Wednesday, May 28, 2008
Sleep You Weary Hobo
Utah Phillips died last week. I knew he's been quite ill with congestive heart failure for most of this year so it was no surprise. Bruce Phillips, aka U. Utah Phillips, the golden voice of the great southwest, was more storyteller than singer. Sure he played guitar and sang on key, but he was non-pareil with a good story. He had a bindle full.
I first met Utah back in the 70s where he enjoyed a huge fan base in the Bay Area. When the Woody Guthrie show I was part of was invited to perform and do some workshops at the Santa Rosa Folk Festival back in 1979, I sat around under trees listening to and recording most of his performances when I had free time. Glad I still have those tapes today because Utah was something special in a live performance.
Bruce Phillips was a Woobly. An active member of the Industrial Workers of the World, he kept much of the history alive and could sing and talk about the little red song book endlessly. Newer versions feature his songs as well. In the mid 80s, as part of a Master's thesis I was working on, Utah agreed to an interview with me. I was interested in the history of politically active Tramps and hobos and Utah Phillips was the logical place to start. At the time, I was also completing a radio documentary on the folk music and culture of hobos and rail riders, so we spoke a good deal about his experiences too. The evening before my interview with him, Utah had a gig at Freight and Salvage, in Berkeley. During his first break, we set up a meeting time. When I told him I'd take him to breakfast anywhere, he agreed to meet me at Chez Pannise. Unfortunately they were closed that morning and we settled for a less popular place nearby. Damn, I would have loved to have been to Chez Pannise with Bruce Phillips.
The interview went well and before he took off, he told me something that not too many folks knew at the time. He talked about being a Korean War vet and hoboin' all over the west. In a moment of despair, "seeing what a military power can do to another country" he contemplated suicide. Strapped on a gondola car, over a bridge with a mighty river below Utah told me how he was seconds away from reaching his jackknife and cutting the tether. Even in his funniest most outrageous performances, I never forgot that moment.
A few years ago, I took a mental health day off work on a Friday in October. I'd convinced Katie to go with me to the Upper Yuba River for one last chance to fly fish before winter descended. She wanted the chance to stay overnight in Nevada City because it's a great place to spend a few days. I knew Utah Phillips had moved there a few years earlier and lo and behold when we parked along the main drag about 11:00 that Indian summer morning he exited a small Chinese restaurant.
"I know Utah Phillips lives here now, hey look, there he is over there."
Utah recognized me faintly and we exchanged the names of mutual friends. We spoke for a few minutes more and like a total dork I forgot to introduce Katie formally. I really believed before that weekend was over I'd get another chance.
Go to Sleep you weary hobo
Let the towns drift slowly by,
Can't you hear the steel rails hummin'
That's the hobo's lullaby