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Utah Phillips dies

Jeff Pelline and Pat ButlerSun News Service

NEVADA CITY A memorial service is being planned for Sunday in Nevada City for Bruce Utah Phillips, the folk music legend and peace and labor activist who died Friday night in his Nevada City home.Phillips, 73, died at 11:30 p.m. of congestive heart failure a condition he had suffered from for years.Phillips died at home, in bed, in his sleep, next to his wife, according to his family, which was in seclusion Sunday at his home about a mile from downtown Nevada City.The family is working on further details of the memorial, including its exact location and time, for one of the areas most famous citizens.The folk musicians remarkable career included international acclaim for the stories and songs he wrote about social and labor issues, as well as his career as a hobo who ran the rails as a young man. He also once ran for the U.S. Senate. Phillips musical career stretched over 38 years and his songs were performed by Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings and Joan Baez. He earned a Grammy nomination for an album he recorded with Ani DiFranco.He once told The Union that folk music is the glue that holds the community together, as people gather to share food, music and to dance.The musician lived in Nevada City for the past 21 years and helped start the Hospitality House homeless shelter and the Peace and Justice Center.Up until his death, Phillips was managing to get out a good bit, as he wrote in a letter on a Web log less than two weeks ago. The weekend before last, he attended one of his favorite pastimes – a Little League game at Pioneer Park in Nevada City.I knew he wasnt feeling well all week, said Cindy Maple, the executive director of Hospitality House, who sat with Phillips at the game to watch her 12-year-old son play ball. But he had his usual cute sense of humor.Maple and Phillips were close friends, having worked together to open the Hospitality House in Grass Valley.My son was on the Dodgers, but anytime they were playing the Indians, Utah was conflicted, she said. Utah loved the Indians.No wonder, because Phillips was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on May 15, 1935, to labor organizer parents.He was born Bruce Duncan Phillips, but adopted the name Utah from where he grew up. He later took the name U. Utah Phillips, which was a tribute to fellow musician T. Texas Tyler. Phillips ran away from home as a teenager and started living as a hobo who rode the rails and wrote songs about his experiences.In 1956, he joined the Army and did a tour in Korea, which would motivate him to become a peace activist. In 1968, he ran for the U.S. Senate for the Peace and Freedom Party. He also was a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of America, or the wobblies.

Phillips, whose long, white hair and beard and colorful outfits made him a standout in any crowd, emerged as a folk music performer after the release in 1973 of his first album, Good Though!, which included the classic song Moose Turd Pie. The song recounts a tale of serving moose excrement to fellow laborers, daring them to complain about the food.Some of his more notable recordings included Ive Got to Know (1991); the four-CD Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook (2005); and in collaboration with DiFranco, The Past Didnt Go Anywhere (1996) and Fellow Worker (1999), which was nominated for the Grammy.Utah has such a wonderfully eloquent storytelling style, DiFranco told Mother Jones magazine in 1999, adding Utah is such a wonderful teacher when it comes to American history, so Ive certainly learned a lot of things from him and our friendship along the way.Other musicians also praised Phillips.He made me understand that music must be more than cotton candy for the ears, said John McCutcheon, a nationally known folk singer and close friend.

In the letter published on his blog, Phillips wrote: My heart, which is enlarged and very weak, cant 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 dont get around very much or very easily anymore. Im 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.In January, after a day of great honesty, Phillips decided against a heart transplant. He spent a month in a San Francisco hospital in February before returning home.As long as Im on the planet, Im not going to turn into a vegetable, he said upon returning home. Its my town. Nevada City is a primary seed-bed for community organizing.He is survived by his son Duncan and daughter-in-law Bobette of Salt Lake City, son Brendan of Olympia, Wash.; daughter Morrigan Belle of Washington, D.C.; stepson Nicholas Tomb of Monterey; stepson and daughter-in-law Ian Durfee and Mary Creasey of Davis; brothers David Phillips of Fairfield, Ed Phillips of Cleveland and Stuart Cohen of Los Angeles; sister Deborah Cohen of Lisbon, Portugal; and a grandchild, Brendan.He was preceded in death by his father Edwin Phillips and mother Kathleen, and his stepfather, Syd Cohen.The family requests memorial donations to Hospitality House, P.O. Box 3223, Grass Valley, Calif. 95945, (530) 271-7144 or http://www.hospitalityhouseshelter.org.


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