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