U. Utah Phillips, a widely acclaimed folk singer, storyteller and labor activist who hosted the Expo ‘74 Folk Life exhibit in Spokane, died Friday night at his home in Nevada City, Calif. He was 73.
Phillips’ stint at Expo came shortly after his 1973 hit “Moose Turd Pie,” a rollicking story about working on a railroad gang. His songs reflected his time as a hobo, as well as his interest in social justice issues.
After Expo, Phillips lived in Spokane until 1988. He met his fourth wife, Joanna Robinson, here.
“Utah had a following in Spokane,” said long-time friend Jordan Fisher Smith.
But then, “Utah had a kind of following in many towns where people thought he was a resident,” said Smith, a Nevada City resident. “When he went to a town, he would read the hometown newspaper … He would build part of the show around what was going on.”
Bruce Phillips was born on May 15, 1935, in Cleveland, Ohio, to parents who were union organizers. He spent his youth in Utah, and later took the name U. Utah Phillips as a tribute to musician T. Texas Tyler.
Phillips was an Army private in the Korean War. After he returned home, Phillips started drinking and drifted across the country on the rails. Phillips ended up at a homeless shelter in Salt Lake City run by a member of the Catholic Worker Movement, according to an obituary provided by his family.
He became a pacifist who used songs and stories to express his political views. In 1968, Phillips ran for the U.S. Senate on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket.
His debut album “Good Though!” was released five years later. His other recordings included “I’ve Got to Know”; “Fellow Worker,” which was nominated for a Grammy award; and “The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere,” with Ani DiFranco.
Phillips’ songs were performed and recorded by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and others. He also hosted a weekly radio program, “Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind.”
Phillips spent 21 years in Nevada City, a historic gold rush town. In 2004, he was diagnosed with chronic heart disease.
“I think he’s one of those people whose influence as an American folk singer and a labor historian far exceeds his commercial success, which he wasn’t seeking,” Smith said.
The family asks that donations be made to the Hospitality House in Grass Valley, a homeless shelter that Phillips founded.