various artists,
Long Gone: Utah Remembers Bruce "Utah" Phillips
(Waterbug, 2011)

The first time I heard a Bruce Phillips song, I happened to be listening to a 1960s-era Flatt & Scruggs LP. That song, "Rock Salt & Nails," boasted a haunting, appealing folk-ballad melody, but it was the strange words that riveted my attention and caused me to check the credits to learn who'd written it. "Rock Salt" employs a striking hunting metaphor to give voice to a deliberately understated rage at a departing spouse. It's like no other break-up song I'd heard before or have heard since. Unlike many Phillips compositions I would come to know, this one lacked political content. Later, however, some needlessly aggrieved feminist critics claimed to find it objectionable. They had to work at it, though. Phillips told an honest story whose sentiments human beings who have been through the experience will recognize all too well.

If "Rock Salt" is the most covered of Phillips's songs, others have become modern folk standards, too. When he died in May 2008, he had achieved sufficient recognition to warrant a New York Times obituary. Meanwhile, his songs live on. Long Gone, essentially a local celebration, is one of a handful of tribute discs (five? six?). My own collection houses two others, one by Jody Stecher & Kate Brislin, the other by his longtime friend Rosalie Sorrels. Phillips himself, whose vocal talents were less than overwhelming (a fact acknowledged good-humoredly in his billing of himself as "The Golden Voice of the Great Southwest"), cut a number of small-label albums over the decades. Among the notables who have recorded his songs are Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Ian Tyson, the Flatlanders and a fair number of bluegrass bands.

The artist to whom he might be compared -- even if the fiercely individualistic Phillips was no imitator -- is Woody Guthrie. Like Guthrie's, Phillips's politics leaned hard to the left. What the Communist Party USA was to the former, the once-powerful, long-faded Industrial Workers of the World (also known as the Wobblies) were to the latter. Phillips's beliefs, it has to be said, occasionally passed the merely eccentric and went straight to the outright crazy. I recall a conversation in which I understood him -- I would like to think I misunderstood him, though I don't think so -- to say that people should be denied the right to vote contrary to Phillips's preferences. If there was something of the Stalinist in him, it was balanced by his more attractive side, the one that led him to put his body where his social-justice convictions lay. He was fearless enough to aggravate powerful interests in his native state, from which eventually he became an exile. He was a union organizer, a pacifist, a storyteller and a hobo, all in all a colorful and complex man. Someday someone will write a biography worthy of him.

Produced by veteran Utah musician Kate MacLeod at the invitation of Phillips's son Duncan, himself a folk singer, the 18 cuts of Long Gone revive Phillips originals, along with the Duncan composition that gives the CD its title. Also featured is Haywire Mac McClintock's venerable "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum," a Wobbly anthem of which Phillips was fond. Some songs are familiar ones -- "Goin' Away" (done here by Gigi Love), "Orphan Train" (Carla Eskelsen, and not to be confused with the David Massengill piece of the same name and theme), "Ragged Old Man" (Doug Wintch) -- while others are new to me, such as "Room for the Poor" performed by Western folklorist and public-radio broadcaster Hal Cannon (whose own recent CD I reviewed in this space on 21 May 2011). Except for Cannon and MacLeod, most of the singers' names are new to me, too.

The songs, all pretty decent ones (some, inevitably, a little more decent than others), make for fulfilling listening, as Phillips songs usually can be depended upon to do. Even so, "Nevada Jane," sung by MacLeod -- represented as a true story of IWW hero Big Bill Haywood's noble devotion to his handicapped wife -- is an exercise in wild sentimentality, unbased in much but wishful fantasy; enjoy it as song, not as biography. I am more drawn to Phillips the recaller of the American West's forgotten tragedies, on display in the harrowing "Scofield Mine Disaster" (Mike & Shauna Iverson) and in the movingly nuanced "The Telling Takes Me Home" (Dave Eskelsen).

Straightforward and unaffected, the performances rely on no more than acoustic guitar, voice and sincerity. Hearing them, one feels as if sitting in a living room with friends as each remembers his or her most beloved Phillips tune. One expects that Phillips would have wanted that kind of tribute.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 August 2011

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