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Good teachers learn from their students -- and Utah Phillips is the best. For fifty years, the California-based folksinger and activist has crisscrossed America via hopped trains and hitched rides, absorbing songs and stories to pass along to all who would listen. But it hasn't been a one-way street. While Phillips's history as a recording artist, Korean War vet, Industrial Workers of the World organizer and official Grand Duke of the Hobos is staggering, he's an old dog who loves new tricks -- as evidenced by two acclaimed collaborations with Ani DiFranco in the '90s that brought him to the attention of a whole new generation.
Now seventy, Phillips recently released a four-disc retrospective titled Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook, which includes his legendary "Larimer Street," a tune that warmly daydreams about downtown Denver's seedy past even as it rages against gentrification and the displacement of the poor. A longtime friend and advocate of institutions such as the Rocky Mountain Peace and Justice Center and the Swallow Hill Music Association, Phillips could teach even the most dyed-in-the-wool Denverite a thing or two about his own home town.
Westword:You've been coming to Denver for 36 years. What's one of your favorite places in town?
Utah Phillips:I used to go down Colfax to the Argonaut liquor store at three o'clock in the morning. I'd sit on a concrete abutment that used to be there -- I hope it still is -- and listen to people talk. We'd have conversations about the wine and about life and about how the trains are running, all that. I know it's a hard life, but I found a lot of juice there that feeds my own creative parts. I feel comfortable there.
What's one of the most interesting shows you've ever played here?
There used to be a place in Denver called the Cafe York. It was a folk supper club. Once I was double-billed there with Ramblin' Jack Elliott. I had been on stage a long time waiting for him to show up; finally, he called from a phone booth somewhere near a cornfield in Iowa. He apologized for not being there and said, "Look, put the phone up to the microphone," and he sang a couple songs that way to the audience. Now, Jack loves to tell that story and how much the people liked it. I haven't the heart to tell him, "Jack, I was there, and they hated it."
With so many years of traveling and playing music under your belt, what keeps you inspired and moving?
Poverty. This is the way that I make my living. That'll certainly goad you. But I honestly love and honor the trade, and I love talking to people. I figured this out years ago: This is like being paid to go to school. Every town is its own classroom. It's up to me to ask questions and beat the streets and learn. America is one enormous carnival, and I learn from it all the time.