Final Notes, “Utah” Phillips

Folk singer, labor organizer, storyteller, and poet Bruce U. “Utah” Duncan Phillips passed away on May 23 in Nevada City, CA where he had lived for the last 21 years. He was born in Cleveland, OH, and moved to Salt Lake City when he was young. A political activist, Phillips sang of the struggles of working people and the power of direct action. He was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies), and he spread  the Wobbly gospel through his concerts, featuring such songs as “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” the “Preacher and the Slave,” and “Bread and Roses.” He was a prolific songwriter with such classics as “Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia,” “The Goodnight Loving Trail,” and “Rock, Salt and Nails” to his credit. His recording collaborations with Ani DiFranco earned him a Grammy nomination, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Folk Alliance in 1997. Phillips often toured with folk singer Rosalie Sorrells, with whom he remained a close friend. As Sorrells put it, “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.”

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