Utah Phillips – Rest in Peace

Posted: May 24, 2008 in Uncategorized

U. Utah Phillips died yesterday. As news of his passing spreads across the world, those of us who have been moved by his music and tickled by his outrageously funny story telling pause to remember a favourite song, or performance.

My all time favourite expresses Utah’s unconditional affirmation of working people and his uncompromising critique of bankers, bosses and associated social parasites.

WE HAVE FED YOU ALL A THOUSAND YEARS
(WRITTEN BY `AN UNKNOWN PROLETARIAN,’ MUSIC BY VON LIEBICH)
(FIRST LISTED PRINTING, INDUSTRIAL UNION BULLETIN, APRIL 18, 1908)

We have fed you all for a thousand years
And you hail us still unfed,
Though there’s never a dollar of all your wealth
But marks the workers’ dead.
We have yielded our best to give you rest
And you lie on crimson wool.
Then if blood be the price of all your wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in full!

There is never a mine blown skyward now
But we’re buried alive for you.
There’s never a wreck drifts shoreward now
But we are its ghastly crew.
Go reckon our dead by the forges red
And the factories where we spin.
If blood be the price of your cursed wealth,
Good God! We have paid it in!

We have fed you all a thousand years-
For that was our doom, you know,
From the days when you chained us in your fields
To the strike a week ago.
You have taken our lives, and our babies and wives,
And we’re told it’s your legal share,
But if blood be the price of your lawful wealth,
Good God! We bought it fair!

By all accounts, Utah led a good and a full life. His official obituary gives a sense of the breadth and depth of his interests and passions. Richer insights can be found in a letter he wrote to his many friends and supporters nine days before his death. But the proof of this man’s pudding is in his music. Here’s a clip from 2007. Bring it home, Utah!

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Comments
  1. Beijing York says:

    What an amazing person. I am sorry I missed knowing him and his music while he was alive. That letter he wrote to his family and friends is beautiful. I love this part:

    A few words about me and the trade before I wind this up. When I hit a blacklist in Utah in 1969, I realized I had to leave Utah if I was going to make a living at all. I didn’t know anything abut this enormous folk music family spread out all over North America. All I had was an old VW bus, my guitar, $75, and a head full of songs, old- and new-made. Fortunately, at the behest of my old friend Rosalie Sorrels, I landed at Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, New York. That seemed to be ground zero for folk music at the time. Lena Spencer, as she did with so many, took me in and taught me the ropes. It took me a solid two years to realize I was no longer an unemployed organizer, but a traveling folk singer and storyteller—which, in Utah at the time, would probably have been regarded as a criminal activity.

    I spent a long time finding my way—couches, floors, big towns, small towns, marginal pay (folk wages). 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.

  2. Stephen says:

    I added his version of ‘Solidarity Forever’ to my iPod just a few weeks ago.

    I’m sorry to hear of his passing.

  3. Sad news, this.

    I’m thankful for the opportunity to meet him, and thank him for his work, just a couple of years ago when he appeared at the Regina Folk Festival. He arrived early and stayed late, gave a great show and spoke out about those excluded from the full show because of economics.

    A great man!

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