Sunday, May 25, 2008


U. Utah Phillips - May 15, 1935 - May 23, 2008

We're sorry to hear this old tramp passed on. Utah Phillips was a union organizer, storyteller, anarchist, folksinger, and a hobo rider on the rails. He was a living folk hero, maybe not as big as Paul Bunyan but just a doll hair shy. Utah was a proud member of the International Workers of the World, popularly known as "the Wobblies," and he fought for better conditions for working people all his life.

Phillips was a combat vet who returned from Korea badly shaken by his experiences, and like so many returning soldiers, he had a hard time fitting back in. Utah drank and hopped freights. Drunk and destitute, he wound up in Salt Lake City, at Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement. It turned him around. He sobered up and started working there himself.

An avid researcher, he served a stint as an archivist for the State of Utah, and developed an understanding of the history most folks never learn in school. His folk songs and stories reflected that untold history, and laced up tales he'd heard riding the rails as a hobo. He recorded albums and sang on picket lines and in concert halls. He sang with many folks, but his longtime singing partner was Rosalie Sorrels:

"He was like an alchemist," says Sorrels, "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."

Joe Hill - "Don't mourn, organize!"

Utah Phillips is gone, but don't think he's in heaven. There is no pie in the sky for this tramp. He had no place for religion, and loved to sing "The Preacher and the Slave" by organizer and songwriter Joe Hill, a fellow Wobbly who was later executed on trumped up charges by the state of Utah. The song chastises preachers, "holy rollers and humpers," who tell their congregation
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
Of course, the singer turns it around by the final verse:
If you fight hard for children and wife-
Try to get something good in this life-
You're a sinner and bad man, they tell,
When you die you will sure go to hell.
Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and its wealth we have gained
To the grafters we'll sing this refrain
You will eat, bye and bye,
When you've learned how to cook and how to fry;
Chop some wood, 'twill do you good
Then you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye
So long, Utah!

Utah Phillips performs at the Strawberry Music Festival in 2007


Anonymous said...

Nice post!

expatbrian said...

Great piece of Americana, Bob.