"The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest" sings no more. Bruce "U. Utah" Phillips who, tongue firmly in cheek, billed himself that way, died peacefully in his sleep at his home in Nevada City, CA, May 23. He was 73.
Phillips was one of the deans of American folk music, a crucial link to the working class movement and history of western North America, and a cheerfully subversive social critic.
A proud, card-carrying Wobbly, Bruce made the songs and stories of the American West his own. As indeed they were. When he returned home from the Korean War, Phillips was broke in purse, body and spirit, riding the rails, until he landed at Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, a shelter run by anarchist Ammon Hennacy of the Catholic Workers movement. Hennacy's Marxism made sense of Phillip's experience, and from it grew the knowledge and imagination Phillips subsequently put on stage.
Starting in the late 1960s, "U. Utah Phillips, The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest" sang the old, radical songs of the Little Red Song Book, and told the old organizersâe(TM) stories, working class yarns, rants and tall tales. He performed them with the skill and panache of Hal Holbrook doing Mark Twain - and thereby rejuvenated them. At hundreds of folk festivals and thousands of concerts, through a dozen recordings, he passed the lore on to two generations of new listeners, including young musicians like Ani DiFranco.
Such became Phillips' reputation that, when the U.S. government belatedly released Joe Hill's ashes, it was to Phillips that they gave them.
Bruce was not just a true folk singer, he was also a first-rate song writer as well. His own songs, like âeoeStarlight on the Rails," and "Rocks, Salt and Nails" were covered by dozens of artists, including Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Tom Waits.
After he was diagnosed with congestive heart disease in 1995, Bruce performed less and less, until his health forced him to stop performing altogether a year ago.
"Listen," Phillips wrote in 1995, when first forced to cancel his extensive touring schedule, "for 25 years now, I have been part of a family which has given me a living âe" not a killing, but a living âe" a trade without bosses, in which I could own what I do, make all of the creative decisions, be free to say and sing whatever I chose to... Front porch, kitchen, back yard, drunk and sober, young and old, coast-to-coast folk music, a world in which I discovered that I don't need power, wealth, or fame. I need friends. And that's what I found and still find."
"To hell with the mainstream," Bruce concluded. "It's polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few, than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed. Please. Don't give our world up. It needs to grow, yes âe" but subtly, out, through, under, quietly, like water eroding stone, subversive, alive, happy."
Phillips is survived by his children and longtime partner, Johanna Robinson.
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