If you heard Michael Feldman’s “Whad’YaKnow?” broadcast live from the Morrison Center in Boise last Friday, you heard Rosalie Sorrels sing a song written by her friend, the singer-songwriter Utah Phillips. When she finished, she mentioned that Utah was not well and wished him the best. It turns out that Utah died at home that evening of congestive heart failure.
Utah Phillips was much more than just an entertainer. He was an authentic “folksinger” in the mold of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Ramblin Jack Elliot.
Phillips was the son of labor organizers and his music was an outgrowth of his belief in social justice. When he returned from the Korean War, Phillips became a drifter riding the rails. He ended up destitute and drunk in the Joe Hill House, a homeless shelter in Salt Lake, where he met anarchist, philosopher and social reformer Ammon Hennacy. Hennacy helped Phillips reconnect with the struggles of the American laborer. Like the real Joe Hill, Utah became a “Wobblie” and devoted himself to singing to and for working people.
I was lucky enough to see him perform a number of times. Some of his songs were hilarious, others sad; but they always had a strong story line and a deep message.
Although his records were never able to capture the warmth of live performance, they are all we have now. If you have never heard Utah, I suggest buying one of his many available recordings. If you only get one, try The Long Memory, the 1996 recording he made with Rosalie Sorrels. In his obituary, she said of her friend:
He was like an alchemist. 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.
With Utah gone, Pete Seeger and Rosalie Sorrels are among the last of the authentic folk singers still with us.