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Phillips' political awareness was inherited from his parents who were union organizers in the 1930s. His mother worked for the C.I.O. before it merged with the A.F.L. As a youngster, Phillips was influenced by his exposure to the theater after his parents were divorced and his mother was remarried to the manager of the Hippodrome in Cleveland, one of the last of the old vaudeville houses. His involvement with the theater continued after moving with his mother and stepfather to Utah in 1947. Although his stepfather founded Film Service International and his stepbrother went on to become a producer for Universal Studios, Phillips found his creativity pulled in another direction, running away from so much that his mother started wrapping his lunch in a road map.
After cutting his early musical teeth on a baritone ukulele on which he learned to play from Ukulele Ike songbooks, Phillips' musical direction was altered after he left home and traveled to Yellowstone Park to work on a road crew. The older workers on the crew, who played guitars and sang old Jimmie Rodgers and Gene Autry songs, taught Phillips how to turn ukulele chords into guitar chords by adding a couple of fingers. As a soldier during the Korean conflict, Phillips continued to find refuge in music and helped to form a band, the Rice Paddy Ramblers. A turning point in his growing political awareness came when he attended a concert in a Korean theater by black vocalist Marian Anderson. The experience caused Phillips to recall the anger that he felt when Anderson had come to Utah to perform at his stepfather's theater and she had been refused entry into the town's hotel.
Phillips' political awakening continued after he returned to the United States. Befriended by Ammon Hennessey at the Joe Hill House for Transients and Migrants, he was convinced to become a pacifist. Phillips' use of music as a political weapon was strongly influenced by Hennessey. On the way to a demonstration at a Hiroshima peace memorial, Phillips was encouraged to write his first song, "The Enola Gay." Writing the song stirred a new understanding of the power of music as Phillips realized that a song, besides being entertaining, could be inspirational. Phillips has been a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) for more than 40 years. Although he misplaced his membership card in Korea, he had it reinstated after returning to the United States.
While he sang in taverns where money would be thrown into his guitar case, Phillips had little understanding of folk music. The situation changed when Phillips was approached by folklorist and professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Kenneth S. Goldstein, who had traveled to Utah to attend a folklore conference in 1960. Overheard by Goldstein, as he sat on his front porch singing, Phillips was invited to record his first album, No One Knows Me, on a rented tape recorder at the local university.
Phillips continued to balance his love of music with his political involvement. In the early '60s, he was involved with Fair Play for Cuba and the struggle for open housing laws in Utah. In 1968, he was nominated and campaigned for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom ticket. Although he received 6,000 votes, the experience led to Phillips being dismissed from his job with the Utah State Archives. Following the election, Phillips remained in Utah for a year, working for the Migrant Council and living on a cot in the back of a big warehouse called "the Cosmic Airplane." Encouraged by friends, including folksinger Rosalie Sorrels, to try his hand at performing, Phillips moved to the East Coast in 1969. Temporarily stopping in New York's Greenwich Village, Phillips settled, for several years, in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he became a regular performer at Caffe Lena.
In 1991, Phillips toured with Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Spider John Koerner. Their performance at the World Theater in Minneapolis was taped and released as Legends of Folk the following year. Later in the '90s, an album of his stories and between-song patter set to music by Ani DiFranco, The Past Didn't Go Anywhere, introduced his anarchistic persona to a young audience, while Loafer's Glory, a collection of stories, poems, and songs set to the accompaniment of Woody Guthrie-influenced guitarist Mark Ross, showed his longtime audience that he still had something of importance to say. In addition to two of his earlier albums -- El Capitan and All Used Up -- being released as The Telling Takes Me Home, Phillips' work was honored with an album-length celebration of his songs by bluegrass duo Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips, that received a Grammy nomination as Best Traditional Folk Album of 1997. Phillips and Ross initially worked together in the late '80s when Phillips contracted focal dystonia in his right hand, which prevented him from fingerpicking, and Dupuytren's contracture in his left hand, which made it difficult for him to make a chord. His collaboration with DiFranco was instigated by a letter that he received from the hard-edged acoustic performer. The stories that DiFranco set to music were culled from over 100 hours of his live performances.
Although he slowed his touring down to one performance a month in his later years before ceasing them entirely, he found other mediums in which to express his music and political concerns. Phillips, who had run for president annually since 1969, hosted a weekly one-hour radio show, Loafer's Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind, broadcast by KPSA in Berkeley, CA over the Pacifica network between 1997 and 2001. In addition to being aired on the five stations owned by Pacifica, the show was made available to any community radio station at no charge. Released in 1999, The Moscow Hold featured more of his stories and poems.
To the end, Utah Phillips remained acutely aware of what was truly important in life. "I spent a long time finding my way -- couches, floors, big towns, small towns, marginal pay (folk wages)," he wrote in his final letter to family and friends. "But I found that people seemed to like what I was doing. The folk music family took me in, carried me along, and taught me the value of song far beyond making a living. It taught me that I don’t need wealth, I don’t need power, and I don’t need fame. What I need is friends, and that’s what I found -- everywhere -- and not just among those on the stage, but among those in front of the stage as well." ~ Craig Harris