State of Grace

As a train-hopping folk artist in the '60s, U. Utah Phillips rode into the heart of America's working class. He's been singing its song ever since.

More than thirty years ago, when he discovered the traditional route to success in America was more like a dead end, U. Utah Phillips set out on new path. With a guitar in his hand and a batch of folk songs and stories in his head, he carved himself a nomadic, Woody Guthrie-style existence. Today, countless songs and miles later, the 65-year-old "Golden Voice of the Southwest" is still stirring audiences with musical portraits of hobos, trains, cowboys, unions and America's working men and women. And while a nagging heart condition has slowed him down considerably from his days of playing one-hundred-plus shows per year, he continues to bear witness to the unheralded Americans that first inspired him. He's still as fiery as ever, a rabble-rouser who preaches self-reliance with the same vigor he first displayed four decades ago.

"You've got to own what you do," Phillips says from his home in Nevada City, California, "rather than work and let somebody else make the profit off of it. And you've got to fight in this culture to hang on to your own soul, to hang on to your own creativity. Once I got into this folk music world and understood what I could do and that it belonged to me, I looked back on my years of employment with absolute horror. It was bondage, wage slavery. Sure, if somebody else is making the rules every day, it's a little bit easier, and you can turn your mind off. But none of my parts -- my intellect, my curiosity -- was being served by that experience. When I got out in the world as a free man, I found that all of my parts were being used."

Phillips delivers these steadfast sentiments in a measured, aged-in-wood voice that calls to mind a less-sentimental Garrison Keillor with a chip on his shoulder. He's the granddad that a punk kid dreams of having, equal parts senior savant, Seinfeld and Joe Strummer. And he peppers his anecdotes from the past with ample details -- everything from the street addresses of flophouses where he once bunked to the shantytown handles of fellow vagabonds, recalling guys with names like "Fry Pan Jack." These characters and places have been the fodder for Phillips's itinerant musical output; his is a gritty collection of odes far removed from the flowers-in-your-hair sound associated with "folk" music. In Phillips's pulp-folk songs and stories, men freeze to death on the plains, and bosses get whacked by their underlings. Drinking denizens find little salvation; they seek relief in the world of booze, prostitutes and flipping off to the establishment. Puff the Magic Dragon wouldn't stand a chance in Phillips's world, unless he could command a train or packed a blade and knew how to use it.

That's why the singer is a tramp: U. Utah Phillips has got to keep on moving.
That's why the singer is a tramp: U. Utah Phillips has got to keep on moving.

These days, Phillips's resolute focus on such underbelly characters is earning him newfound popularity among a fresh crowd. Two of his most recent discs, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere and Fellow Workers, are seemingly unlikely collaborations with Ani DiFranco, who discovered Phillips through the pair's mutual agent. Released on her Righteous Babe Records label, The Past (released in 1996) was a collection of Phillips monologues set to DiFranco's music. On 1999's Fellow Workers, DiFranco and her band backed Phillips on a live recording in New Orleans's famed Kingsway studio. Both recordings have put Phillips's time-tested, union-friendly music in the ears of a much younger working class, which is now seeking out his older acoustic work. ("I would trust her with anything I do," he says of his younger collaborator. "She has the most powerful intellect that I've ever encountered.") A number of Phillips's recordings from the '60s and '70s are being re-issued on CD; his syndicated radio program, "Loafer's Glory: Hobo Jungle of the Mind," is now appearing on a handful of public radio stations around the U.S., including Boulder's KGNU FM, which airs it on Saturdays at noon. He was also recently awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Folk Alliance.

Among his new pierced and tattooed audience, Phillips is enjoying a reputation as a revered protest singer, but it's a classification he's quick to refute: "Oh, no. I'm not a protest singer," he notes. "I'm much more insidious than that. I'm a folk singer and storyteller. I want to get together in a room full of people, get them comfortable with each other and laughing together. I want to sing about cowboys, kids, mining, railroads and tramping freight trains. And then, amongst all of that, I'm going to weave a thread of our 'red' music," he schemes. "I'll never say, 'Here's what I believe and here's what's wrong.' That's a lethal thing to do, [but] it's also abusive to an audience."

With his soft-sell approach, Phillips shows Americans a glimpse of something that looks oddly familiar to them. "Our labor music," he says, "is folk music that we've been denied in school and in mass media. All I'm doing is giving people back the music that they already own. They just don't know it."

According to Phillips, the newfound popularity of his labor themes is proof that the struggle of the worker is a timeless topic -- one that resonates in both boom and bust times. "I've crawled across the belly of this country enough, at fairly low levels, to know that there is an enormous working class," he says. "Most of the decisions that we make in our lives are governed by non-elected people representing non-democratic, capitalistic organizations. Our only defense against that is a militant, well-organized working class standing in solidarity."

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