Bruce ‘Utah’ Phillips passes

Utah Phillips: 1935-2008Folk singer, raconteur and activist Bruce Duncan ‘Utah’ Phillips, whose songs included tales of the state’s working class and tragedies, passed away in his sleep at 11:30pm PDT on May 23, aged 73, ending a roughly ten year bout with congestive heart failure. He lived in Nevada City, California.

Born May 15, 1935, in Cleveland, Ohio, to labor organizer parents, Phillips and his family moved to Utah in 1947 whereupon he began his deep interest in the state’s working class, particularly the Mormons and their folklore.

He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Later, as a member of the Peace and Freedom Party, he failed in a bid for a place in the U S Senate.

Phillips drew from influences as diverse as Borscht Belt comedian Myron Cohen, folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and country stars Hank Williams and T Texas Tyler.

He wrote John D Lee, a recounting of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Another song, Scofield Mine Disaster, recalled the 1900 central Utah coal mine explosion that killed 200 people. His songs became more widely known when Rosalie Sorrels recorded If I Could Be The Rain.

A number of his songs were covered by bluegrass acts – I’ll Be On That Good Road Someday (recorded by Flatt & Scruggs, and Butch Robins), Orphan Train (Dry Branch Fire Squad), Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia (Emmylou Harris), Starlight On The Rails and Rock, Salt And Nails (both recorded by Flatt & Scruggs). The last named song was also recorded by JD Crowe & The New South, Joan Baez and Waylon Jennings. Others who recorded material penned by Philips include Linda Ronstadt (Silver Wings), Tom Waits and Joe Ely.

Phillips, who described himself as the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” had been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997. An album Phillips recorded with Ani DiFranco received a Grammy nomination.

Phillips began suffering from the effects of chronic heart disease in 2004, and as his illness kept him off the road at times, he started a nationally syndicated folk-music radio show, Loafer’s Glory produced at KVMR-FM and started a homeless shelter in his rural home county, thus caring for others in a way the he himself had been helped in poorer times.

Rosalie Sorrels had this to say of Phillips …

“He was like an alchemist. He took the stories of working people and railroad bums and he built them into work that was influenced by writers like Thomas Wolfe, but then he gave it back, he put it in language so the people whom the songs and stories were about still had them, still owned them. He didn’t believe in stealing culture from the people it was about.”

There is to be a Memorial gathering for Phillips at 10:00am on Sunday, June 1, at Nevada City Little League Park, Pioneer Park, Nevada City.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.