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Bruce 'Utah' Phillips, 1935 - 2008

Folk singer-songwriter and spoken-word performer

May 30, 2008|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

Bruce "Utah" Phillips, an influential figure in American folk music who built a grass-roots following with his songs and spoken-word performances that hearkened back to the days of Woody Guthrie, died May 23 of congestive heart failure at his home in Nevada City, Calif., according to an announcement on his website. He was 73.

During his four-decade career, Phillips, who was once described in a Times story as looking "like an apt cross between Santa Claus and Karl Marx," offered highly scripted performances in folk venues and festivals throughout the country, in Canada and in Europe. With what one writer described as a "warm, folksy, comedically timed voice," he performed wildly inventive songs with subject matter ranging from love to baseball to the volatile history of the Industrial Workers of the World, the labor movement of which he was a lifelong member.

Over the years, his performing partners have included Rosalie Sorrels, whose early performances of his songs helped fuel his popularity, Kate Wolf and John McCutcheon.

An accomplished songwriter, his "Green Rolling Hills of West Virginia," "Rock, Salt and Nails," "If I Could Be the Rain" and "The Goodnight Loving Trail" have been covered by numerous musicians.

He gained notice in the 1970s for the novelty tune "Moose Turd Pie," but his work found a new audience in the mid-1990s, when Ani DiFranco remixed some of his spoken-word performances to create a folk-rap album.

His collaboration with DiFranco on the 1999 album "Fellow Workers" earned them a Grammy Award nomination in 2000 for best contemporary folk album.

The son of labor organizers, Phillips was born May 15, 1935, in Cleveland. He moved with his parents to Salt Lake City in the mid-1940s.

Phillips served as an Army private in Korea in the mid-1950s but returned to the States, disillusioned by the postwar social problems he had seen there.

According to his website, he began drifting around the country, rode the rails and drank heavily. He ended up back in Salt Lake City working at the homeless shelter run by an anarchist member of the Catholic Worker movement. He would later credit his time there as informing his philosophical beliefs.

Before leaving Utah in the late 1960s, he worked as an archivist for the state and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party.

At the height of his career, he traveled to more than 120 cities and towns a year.

"I beat the streets a lot, and I listen to people talk. I'd be a fool to not take the chance to get out and talk to people. It's like being paid to go to school. Nothing happens inside your head but for something happening outside of it first," he told writer Jim Washburn for a 1992 Times story.

A diagnosis of chronic heart disease in 2004 forced him to curtail much of his touring.

Off stage, he lived his activism in his own community, creating rotating shelters for the homeless at area churches in Nevada City. He could often be found helping out in the shelters, serving food and listening to the guests.

He is survived by his wife, Joanna Robinson; two sons, a daughter, two stepsons, three brothers, a sister and a grandchild.

The family requests that donations be made to Hospitality House, Box 3223, Grass Valley, CA 95945. More information at hospitalityhouseshelter.org or (530) 271-7144.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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