Monday, May 26, 2008
Utah Phillips: Lost to all but memory
It was probably the only time I have ever been to a festival and knew not one of the performers. We were greenhorns then and I think the only folkie names I would have recognized were Dylan, Baez, Seeger, Paxton, and Guthrie (Arlo, not Woody).
Parts of the show were great and some were not so much, but the highlight came when the MC came out and said: "We had this performer here a few years ago. We think we've recovered enough to have him back. Here he is, a rumor in his own time, the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest, U. Utah Phillips!"
And out came an old guy with white pony tail and beard under a cowboy hat, arms stuffed with muscles and tattoos.
Ha, The old man was younger then than I am now. But if I have lived longer than he had at that point, let's admit that he had lived wider and deeper.
I don't remember every song he did. I know he sang his tribute to a cattle drive cook, "The Goodnight Loving Trail," and accompanied it with one of his bizarre tall tales about Charles Goodnight and Oliver Loving, the true-life pioneers who created that trail.
By the time his set was over I was a committed, lifetime folkie.
In those days it seemed that he sang mostly about trains and hobos and the West. His Wobbly songs and more overtly political material came later. As he aged he would put more talking and less playing into each show. I think this was partly because his hands hurt and partly because he had so much he wanted to say.
What a songwriter. What a storyteller.
The last time I saw him he filled the brand new Seattle Opera House at Northwest Folklife. I remember him strolling onto the stage and looking around the magnificent hall. "We used to have a place like this where I live," he said, "in Nevada City, California. We tore it down and put up an old Indian graveyard."
That same night he talked about all the good news he heard as he travelled around the country - and how none of it made the mainstream media. "We could be winning and not even know it!"
On the first album I bought of his, "Good Though!" he had a song called "Old Buddy Goodnight," about finding a hobo who froze to death in a freight car. The last verse ends:
"Give him a line in your paper
and here's what I want you to say.
There's still some things worse than dying alone.
One of them's living that way."
Bruce Phillips died on Friday, with his wife by his side.
Utah Phillips lived surrounded by friends, fans, folkies, and fellow workers.
His songs will live a long time, if this crazy world manages to keep going. And if it does, he's one of the people we have to thank for it.