I was a beginning storyteller and a new member of the Storytell listserv when I received an email from a man named Utah Phillips. Today I do not remember what he wrote to me about, but I remember wondering who he was. Years later, I found out and was astounded that he'd taken time to write to me. Maybe I should not have been surprised, for he'd spent his life reaching out to others along the way.
Troubadour, labor activist, storyteller and man of hard truths, Utah Phillips passed away last Saturday (May 24). His ailment was the same one that claimed my father and like Dad, Utah passed on peacefully in his sleep. It was a passing he earned through his lifetime of giving hope and help to people struggling with hard times.
There are several videos of Utah telling stories and singing on YouTube. Take a listen and you'll see why this man is a folk hero--he's Walt Whitman, Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash and John Prine all in one package. Or maybe each one of them is a little bit of that great spokesperson for the common man, Utah Phillips.
Below are the lyrics to my favorite Utah Phillips song, The Green and Rolling Hills. Although I believe he visited West Virginia only a few times, his sense of the place and the plight of its workers was right on the mark, and he taps perfectly the desperation and determination of those who had to leave to find work. He's an honorary West Virginian in my book.
The green rolling hills of West Virginia
Are the nearest place to heaven that I know.
Though times are sad and drear
and I cannot linger here
They will keep me and never let me go.
My daddy said don't ever be a miner,
A miner's grave is all you'll ever own.
Never have a dime to spare,
Hard times everywhere,
Now these times they are the worst I've ever known.
I'll move away into some crowded city,
In a Northern factory town you'll find me there;
Though I leave my heart behind,
I will never change my mind,
For this troubled life is more than I can bear.
Copyright ©1973, 2000 Bruce Phillips
Thank you, Utah, and goodbye.