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U. Utah Phillips (15 May 1935 – 23 May 2008): The Long Memory Passed On

May 28, 2008

Time is an enormous, long river, and I’m standing in it, just as you’re standing in it. My elders are the tributaries, and everything they thought and every struggle they went through and everything they gave their lives to, and every song they created, and every poem that they laid down flows down to me – and if I take the time to ask, and if I take the time to see, and if I take the time to reach out, I can build that bridge between my world and theirs. I can reach down into that river and take out what I need to get through this world” — Utah Phillips

Last fall, I wrote a post in tribute to U. Utah Phillips, one of the few voices in American music (or anywhere in American culture and society) drawing on the rich legacy of radical labor in American history. Utah was inspired by Ammon Hennacy and the Catholic Worker Movement, and his work is an important resource for keeping that legacy alive. Sadly, Utah Phillips passed away last Friday.

Utah frequently said that the long memory is the most radical idea in America. He explained the idea in the liner notes to a 1996 album of that name that he did with Rosalie Sorrels:

The long memory is the most radical idea in the country. It is the loss of that long memory which deprives our people of that connective flow of thoughts and events that clarifies our vision, not of where we’re going but where we want to go.”

Utah spent a lifetime collecting stories, songs, poems, ideas and dreams from the people with whom he shared the joys and struggles of work and activism, then generously poured them out for countless others to find. Utah’s gone now. It’s up to us to keep that river of memory flowing clear and clean, to forge for ourselves some vision of where we’ve been and where we want to go.


Amongst the many tributes I’ve read today, someone opined that Utah Phillips was a great American treasure that few Americans know they have lost. Perhaps. But there are many great resources for keeping Utah’s memory and work alive. Utah’s son, Duncan, has been keeping a blog throughout Utah’s illness that is filled with beautiful insights and tributes. Democracy Now! devoted the entire show today to an extended interview Amy Goodman did with Utah back in 2004 that covers a broad range of the things Utah cared most about. And then of course there is his recorded oeuvre — most of it still available on CD, including the terrific recordings he made with Ani Difranco.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ezemaitis permalink
    January 24, 2011 7:53 pm

    I heard Utah on KFAT radio in the 1980s and had the pleasure of attending one of his shows at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz, CA. Thoroughly enjoyed the evening.

    He will be missed.


  2. December 11, 2011 8:27 am

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