Radical folk singer-songwriter Utah Phillips, a key figure in the revival of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW/Wobblies) over the last few decades, died May 23rd at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 73.
Utah was the son of labor organizers in Ohio. He served as an Army private during the Korean War, an experience he would later refer to as the turning point of his life. Deeply affected by the devastation and human misery he witnessed, upon his return to the United States he began drifting, riding freight trains around the country. His struggle would be familiar today, when the difficulties of returning combat veterans are more widely understood, but in the late fifties Phillips was left to work them out for himself. Destitute and drinking, Phillips got off a freight train in Salt Lake City and wound up at the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter operated by the anarchist Ammon Hennacy, a member of the Catholic Worker movement and associate of Dorothy Day.
Phillips credited Hennacy and other social reformers he referred to as his elders with having provided a philosophical framework around which he later constructed songs and stories he intended as a template his audiences could employ to understand their own political and working lives. They were often hilarious, sometimes sad, but never shallow.
A stint as an archivist for the State of Utah in the 1960s taught Phillips the discipline of historical research. Beneath the simplest and most folksy of his songs was a rigorous attention to detail and a strong and carefully-crafted narrative structure.
A single from Phillips’s first record, “Moose Turd Pie,” a rollicking story about working on a railroad track gang, saw extensive airplay in 1973. From then on, Phillips had work as a folk singer on the road.
When illness limited his touring in 2004, he returned to his roots at the Joe Hill House by founding Hospitality House, a homeless shelter in his rural home county where down-on-their-luck men and women were sleeping under the manzanita brush at the edge of town. It houses 25 to 30 guests a night. His family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, California 95945 (530) 271-7144 www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org