: first something that made playing the guitar impossible (so he had to have an accompanist), then heart problems. And, when he could no longer tour and was settled in one place, his obituary says that he started a hospitality house in Nevada City, following in Ammon Hennacy’s footsteps.

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One response to “Folksinger, Storyteller, Political Activist Utah Phillips Dies

  1. Long time ago I heard one of Utah Phillips’ stories about a man leading a mule packed with explosives down into an open pit mine and it exploded. But they were able to find the mans hat and the mule’s ass and with the wonder of modern plastic surgery they put it together and today that man is the president of the United States, Richard Nixon. Do you know what album this story was recorded on and the title of the tract?

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