In Memory of U. Utah Phillips (1935–2008)

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I discovered a dignified, ancient, elegant trade, one
where I could own what I do and never have to have a
boss again.
–U. Utah Phillips
Bruce Duncan Phillips, the man who went by U. Utah
Phillips and whom others dubbed “the Golden Voice of the
Great Southwest,” died at age 73. The folk singer, songwriter,
storyteller, and social activist blended music, politics and
history, inspiring the world with labor movement songs for
almost 40 years. He often jokingly said, “It’s nice to know
there are some things in early 21st-century post-industrial
culture that don’t change very fast. I am one of those.”
Phillips was the son of labor organizers and as an anarchist,
he joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).
He worked as an archivist for the State of Utah, but after a
run for the United States Senate in 1968 on the Peace and
Freedom ticket, he lost his state job. So, he decided to try to
make a living as a folksinger. He wrote songs influenced by
Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger. Coffeehouses, clubs, and
festivals would sustain him for nearly 40 years, as he
learned “how to make a living, not a killing.”
He recorded his first albums for the Philo label and
later recorded for Red House. Although he was always a
pretty forthright folk singer, in the album The Past Didn’t
Go Anywhere (Righteous Babe), Ani DiFranco contemporized
his songs and stories with electronic tracks more
akin to hip-hop. Fellow Workers, with DiFranco, was
nominated for a Grammy Award for best contemporary
folk album of 1999.
In the late 1980s, Phillips settled in Nevada City. He produced
a series, Loafer’s Glory, on public radio, which was
syndicated nationally and compiled the series on his own
label, No Guff. Phillips founded Hospitality House, a nonprofit
group that serves the homeless in collaboration with
churches and the Peace and Justice Center in Nevada City.
Health problems forced him to retire from touring in
2007. He died on May 23 of congestive heart failure. Anne
Feeney said of Utah Phillips, “It somehow seems appropriate
that Utah’s gigantic heart was his weakness. He had a
tremendous love for us all.” The life and songs of U. Utah
Phillips will remain ever present wherever

About Antonia Darder

Antonia Darder is a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She is a longtime Puerto Rican activist-scholar involved in issue's relating to education, language, immigrant workers, and women's rights.
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