Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



(b Bruce Duncan Phillips, 15 May 1935, Cleveland OH; d 23 May 2008, Nevada City CA) Folksinger, songwriter, storyteller and social activist. His parents were labor organizers and political activists; at the time of Bruce's birth they distributed an announcement that said, 'Must be heard to be appreciated'. As a boy he built a crystal radio set and listened to barn dances and the Grand Ole Opry, soon familiar with the music of Hank Snow, Stoney Cooper and T. Texas Tyler (whose stage name later influenced his own). He taught himself to play ukulele by listening to old records and to Arthur Godfrey's radio show. Meanwhile his parents divorced; he moved with his mother and stepfather first to Dayton, then in 1947 to Utah, and three years later hopped his first freight train. He began to learn guitar and to write songs and stories influenced by the people he met on the road. He served in the U.S. Army 1956-9 in Korea, and was disturbed by the post-war destitution he saw there, and no doubt also by the Korean police state of the period.

Back in the USA he resumed the hobo lifestyle, and was destitute and drinking too much when he met Ammon Hennacy in 1960, a Catholic pacifist and anarchist who ran The Joe Hill House in Salt Lake City, a home for transients. Hennacy became his mentor, teaching him about anarchy and pacifism, and he left his drinking days behind. In Utah Phillips made his debut album Nobody Knows Me '61 for Prestige, but years later didn't remember much about it. During the 1960s Phillips worked for the state as an archivist, which was good experience, because he valued the accuracy of the stories he told; he also remained a voracious reader. He joined the IWW (International Workers of the World, the 'Wobblies'), performing at rallies and meetings. His great skill was in bringing literary quality to the stories and songs, yet giving them back in their own language to the people who had inspired him. In 1968, Phillips ran for the U.S. Senate on a 'Freedom & Peace' platform; the Republican won, state Democrats complained that Phillips had split the vote, and he lost his job with the state, which he compared to blacklisting. He left Utah and headed east; in Saratoga Springs NY, coffeeshop owner Lena Spencer encouraged him to become a full-time professional musician.

Philo Records had started as an independent label in a barn in North Ferrisburg, Vermont, and Phillips made four albums there: El Capitan '69, Good Though '73, All Used Up: A Scrapbook '75, and We Have Fed You All A Thousand Years '84. ('Good Though' is the punchline from a hilarious story, 'Moose Turd Pie', which helped to make Phillips better known.) In 1984 Philo became part of the Rounder stable; his albums remained in print, while his songs were being covered by artists like Joan Baez, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Tom Waits, John Denver, Flatt & Scruggs and Joe Ely. In 1990 the Minnesota-based Red House label released Legends Of Folk, made live at the World Theater in Minneapolis, with Phillips, Ramblin' Jack Elliot and Spider John Koerner. I've Got To Know came out on Alcazar '91 (reissued 2003 by AK Press) but then the relationship with Red House bore fruit: a duo album with his old friend Rosalie Sorrels from the coffeehouse days, The Long Memory, appeared in 1996 and won a Best Traditional Folk award from the National Association of Independent Record Distributors; Loafer's Glory '97 was another duo, this time with his long-time associate Mark Ross; and The Moscow Hold '99 was culled from years of live peformances.

The Philo/Rounder compilation The Telling Takes Me Home '97 included tracks from El Capitan and All Used Up. Meanwhile Phillips was approached by singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, offering the services of her Righteous Babe label, resulting in The Past Didn't Go Anywhere '96 (hours of concert tapes were winnowed and intercut with electronica) and the Grammy-nominated Fellow Workers '99, weith DiFranco and her band. The Bluegrass duo Jody Stecher and Kate Brislin made Heart Songs: The Old Time Country Songs of Utah Phillips '97 on Rounder, nominated for a Grammy. Phillips received a lifetime achievement award from Folk Alliance in 1997. The Rose Tattoo Live - Trains, Tramps And Traditions 2001 on Cookie Man Music was a valuable collection of story-songs made with a group including Ross. The long-awaited 4-CD set Starlight On The Rails: A Songbook was released by AK Press/Daemon in 2005; Making Speech Free was self-released the same year. A double-CD May Day At The Pabst with Larry Penn (one disc for each man's set) was recorded live in Milwaukee in 2006, released two years on Cookie Man.

Phillips had long since announced his retirement from the road due to heart problems, a legacy of his earlier hard times; he had a radio program called Loafer's Glory, but he had to curtail that and resume touring to a limited extent because he needed the money (100 programs remained available on his own No Guff label). He died in his sleep of congestive heart failure.