U. Utah Phillips was a vocal union supporter, a peace advocate, a folk singer, a storyteller and, during a few election seasons, even a U.S. presidential candidate. But this week he’s being remembered by many who knew him in the Capital Region’s folk music scene for his eccentric personality, intelligence and sense of humor.
“One time [Phillips] was playing in Troy, and he called me up because he wanted to go overall shopping,” said Margie Rosenkranz, director of the Eighth Step folk club. “We spent the entire afternoon looking for the type of overalls he was after, and quite a few didn’t pass muster. But he went on and on, a nice little education on the ins and outs of overalls. . . . It was one of the most fun afternoons I’ve had.”
Phillips, born Bruce Duncan Phillips, died this past Friday of congestive heart failure after a long history of chronic heart disease. He died at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 73.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 15, 1938, Phillips lived part-time in Saratoga Springs during the late 1960s and early 1970s, a formative time for the folk singer.
“He was very funny, a comedian as well as everything else,” said Al McKenney of Saratoga Springs, who has emceed for Caffe Lena, and the Clearwater Folk Festival in Hudson Valley, for the past 26 years. “People would tell Bruce a joke, and be amazed to hear the joke from the stage. He was always involved in all kinds of mischief, too, all kinds of wild things.”
Phillips was nicknamed the “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest” by his friend and fellow folk musician Rosalie Sorrels. However, according to local folk singer and historian George Ward, Phillips’ time in the Capital Region folk scene was just as important to his music as his time in the Southwest, if not more so.
“Bruce, who was an honest-to-God American original . . . was somebody who really did spend a lot of time in Saratoga Springs,” Ward said. “The ‘Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,’ that persona was . . . he worked out a lot of the songs, he did that in Saratoga Springs; it was a formative point.”
After running for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in 1968, Phillips was fired from his job as an archivist for the State of Utah in Salt Lake City, and moved to Saratoga Springs. Sorrels first brought Phillips to the region.
Sorrels is currently working on an album of Phillips’ songs that “tells the whole story” of Phillips’ life. She first met Phillips 55 years ago, at a going-away party for Phillips in Salt Lake City, Utah. Phillips had just joined the army and was about to head out to fight in the Korean War.
“[The album] will tell about how he was writing songs when I met him, but they weren’t very good yet,” Sorrels said.
According to Sorrels, he began to write songs about his experiences in Korea when he returned. Through his research as an archivist, he began to write songs based on historical events in Utah. Around this time, Phillips met Ammon Hennacy at the Joe Hill House of Hospitality in Salt Lake City.
“After he did that, he began to write political songs that were extremely good, and very effective,” said Sorrels. “He had tried to be a professional musician and songwriter, but I don’t think he ever fit into that mold any better than I did; we both had a different idea.”
Phillips, whose parents were labor organizers, was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Phillips, along with McKenney, even started an organization for traveling folk singers called Wildflowers in 1971, which lasted two years and was a forerunner to the musicians unions.
McKenney, who produced Phillips’ 1973 album, “Good Though,” first met Phillips in 1970, and hired him to play a few shows at his Mandala folk club in Massachusetts. Phillips traveled the country for much of his life, hitchhiking or riding trains, and brought McKenney along a couple of times.
“He and I hitchhiked back from Massachusetts, over Route 2; that was a lot of fun,” McKenney said. “I did a little bit of hoboing with him, too.”
According to many in the Capital Region who knew Phillips, it was his songwriting, full of literary references from Thomas Wolfe, Mark Twain and others, that set him apart from other folk musicians.
“One way to say it is that there are songwriters and storytellers whose stuff is absolutely wonderful, but it’s stuff not many people ever do successfully by themselves. … There are other people who write songs that are immensely accessible, that everyone can do,” Ward said. “But Bruce was a third way. His songs and stories, the songs have tremendous insight, and the wonderful bulls--- is picked up by everybody, yet it runs as deep as anything anybody’s written. You may have to be Phillips to do it his way, but you don’t have to be Phillips to try it.”