How Utah Phillips’ 1893 rail car became a cultural train symbol
Special to Prospector
WEED, Calif. — It’s a slice of railroad heaven, and maybe that’s why it’s not always the easiest to find the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture here the first time around.
Over Memorial Day weekend, it was the “go to” place for friends, family and fans of the late folk music icon, Bruce “U. Utah” Phillips, as well as various railroad enthusiasts.
You see, Phillips’ former Vermont home from back in the 1970s — actually a 125-year-old rail car, yup, 125, and, yup, a rail car — was being dedicated in this new location on the 10th anniversary week of Utah’s passing at age 73 in 2008.
Well, everyone finally found the 50-acre center for what Utah’s eldest son Duncan Phillips called a weekend “Loafer’s Glory Chautauqua,” a reference to the national radio series produced 1997-2002 at KVMR 89.5 FM in Nevada City and this resulting weekend of tall tales, spirited stories, musical magic and maybe some mayhem.
Utah had bought and lived in the 1893 Vermont Central Railway flanger — a form of caboose — while he was recording three albums at Philo Records’ “Barn” in Vermont. When he was on tour, he let other artists stay there. Of course, he would.
Duncan, who lives in Salt Lake City, caught wind the rail car was for sale a couple years ago. When his wife, Bobette, heard about it, she said, “I guess we’re buying a caboose.”
Rail car not for sale
“Just as I was about to make an offer, the owner told me it wasn’t for sale,” Duncan told the crowd of about 100. They gasped. But he added, “He said, ‘I’m going to donate it to you.’”
Applause aplenty. Turns out the owner was, yes, a Utah fan.
But moving it via semi-truck and then using cranes to get it on and off the truck and onto Duncan’s newly made rails at Black Butte was the next step, and Duncan began raising money for it at his website in honor of his father (thelongmemory.com) and via a Generosity online fundraiser.
Together with help from the Black Butte Center for Railroad Culture they’ve gotten over $25,000 for the project, but still need more funds to break even. Last October, Utah Phillips’ younger son, Brendan of Nevada City, joined Duncan in Weed for the flanger move onto the spacious Black Butte grounds, where it joins six other rail cars (Baltimore Red lives in one caboose when he’s not engineering Amtrak trains via his real name), with a 1927 caboose soon to come aboard, so to speak.
“And I lived in my father’s caboose for six months,” said Brendan, “and my Mom and Dad planted a tree there when I was born. Now it’s a big, sprawling tree.”
Brendan told the crowd he and his sister, “didn’t know how we ended up with a father who would wear a red nose and eat (plastic) cockroaches” in front of puzzled then smiling kids at a grocery store.
It was a classic Utah gaffe.
Ani album, Dad’s ‘Cool’
“But when a girl in school showed me an Ani DiFranco album with my dad’s photo and songs in it, well, that’s when I realized my dad was really cool,” Brendan said.
Joanna Robinson, Utah’s wife, was there, as were his sister Deborah Cohen and brother Stuart Cohen, and, well, lots of other relatives and buddies.
Hey, one of ‘em, longtime Utah pal and San Juan Ridge folksinger Bodie Wagner, got a little philosophical onstage as he stared out at the view from the rail car.
“I never thought I’d be standing in front of this flanger car 40 years later, much less in California, where it’s in its most perfect location,” Wagner said. “Just look at that Mount Shasta over there … ”
Many of the surviving members of the Rose Tattoo were also there. Utah helped start this circle of friends with, duh, rose tattoos who go way back in time and share a common experience on and off the trains. Mark Ross from Eugene, Ore., Bob and Diana Suckiel of Kansas City and Kuddie from Nevada City made the trip.
“May Utah Phillips, creator of poetry and songs, live on in our hearts and inspire us forever,” said Bob Suckiel, shortly after performing a classic Utah pro-labor, anti-boss rant.
Duncan and Brendan see the flanger as “The U. Utah Phillips Library Car,” where visitors can listen to “Loafer’s Glory” KVMR radio shows, hear other Utah recordings, read railroad books and “soak up Utah’s zest for life,” according to the Mt. Shasta Herald.
Besides, another generation is waking up to Phillips’ music and philosophy. In fact, one of the boxcars, the kind Utah used to hop, they say, is predominantly used at Black Butte for music shows and song circles. Now that would warm Utah’s heart.
A young Weed male-female duo known as, ahem, Dumpster Full Of Dragons, added music to one of Utah’s spoken word pieces, “I Will Not Obey,” and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house by song’s end.
Meanwhile, folksinger and storyteller John McCutcheon, a longtime KVMR and Nevada City favorite, had flown and driven in from his Atlanta home solely to be at the Chautauqua for a 30-minute set of music and a few hours of bonding, Utah-style.
He recalled meeting Utah at the first folk festival McCutcheon ever attended, “He was a tall, bearded, bib-overalled crazy old fart who became a friend, father, mentor and musical partner.”
That afternoon at the dedication, McCutcheon got to play Utah’s personal guitar for the very first time, noting it’s where Phillips had once placed ashes he was given of executed labor leader Joe Hill.
As a freight train snaked by on the nearby real train tracks, its whistle on full in honor of the railroad center, McCutcheon riffed straight into “The Wabash Cannonball” and simply waved and shouted at the train, “Thank you, Utah.”
It wasn’t westbound, but it could have been. And you know who was riding on it.
On The Air is a weekly irreverent look at Nevada City’s volunteer-driven, eclectic community radio station at 89.5 FM and streaming at kvmr.org. Complete KVMR schedule available at the station’s website, http://www.kvmr.org. The station now features an easy-to-use archive of all music shows for two weeks and talk shows for two months at archive.kvmr.org
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