Utah Phillips: A 'Golden' Voice for Labor Utah Phillips — folksinger, storyteller and labor organizer — dubbed himself the "Golden Voice of the Great Southwest." He died last week at the age of 73.
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Utah Phillips: A 'Golden' Voice for Labor

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Utah Phillips: A 'Golden' Voice for Labor

Utah Phillips: A 'Golden' Voice for Labor

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

On the 23rd of May, Utah Phillips past away in his sleep. Phillips was an influential folk singer, a story teller, a labor historian. Commentator Bill Harley has this musical tribute.

(Soundbite of song, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum")

Mr. BILL HARLEY (Songwriter, Storyteller): (Singing) Hallelujah, I'm a bum. Hallelujah, bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again.

HARLEY: Utah Phillips - the self-imagined golden voice of the Great Southwest, used songs - good ones - to frame his shaggy dog stories about working people and American life. He was the one and only. The only guy I knew that executed his television in his backyard after giving it a last cigarette. The only performer I knew who asked for a tour by the local historian whenever he got into town. The only folksinger I knew who talked more than he sang, who made a recording of just stories, he said, out of respect for the music lovers in his audience.

Whose shows consisted of one aphorism after another, because aphorisms - unlike sound bites - are the accumulated wisdom of years of experience, polished until they can be carried in the mind and used when needed. Aphorisms like: the most radical thing in America is a long term memory. Or, children, be worried when they call you America's most valuable natural resource. Have you seen what they've done to the other natural resources? Or, don't vote - it only encourages them.

The only guy I knew who could explain the difference between a hobo and a tramp and a bum. Who gave up traveling as a folk singer when his heart wore out and started a homeless shelter. Who quoted Shakespeare, Wendell Berry and Idaho Blackie all in the same breath. Who wrote songs sung by both Johnny Cash and Ani DiFranco. Unabashed and unashamed master of the one liner and the bad joke and the call to direct action. Quoting Ammon Hennacy, Utah said, before you call someone a hero, make sure they're dead so they don't blow it. It's safe. He's gone and he can't blow it. He was one of my heroes.

(Soundbite of song, "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum")

HARLEY: (Singing) Hallelujah I'm a bum. Hallelujah bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again.

ADAMS: Bill Harley is a songwriter and story teller who lives in Seekonk, Massachusetts. Utah Phillips died last week at age 73.

(Soundbite of song, "Hallelujah I'm a bum")

Mr. UTAH PHILLIPS (Songwriter, Singer): When you're holding down two. Hallelujah I'm a bum. Hallelujah bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout to revive us again. Oh, I went to a house and I knocked on the door, the lady said scram, bum, you've been here before. Hallelujah I'm a bum. Hallelujah bum again. Hallelujah, give us a handout...

ADAMS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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