Man Honors Father, ‘Utah’ Phillips, By Becoming A Folksinger

Feb 14, 2019, 7:27 PM | Updated: 9:28 pm

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – After a lifetime apart and refusal to follow his train-hopping father’s footsteps as a folk singer, Duncan Phillips found himself performing in front of a thousand people to honor his father’s memory.

Duncan Phillips didn’t play the guitar and didn’t sing in public – right up until he booked his first gig.

His father was Bruce Duncan Phillips, also known as “U. Utah” Phillips. Bruce Phillips gained fame as a folk singer, storyteller, labor organizer and cheerleader for the Industrial Workers of the World.

Bruce Phillips divorced Duncan’s mother when he was a young boy. Bruce was a very sporadic presence in his son’s life. From the mid-1960s until the turn of the century, Bruce Phillips saw his son about a half-dozen times.

Considering all that, Duncan said he wasn’t angry at his father.

“It was just like he’s on a long road trip and looking back. It was like I knew we’d eventually get back together,” Duncan Phillips said. “He was eventually going to come off the road. I knew in the back of my mind that we were going to get together, I just didn’t know when.”

The father and son didn’t reunite for any length of time until Bruce Phillips had a thick mop of white hair and a heart condition.

“I just wanted to let him know that I grew up OK, and if he had any regrets or any doubts about us then he could let them go,” Duncan Phillips said. “I’m fine. I’m a good person.”

For the last few years of his father’s life, Duncan became his dad’s road manager.

“It wasn’t just father and son, it was more than that,” Duncan Phillips said. “It was just like we were old friends and got back together again. It was two old kindred spirits that are really best friends that finally got back together.”

Bruce Phillips wanted to teach his son how to sing and play, but Duncan, who works as a high-end landscaper, wasn’t interested.

“There’s no way I’m getting on stage,” Duncan said. “It would frighten me, scared me to death.”

Bruce Phillip’s died May 23, 2008. The week after the funeral, Duncan made a phone call to folk singer Tom May, who organized an annual concert to raise funds for the Sisters of the Road Cafe, an Oregon non-profit that helps the homeless.

Bruce Phillips usually appeared at the fundraiser. Duncan, who did not sing and had never played an instrument, asked if he could perform at the concert, instead.

“I got home and was determined to do something musically,” Duncan Phillips said.

May asked Duncan Phillips if he played.

“I said, ‘No, but I’m gonna learn. It’ll be terrific, don’t worry,’” he recalled.

Duncan Phillips, with his inheritance – his father’s guitar with the ashes of labor organizer Joe Hill inside and his father’s songs – started teaching himself to be a folk singer.

The very first time he performed in public was in front of 900 people at the Aladdin Theater at May’s concert.

“Trying to figure out how to make sense of all those decades apart (and) our eight years back together again, you know. What do I do,” Phillips said. “So my way to grieve, at first, was to pick up the guitar and learn to play.”

After that, he toured his father’s venues – Club Passim in Massachusetts, Caffe Lena in New York State, Old Town School Folk Music in Chicago, and the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in California – and sang his father’s songs.

When he found out a railroad car Bruce Phillips lived in while recording at Philo Records in Vermont was up for sale, Duncan Phillips bought it, moved it to the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture in California and restored it.

“I think it was just a way to stay connected with my dad,” he said.

At first, Duncan Phillips says, he started performing as a way to honor his father. He says he eventually started doing it for himself.

“As it evolved I realized that I probably should’ve been doing this my whole life,” he said. “I enjoyed it and I was all right. I was pretty good at it.”

“It’s really expanded and enriched my life,” he said.

You can read more about Bruce Phillips, his music and his train car at thelongmemory.com.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Local News

A closed gate from Utah wilderness officials to prevent people from accessing the trail....
Lauren Steinbrecher

Forest Service hoping to reopen popular Big Cottonwood Canyon area closed over permit issue

The Forest Service is trying to work through a permit issue with private landowners right next to one of the most popular hiking trails along the Wasatch Front.
24 hours ago
Utah Red Cross members in Fort Meyers, Florida to help with disaster relief....
Mike Anderson

Utah Red Cross arrives in Florida to help with disaster relief

The head of Utah's Red Cross is in Florida Sunday night, helping in the long recovery ahead.
24 hours ago
FILE: Double Arch in Arches National Park
(Arches NP/NPS)...
Michael Houck

Woman’s body found at Arches National Park

Authorities in Grand County recovered the body of a dead woman in Arches National Park on Saturday.
24 hours ago
Francisco Jesus Huerta-Martinez, in 2015..
(Courtesy: West Valley City Police) Department...
Carter Williams, KSL.com

Fugitive charged with 2015 killing of West Valley woman arrested

A man who was charged with murder in the killing of a West Valley woman in 2015 has been arrested after seven years on the run.
24 hours ago
Southbound traffic halted near Kannaraville. (UDOT)...
Michael Houck

UPDATE: One dead in fatal crash in Washington County

A man is dead after losing control of his trailer, causing his car to roll over, and dying on the scene Saturday afternoon.
24 hours ago
The hail in Grand County compared to a silver dollar. (Courtesy: Seth Ohms)...
Michael Houck

Weather officials warn of hazardous storm with hail, lighting, and 60mph winds in southern and eastern Utah

Utah weather officials are warning southern and eastern Utah residents of half-dollar size hail and gusty winds Sunday afternoon. 
24 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Portrait of smiling practitioner with multi-ethnic senior people...
Summit Vista

How retirement communities help with healthy aging

There are many benefits that retirement communities contribute to healthy aging. Learn more about how it can enhance your life, or the life of your loved ones.
Happy diverse college or university students are having fun on their graduation day...
BYU MBA at the Marriott School of Business

How to choose what MBA program is right for you: Ask these questions before you apply!

Wondering what MBA program is right for you? Take this quiz before you apply to see if it will help you meet your goals.
Cloud storage technology with 3d rendering drawer with files in cloud...
PC Laptops

How backing up your computer can help you relieve stress

Don't wait for something bad to happen before backing up your computer. Learn how to protect your data before disaster strikes.
young woman with stickers on laptop computer...
Les Olson

7 ways print marketing materials can boost your business

Custom print marketing materials are a great way to leave an impression on clients or customers. Read for a few ideas to spread the word about your product or company.
young woman throwing clothes to organize a walk in closet...
Lighting Design

How to organize your walk-in closet | 7 easy tips to streamline your storage today

Read our tips to learn how to organize your walk-in closet for more storage space. These seven easy tips can help you get the most out of your space.
Types of Computer Malware and Examples...
PC Laptops

5 Nasty Types of Computer Malware and Examples | Everything You Need to Know to Keep Your Computer and Family Safe

Here are the different types of computer malware and examples that could potentially infect your computer.
Man Honors Father, ‘Utah’ Phillips, By Becoming A Folksinger