Utah Phillips has died in Nevada City from heart failure. He was a giant of the folk movement in N. America. I say ‘folk’ in its purest sense in that he believed music was meant to accompany change for good and that it could stand against the injustice so many in the world have come to know. He was a wonderful human being who was profound and humble and made everyone feel valued.
I met him for the first time in July 2004. I knew we were doing a workshop together at the Winnipeg Folk festival and I was very much looking forward to meeting him, though I was (without any need to be) a little nervous about meeting this great man. He was an absolute delight to encounter and said that he had heard good things about me. As host of the workshop he was meticulous with well-written notes on the performers on stage who were made up of myself, Eric Bibb and Dick Goughan. I was first up and got up and sang Dic Penderyn. After I had finished and as the large crowd applauded he turned to me and said ‘You’re a fine boy”. It was a moment captured in the picture here and it is a treasured memory for me.
Back in March, when I heard he had had to retire from public performance due to his heart condition, I wrote to Utah expressing how hard that must be for him but also thanking him for all he had done over many years. Many wont know who he was, and that is a great shame, but take it from me that this was a true soldier for humanity, someone who walked the walk, lived it and wrote songs about it. There are as so few of these guys left. Rest up Utah, and thanks for so much.
For more info on Utah’s life and work
Utah wrote these words back in 95
I’m leaving a trade which I love very much. When I left Utah over 45 years ago, I had only a slim hold on what folk music was, $75 in my pocket, a head full of songs and stories, and no prospects. When I landed at Cafe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York, I found gradually that I had stumbled into a family that was in fact transcontinental. I found great numbers of people who, as part of their pattern of social responsibility, were committed to the task of making sure that folk music existed in their communities. I found singer-circles, camp-outs, picnics, concert programs, festivals great and small, celebrating a common heritage of song. And I found my community, singers and makers of songs, plying the axis from San Diego Folk Heritage to the Denver Folklore Center to the Ark in Ann Arbor to Lena’s and beyond, eking out a bare living sharing what we had together, but, most of all, in each other’s company. A family behaving like a family — good, bad, every shade in between. But mostly of all a community of sentiment in which people substantially cared for each other. Listen. For 25 years now I have been part of a family which has given me a living — not a killing, but a living — a trade without bosses where I felt partners with those working in organized folk music, a trade in which I could own what I do, make all of the creative decisions, be free to say and sing whatever I chose to, courting criticism from peers and loving friends. Front porch, kitchen, back yard, drunk and sober, young and old, coast-to-coast folk music, a world in which I discovered that I don’t need power, wealth, or fame. I need friends. And that’s what I found and still find. You folkies out there! Comrades! We’ve created together a whole small world of song, story, travel, love and food, face to face, in every corner of the land, mutually supportive and happening at a sub-industrial level, below the level of media notice. Hooray for us! Who needs the “entertainment” industry? Who needs mass media? Small is beautiful! To hell with the mainstream. It’s polluted. What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed. Please. Don’t give our world up. It needs to grow, yes — but subtly, out, through, under, quietly, like water eroding stone, subversive, alive, happy.