In Memorium

[The song you hear (patience, if you have a slow connection) is Utah's  "Going Away", from his "Good Though" album, with his commentary on the song from "Starlight On The Rails - A Songbook".  Both were purchased and, with all respect to the copyright holder (presumably, Bruce Duncan Phillips, and now his estate), are here reproduced under the Fair Use law.]

U. Utah Phillips

Friday, May 23, 2008
Folksinger, songwriter, U. Utah Phillips passes.

Popular labor and folksinger and raconteur Bruce Duncan Phillips passed away at age 73 at his home in Grass Valley, CA om May 23. Cause of death was congestive heart failure.

He was more familiarly known as U. Utah Phillips and was enormously popular in the United States, Canada, and Europe for decades, particularly on the festival circuit and through his recordings. One writer mentioned his "warm, folksy, comedically timed voice," and he performed his own wildly irreverent songs which ranged in subject from baseball, trains that he himself had hopped, hobo jungles,and the struggles of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), of which union he was a member for most of his life. His folksy story telling talents that he interspersed with his songs and guitar strumming were down to earth and funny and with his warm, contagious personality made him beloved by many thousands of fans.

Of interest to the Finnish community, he enjoyed American Finns and particularly the legends he had heard of the immigrant Finnish Wobblies of the early twentieth century which then numbered in thousands. Kantelemaker Gerry Henkel, editor of the New World Finn quarterly, says whenever Utah performed in Northern Minnesota venues, he'd call Gerry and ask him if he knew of any old Finn Wobblies he could palaver with. Gerry said Utah was also interested in the Kalevala, which isn't surprising with its legend of old folk runes sung by story singers about the Finnish people of early legend and their lives, with whom Utah identified with his own musical storytelling of the American scene.

I remember at one concert that I heard, a story Utah told between songs, dealt with the IWW free speech fight around Spokane, where IWW organizers were being arrested for speaking from their soapboxes. When the word went out that the soapboxers were being "busted", footloose Wobblies would pour out of the mines and logging operations all over the West and would ride the freights to whatever city where the arrests were taking place.  They'd all climb on the sopaboxes and start speaking and would be promptly arrested and so the jail would be full of these itinerant working class rebels. They'd belt out songs from their Little Red Songbooks in jail enough to shake the walls. It would cost to feed that many prisoners so eventually the authorities would give in and the soapboxer's civil liberties would be restored. So the Wobblies could be termed as some of the fiercest early defenders of free speech underwritten by the First Amendment to our Constitution.

At one of these mass soapboxing protests, this time at Spokane, as Utah said it, his fellow workers encouraged a giant Finnish immigrant logger to mount the soapbox.  He was hesitent, as he was a recent immigrant and didn't know any English. The men said don't worry, just say anything and they'll arrest you immediately anyway.

So our Finnish Paul Bunyan stood up and called out the only two English words he knew: "Fellow Vorkers!"  Utah surmised that since this fellow was so huge the cops hesitated to put the cuffs on him and did nothing.  After an awkward silence, he'd call out again; "Fellow Vorkers!"  Again silence and no action. After his third or fourth "Fellow Vorkers" the police finally put the pinch on him.

One time, I talked to Utah at a concert in Berkeley, and told him I was going to stop in the old Finn copper mining town of Butte, Montana, on my way home from the North Dakota FinnFest. Utah told me to make sure I stopped in at the Helsinki Bar, his favorite gin mill in Butte. In fact, he and 

Utah on "Going Away"
Butte folksinger Mark Ross had co-recorded a song which went in part: "Look for me in Butte/where the mountains meet thestars/and I'll be drinking with the miners/at the old Helsinki Bar."

Utah had his counterpart with an early 20th century Finnish-American Wobbly, Matt Valentin Huhta, known as T-Bone Slim, who was an itinerant worker but a popular working class songwriter and also a very humorous and original columnist for IWW newspapers. There is no one that could sing T-Bone's best known song "Popular Wobbly" with such gusto and feeling as did Utah.

Utah is also in the tradition of the great Finnish immigrant folksingers Hiski Salomaa and Arthur Kylander, who Finns called "kupletinlaulajia" or couplet singers.


Utah was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1935 to parents who were both labor organizers. He ran away from home as a teenager and rode the freights, and used these experiences as material for his songs later on, as did T-Bone Slim. He fought as a private in the U.S. Army during the Korean War.

His war experiences unsettled him and he went back to the freights and his alcoholism neary destroyed him. His road to recovery began when he found shelter at the Catholic Workers' Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, where the down and out were fed and sheltered, then run by a legendary Catholic anarchist and pacifist the late Ammon Hennacy who provided needed counsel to Utah.

When Utah turned to music his fame began to grow, working with folk music partners like Rosalie Sorrels, Kate Wolf and John McCutcheon. He became famous with songs like "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," "Rock, Salt, and Nails", "If I Could Be the Rain", and "The Goodnight Loving Trail".

But Utah's most popular contribution was his album, "Good Though," which included his hit spoken narrative "Moose Turd Pie". The day after Utah died, I listened to this story and laughed as much as I did the first time I heard it in the 1970s. The album also included a number of poignant railroad songs, like: "Daddy, What's a Train." It was my way of paying tribute to an old "Fellow Worker".

His 1999 album "Fellow Workers", made in collaboration with Ani DiFranco, earned them a nomination in the 2000 Grammy Awards.

Due to his worsening heart condition, he had to cut out travelling to shows in his last years. But even then, he never cut out his activism in his Sierra community. He created roving shelters for the homeless in Nevada City at cooperating churches, and could often be seen serving food and chatting with the guests with whom he so compassionately identified.

U. Utah Phillips is survived by his wife Joanna Robinson, two sons, a daughter, two stepsons, three brothers, a sister and a grandson.

His family requests that donations be made to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, CA 95945.

Harry Siitonen