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Utah Phillips

Bruce "Utah" Phillips is a Grammy-nominated folk singer, storyteller, and poet. Many of his songs relate to the struggles of labor unions and workers, particularly rail workers. Phillips and Sorrels first met in Salt Lake. They would eventually travel and perform together all over the country. The two recorded an album together called The Long Memory (1996), a tribute to American workers. Rosalie often sings his songs in performance.

utah phillips at home in chair

Q: What was it about Rosalie singing unaccompanied that was such a great experience? Is it the quality of her voice?
A: She could get into the guts of a song. Listening to her sing unaccompanied was truly an extraordinary experience.It's a way of singing that gives the listener, gives me, a better understanding of what the song is really about, and arriving at that understanding about a song is more important than anything else. Otherwise you are "muzak."

But Rosalie, first of all in her manner of singing, demands intimacy. In the manner of her performance, demands intimacy. Even though people may be uncomfortable with that, she demands it, and they give it up. She knows how to make them do that, and it carries over to the singing. Now that you've achieved this feeling of intimacy, a real connection between us, I can sing to you in such a way that you are really going to understand this song, and you are really going to be able to find out how it fits into your life as you are living it, and fits into your past as things have happened to you. It's phenomenal to watch.

Visit a Web site about Utah Phillips

And the thing is, it keeps getting better. Rosalie is singing better than she ever has in her life and her performances are simply awfully good theater. And Rosalie has learned how to do that. It's so uncommon among folk singers. Folk singers coming up through the folk revival really wanted to be traditional people and pretend that they weren't doing theater, but damn it, when you've got an audience and microphones and lights and a stage, you are doing theater so you might as well learn how to do it. Well, Rosalie went at it that way and simply learned how to do it and do it as well as it can be done.

"That's again, part of that furious energy, that deep, deep fire that burns way down within that doesn't seem to want to cool off at all."

And she's not doing characterizations, she's not doing personae. Rosalie walking on the stage is the same person who was standing in the wings, the same person who was walking down the street. That also is very rare.

Q: Discuss the importance of "theater" to her music.
A: When I got thrown out of Utah after Black List, I backed into this trade and Rosalie was very, very helpful in getting me started in it. When I had to leave and wound up in New York and wound up in Saratoga. I listened to a lot of folk singers. The whole thing was new to me. I was green as corn. I saw them sing a song and then fumble around tuning an instrument or picking up another instrument or scratching their head and deciding what to sing next and there was no thread of continuity. There was no theater to it.

I discovered soon, and watching Rosalie, that what you did between the songs is as important as the songs themselves. And that your set is constructed in such a way so that one thing leads to another. You wind up doing a two-act play instead of a concert with a first set and a second set, and in many ways trying to make sure that each word is exactly where you want it to be. You have to bring to it economy of language. You only have a certain amount of time on that stage, so you go over the language and make sure the words are where they need to be, that you are not rambling. There are halves and sometimes whole concerts that Rosalie has done that could stand by themselves as pieces of art.

[Image: Rosalie and Utah Phillips performing near Sun Valley in the 70s]

Rosalie and Utah Phillips performing near Sun Valley
in the 70s

Q: How did the two of you start performing together?
A: I guess it was the Utah Folk Music Society and we'd have "sing arounds" over in the living room, on the front porch with these singers who were coming through, and they would stay with Rosalie, and then we'd sit on the front porch and sing together. We shared the stage sometimes. I think we put together a theater piece. I hope Rosalie still has the script of that someplace because I would like to do that again. "The Face of A Nation" where we had a reader, Willie from the radio station. A great radio voice and we had selections from Woody Guthrie and Thomas Wolfe. Passages that he would read and then we would match songs sitting on each side of him to those passages. And we did it as a concert. I thought it worked beautifully. In fact, some of those things I still do. And it was theater, and it was good theater. We did that in Salt Lake at the Union Building at the university. I would like to find that again. I think that really was the first formal relationship leading to a trade. I'm not sure that either one of us at that time was anticipating that this would be the way we would make a living for the next 30 or 40 years.

We gave a very well balanced performance because she can sing and I can't. She has a very, very solid way of playing the guitar, and I fumble around with it. She does the art portion. I do the down home trash part. It's a very well balanced presentation, very well rounded.

Q: Describe the energy between the two of you on stage.
A: Well, first of all, it's one of mutual respect; and that respect is grounded in the fact that each knows what the other one is doing. We're not completely egocentric. We're aware of what another person is doing. In our situation, even though you've done the same thing 3 or 4 or 5 times, you really look at each other as though you are hearing it for the first time, as though you are having a conversation to create that theater. And that was a real theatrical tension to pay attention to what I'm saying, I pay attention to what she's saying, and I can bounce off of that, and I can adjust timing. We're both feeling the same audience but we're both going at them in a little different way.

"I discovered watching Rosalie, that what you did between the songs is as important as the songs themselves."

So if they laugh, releases the tension, hand it back to Rosalie and then she can build the tension again. It is theater. It's really paying attention and it is understanding the theater of what you do and owning it and being so secure in your own ego that you can sacrifice it, you can bend so that things work, so that you come out right.

So much of the theater of it is making it real for yourself and then getting on the stage and being enough of an actor or actress to convince the audience that you're making this up as you go along, and that you are having as much fun with it as you ever did. I guess the rule is, it doesn't matter whether a thousand people or three people are in that audience, this is going to be the best show you ever did in your life. Those are the rules.

Q: What was Rosalie's contribution in terms of collecting and preserving traditional songs?
A: Learning them and performing them. Breathing life back into them. Bringing some of them to life. Some of those I imagine hadn't been sung for years by anybody. And just like she does with every song she sings, breathing life into it.

utah and rosalie sitting talking

Q: How do you feel having Rosalie sing your songs and keeping them going, keeping them alive?
A: I'm glad the songs are useful. I would like to make useful songs. I never regarded song making as just a matter of self-expression. I think it's great that young singer-song writers are using song making as self-expression, but there is a whole lot more to it than that. There's a whole world out there with stories that are begging for songs and for somebody to come along and pick those up and I want to pass those songs along.

I think Rosalie and I are both tuned into a pretty traditional process. We understand that the well of the people, the music is very, very deep, but that old songs way down, back in the tunnel of time, at the bottom of that well, get lost and that well will run dry unless songs are put in the top of that well and passed around so that it doesn't run dry.

I believe so strongly in writing outside of oneself and putting songs in that well, which means throwing them into the air so that they take [on] a life of their own and give you up and give up your name, because that's the way it lasts, you see. One of the things I'm doing up in Nevada City right now is working with young singer-song writers who are very self involved, and I have them over to my house, and I tell them stories that I have carried for years that I will never get turned into songs, and they have tremendous facility with language and image, and I say come back in a week with a song and they do, with these songs about these stories. What I have been doing at the same time is taking the ego out of song making. It's not mine, it's not mine. The songs of mine that Rosalie sings really aren't mine any more. They are out on the air and they are going to go where they will and if they do anybody some good, that's fine.

Q: Going on the road with five children, surviving breast cancer and an aneurysm-- talk about Rosalie's strength.
A: She is the most constitutionally hearty person I know. There is absolutely no reason why she shouldn't have perished a dozen times over, but she simply persists. She's enormously durable. Part of it is genetic and part of it is raw stubbornness and the refusing to give in or give up. She has a great deal of courage but just a great deal of innate hearty-hood. If there is anything that characterizes her as a western woman, it's probably that, almost stereotypical.

Q: Do you view Rosalie as a western singer?
A: Rosie is any kind of singer she wants to be on any given night. If she wants to be a torch singer in a saloon in New Orleans she will be, and she'll make it stick. She knows how to do it.

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about Rosalie?
A: Rosalie has not been content to go from town to town, hotel to hotel to the stage in the car, back to the hotel and on to the next town. She has been functionally and politically engaged over the years in all kinds of movements for social change, for political change and given herself away endlessly to benefit our people at large. That's again, part of that furious energy, that deep, deep fire that burns way down within that doesn't seem to want to cool off at all. It's an engine that drives Rosalie that hasn't just benefited her, but through her it's been a tremendous benefit to all of us.