The Common Good
March-April 1997

A Tributary Toward the Future

by U. Utah Phillips | March-April 1997

Well known and respected folk singer U. Utah Phillips
announced his retirement well over a year ago in a letter to
friends.

Well known and respected folk singer U. Utah Phillips announced his retirement well over a year ago in a letter to friends. Fellow folk musician Jimmy Landry passed his letter on to Sojourners. In it, Phillips explains his retirement, and details his love of his profession. An excerpt of that letter follows.

October 6, 1995

Dear Friends,

This is U. Utah Phillips talking to you from the home front. Several years ago I was to have my left hand operated on. A pre-operative electrocardiogram revealed that my heart was in serious trouble. Apparently I had had a heart attack some time ago. I said to the cardiologist, ôIt must have been some lousy day, to miss a heart attack.ö

In early September, my friend and doctor, Brad Miller, examined me just before I was to leave town on tour. I felt tired, anxious, and generally out of sorts. Brad's examination revealed a very slow heartbeat and very low blood pressure. So I canceled the tour.

After talking a lot with the doctor, the cardiologist, and my wife, Joanna Robinson, I have decided to stop touring and to reduce performing to a minimum. I know that this is a chore and a trial for those who have put so much effort into producing upcoming shows. I despise canceling. But I'm at a place where very difficult choices have to be made. So I'm making them.

Joanna and I will have to figure out another way to make a living. Prospects? Well, there's the song book which, with the help of the Rex Foundation, is nearing completion. Also recording projectsùone with Ani DiFranco, another with Rosalie Sorrelsùand hundreds of hours of live performance tapes might be boiled down to self-produced recordings. How about a syndicated radio show of interviews, ruminations, live recording excerpts, and rational politics?

When I left Utah more than 25 years ago, I had only a slim hold on what folk music was, $75 in my pocket, a head full of songs and stories, and no prospects. I found gradually that I had stumbled into a family that was in fact transcontinental. I found great numbers of people who, as part of their pattern of social responsibility, were committed to the task of making sure that folk music existed in their communities. I found singer-circles, camp-outs, picnics, concert programs, festivals great and small, celebrating a common heritage of song. And I found my community, eking out a bare living, sharing what we had together, but, most of all, in each other's company.

We've created together a whole small world of song, story, travel, love, and food in every corner of the land, mutually supportive and happening at a sub-industrial level, below the level of media notice. Hooray for us! Small is beautiful! To hell with the mainstream. It's polluted.

What purifies the mainstream? The little tributaries up in the wilderness where the pure water flows. Better to be lost in the tributaries known to a few, than mired in the mainstream, consumed with self-love and the absurdity of greed. Please. Don't give our world up. It needs to grow, yesùbut subtly, out, through, under, quietly, like water eroding stone, subversive, alive, happy.

There are many places and people I will miss...many an odd, quirky story waiting to be found, sung, told as the road unfolds. I'll keep most of the irons in the fire-writing, talking. You younger ones who want to take your song over the road, let's talk. I don't have an "e-mail" whatever, but maybe someone here-abouts does. If so, have them pass missives along to me when they see me on the street.

Love, U. Utah Phillips

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