A labor of love: Friends carry out Utah Phillips legacy | TheUnion.com

A labor of love: Friends carry out Utah Phillips legacy

Katrina Paz
Special to Prospector
Utah Phillips, who helped launch the Hospitality House in 2005, will be honored by friends, family and fellow musicians this weekend at a concert supporting the Nevada City shelter.
Submitted photo to Prospector


WHO: Hospitality House presents

WHAT: Utah Phillips Labor Day Revue, a fundraiser for Hospitality House.

WHEN: Labor Day matinee at 3 p.m. Monday, Sept. 3

WHERE: Nevada Theatre, 401 Broad St., Nevada City

TICKETS: $20 general admission, $30 premium reserved seating. Call BriarPatch Food Coop at 530-272-5333, or go online at www.hhshelter.org for tickets and information

Utah Phillips may be gone, but his work, spirit and music carry on through his achievements and enduring relationships.

This weekend a handful of Phillips’ friends and collaborators will come together in honor of him and to raise funds for the Hospitality House.

The Labor Day revue features an all-star line up, with songs and stories by John McCutcheon, Susan Lewis, Janet Stecher, Mark Ross, Larry Hanks, Paul Kamm, Eleanore MacDonald, Dakota Sid Clifford, Bodie Wagner and Utah’s son Brendan Phillips.

The lives Phillips touched

McCutcheon, a renowned folk singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and friend of Phillips, is honored to take part in the concert. The two met more than 40 years ago and immediately recognized each other as kindred spirits. The pair continued to run into each other at various festivals and labor rallies. Phillips later recruited McCutcheon to take part in KVMR concerts and events.

“People thought I was supporting KVMR, but it was really just an excuse to hang out with Utah,” McCutcheon said.

He adds that the two shared a common belief in what could happen when ordinary people band together to get something they need and want. They spent years playing on the picket lines for everything from meatpackers and mechanics to flight attendants and steelworkers. The fact that this particular concert takes place on Labor Day seems rather fitting to McCutcheon, given their lives’ work.

“To really celebrate (the spirit of) Labor Day, just doesn’t happen enough,” he said.

Stecher and Lewis, the duo that makes up Rebel Voices, also met Phillips in the circles of activism and music. Their music and workshops echo the “struggles and triumphs of real people, including the voices of today’s rebels” (union and environmental activists, LBGTQ, pro-choice advocates, persons with disabilities, children, immigrants and political prisoners).

Phillips was an early supporter of Lewis and Stecher, who were then a part of Shay’s Rebellion.

“If you can imagine how young we were at the time, just starting out in performing more than just locally, and Utah was so supportive of what we were doing, it was really a huge thing. It meant so much to us to have a personal endorsement from him,” Lewis said.

One of Lewis’ fondest and first memories of Phillips was at the Vancouver Folk Festival in the ’80s, where he got on stage and stressed the importance of bringing your own cup and silverware.

“I immediately adored him,” Lewis said. “I’d been carrying my own silverware for years.”

Phillips, she said, had a public persona that was his performance face — that could hold an audience with songs and stories like no one else. Offstage, however, he was a real person who was incredibly supportive of the work people were doing in their own communities.

Phillips passed away in 2008. A prolific and renowned labor organizer, folk singer, storyteller, poet and “Golden Voice of the Great Southwest,” he may be best known locally for helping launch the Hospitality House. He drew upon his personal experience as a guest and worker in various shelters, particularly the Catholic Worker shelter.

A house of love

The model and inspiration was based on “Houses of Hospitality” developed by Phillips’ mentor Ammon Hennacy in Salt Lake City during the 1960s. He envisioned the same model for Grass Valley’s community shelter, in which a respect for voluntary poverty and a passion to help the poor would guide policy. In 2013, the shelter was renamed Utah House in his honor.

“Utah always came at ideas, decisions and thoughts about the needs of homeless people from their own point of view,” Joanna Robinson, Phillips’ wife, said. “There’s a phrase we all know: ‘the soul of compassion.’ Hospitality House is a place of remarkable compassion, and with his pure vision, steadfastness of purpose and sincere love for the poor, Utah will always be a part of the shelter’s soul.”

McCutcheon said it’s absolutely appropriate that the shelter is such a strong part of Phillip’s legacy. Being treated like a guest, rather than a client — a worthy part of the community rather than a problem, was what Utah’s music was all about.

“Some people get monuments, statues or bridges named after them,” McCutcheon said. “But giving 20 to 30 people a warm bed to sleep in and a place to be treated decently, a Grammy doesn’t get you that. It’s a lifetime of work. It’s perfect.”

Katrina Paz is a freelance writer for Prospector and is a resident of Grass Valley.

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