Bruce “Utah” Phillips passed away Friday the 23rd at his home in Nevada City, California. In a time when words like “icon” and “legend” are bandied about too freely, Utah was the real deal: a consummate songwriter, labor historian, humorist and towering figure in American Folk Music.
Born Bruce Duncan Phillips on May 15, 1935 in Cleveland, Ohio, he was the son of labor organizers. Whether through this early influence or an early life that was not always tranquil or easy, Phillips demonstrated a lifelong concern with the living conditions of working people by his twenties. He was a proud member of the Industrial Workers of the World, popularly known as “the Wobblies,” an organizational artifact of early twentieth-century labor struggles.
His later personal struggles would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood. But in the late 1950s, Phillips was left to work them out for himself. In the creation of his performing persona and work, Phillips drew from influences as diverse as Borscht Belt comedian Myron Cohen, folksingers Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, and country stars Hank Williams and T. Texas Tyler.
His extensive writing and recording career included two albums with Ani DiFranco which earned a Grammy nomination. Phillips’s songs were performed and recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, Tom Waits, Joe Ely and others. He was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance in 1997.
A true original, we will not see his like again.
—from Red House Records’ press release