Thursday, May 29, 2008
DEATH OF A HOBO: UTAH PHILLIPS
Bruce "Utah" Phillips died on May 23rd. Born in Cleveland, he joined the Industrial Workers of America, known as "the wobblies," later joined the Army, and came to Utah to join the Catholic Worker Movement and work at the Joe Hill House. In 1968 he ran for the Senate as the candidate of the Peace and Freedom Party, getting less than one percent of the votes.
Things were tough after that: "When I hit a blacklist in Utah in 1969, I realized I had to leave Utah if I was going to make a living at all. I didn’t know anything abut this enormous folk music family spread out all over North America. All I had was an old VW bus, my guitar, $75, and a head full of songs, old- and new-made. Fortunately, at the behest of my old friend Rosalie Sorrels, I landed at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York."
He had an underground hit with "Moose Turd Pie." His songs about the hobo lifestyle and the rails, and his anecdotes and storytelling, made him an authentic new proponent of old traditions, but didn't elevate him too far up the crowded ladder of folkies who aimed to be the new Woody Guthrie.
A few of his songs were well-covered, including "Green Rolling Hills" (Emmylou Harris) and "Goodnight-Loving Trail" (Tom Waits) and he was beloved by a new generation of folkies in the 90's including Kate Wolf, Rosalie Sorrels and Ani DiFranco. With Ani he recorded "The Past Didn't Go Anywhere" (1996) and "Fellow Workers" (1999). He maintained a radio show, "Loafer's Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind," and was an activisit in his new home town, Nevada City, California, where he helped set up the Peace and Justice Center.
Slowed down over the years...unable to play the guitar to his liking, and suffering from heart disease, Phillips retired from touring last year. Just before his death, May 14th, he wrote a letter that circulated among his friends. Addressing his "current reality," part of the message was this:
"At no time should you suspect me of complaining (kvetching); I am simply grepsing (Yiddish word for describing the condition of that reality).
"My heart, which is enlarged and very weak, can’t pump enough blood to keep my body plunging forward at its usual 100 percent. It allows me about 25 to 30 percent, which means I don’t get around very much or very easily anymore. I’m sustained (i.e., kept alive) by a medication called Milrinone, which is contained in a pump that I carry around with me in a shoulder bag. The pump, which runs 24 hours a day, moves the medication through a long tube running into an implanted Groshong catheter that in turn runs directly into my heart. I’ll be keeping this pump for the rest of my life. I also take an extraordinary number of oral medications, of which many are electrolytes.
My body is weak but my will is strong, and I keep my disposition as sunny and humorous as I’m able. It’s hard enough being disabled without being cranky as well. Though I’m eating well, my weight has gone from 175 to 155 pounds. I look like a geriatric Fred Astaire.
We manage to get out a good bit, visiting the Ananda (a local spiritual village and retreat center) flower garden up on the San Juan Ridge and occasionally going to lunch at various places around town. The bag is always with me. Believe me, none of this would be possible without my wife Joanna. She has the deepest, most loving and caring heart one could ever imagine....for now, I’m enjoying my life and can think of no good reason not to. Joanna and I both know that the chemical regimen I’m on can’t go on indefinitely. We take things a day at a time, deriving joy and solace from a solid, loving relationship..."
"...Now I can no longer travel and perform; overnight our income vanished. But all of those I had sung for, sung with, or boarded with, hearing about my condition, stepped in and rescued us. I can’t tell you how grateful I am to be part of this great caring community that, for the most part, functions close to the ground at a sub-media level, a community that has always cared for its own. We will be forever grateful for your help during this hard time.
The future? I don’t know. But I have songs in a folder I’ve never paid attention to, and songs inside me waiting for me to bring them out. Through all of it, up and down, it’s the song. It’s always been the song. Love and solidarity,
Your download sample isn't a song, it's a routine, Utah the raconteur telling you about baking a moose turd pie. You also learn what a "gandy dancer" is, and you also get to hear that familiar, terrible pun about "wiring ahead..." But enjoy it for yourself...
Moose Turd Pie