I've already run an Oakley Hall obit, but some things bear repeating.
The Cruelest Month
by David Laurence Wilson
Oakley Hall 7/1/1920 - 5/12/2008
Bruce “Utah” Phillips 9/15/1935 - 5/23/2008
May was a cruel month this year, four weeks to count heads and mourn the missing. California lost two unique storytellers and Nevada County lost two of its most notable citizens, novelist Oakley Hall and folksinger “Utah” Phillips.
I’d known Oakley Hall for nearly forty years, and he’d been active in his trade until recently, returning to an earlier dalliance with crime fiction by writing a mystery series starring Ambrose Bierce. Really, he’d lost nothing from his pitch.
As the years added up Oakley was defined by his novel Warlock, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1958. Warlock is a long and elegant story about the west, an acknowledged American classic. In 1983 I had a chance to contribute to the McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Frontier and Western Fiction. I wrote: “While the novel is about specifics -- about gunfighters and provisional governments -- it is also about frontier populations and their myths.” True, though Hall was not particularly comfortable with such literary soul-searching.
We shared a San Diego childhood, though decades apart. He was my teacher, as well as the teacher of many others, creating the writing programs at the University of California, Irvine and Squaw Valley.
Months ago I asked him if you could really teach writing, if it wasn’t just a twist of genetics that turned well-mannered innocents towards print.
“You can learn to write,” he said, “So I guess someone else can teach it.”
Oakley, whose first serious novel was about construction workers, did have his challenges within the academic world. While taking classes from him I was also typing a manuscript for another faculty member, a New Yorker whose book dropped a sentence or a word every page until there was just one word left.
Manning the oars in a forward-looking Writing Program, with all the excitement of postmodern story-telling and typographic tricks, Hall wondered where his own fiction fit in. He truly found his way when he returned to period western settings. He stuck with three acts, value for money. He was a master in all senses of the word.
* * * * *
It was easy to be a friend of the gregarious Bruce “Utah” Phillips, who died last week of congestive heart failure at the age of 73. It’s tempting to think that the two great pulses of Phillips’ life, bumming and folk music, were simply the best excuse he could find to be around other people.
A natural storyteller, he was equally comfortable on a stage or around a campfire. An imposing and colorful figure, Phillips was big and he looked big, a broad face and a broader beard. He was comfortable in suspenders or bib overalls.
He was the most accommodating of superstars, curious and unpretentious but a star for sure. He enjoyed his late but welcome roots in Nevada City, his house scarcely a mile from the National Hotel. You’d see him at the benefits, where often he’d M.C. He liked to watch the local parades and baseball games. Phillips fit Nevada City and the town fit him.
Nor was Phillips a stranger in Downieville. Occasionally he’d have a gig or a wedding to officiate, until he was told that it would be best for his ticker to avoid the higher elevations.
One time, a few years back, he was walking down the highway in front of my house, a sight-see-er or a seeker. On my street homes are found by pointing so I went out to offer a direction. Instead we spent about 15 minutes discussing B. Traven, the mysterious author of The Treasure of Sierra Madre. He told a long story about Traven and he admitted, as he took off, that he had mostly made it up on the spot.
He was convincing. It was as if he channeled the voices of an earlier generation of American folksingers and social activists, Woody Guthrie and Joe Hill. He was a walking library of music and stories. After his shows you should have received college credit, along with your ticket stubs.
Though his first recording was not until 1973, he was the steady conscience in a musical genre with no shortage of opinions. He sparked the local community like no one else. He was the real deal.
There’s a chance he might be best known for “Moose Turd Pie”, from that first recording. The pie story is like Abbott and Costello’s”Who’s On First”, the final punctuation for a “shaggy dog” story that evolved over generations. Undoubtedly more people have laughed at that one than are willing to admit to it. Others will crack up at the phrase, “Good, Though!”, the punchline and title of the album.
Phillips’ storytelling skewed to the road, tales of freight trains, skid rows, soup kitchens and depression-era labor unions. He was a lifelong member of the “Wobblies”, the Industrial Workers of the World. His politics was from the ground up and he was an optimist. He believed that every once and a while you can wash enough politics out of the system to come up with real solutions. In 1968 he ran for the U.S. Senate for the Peace and Freedom Party. In Grass Valley he was among those who organized the Hospitality House homeless shelter.
When you’re on the outside, the words “bum”, “tramp” and “hobo” sound about the same. Phillips could explain the specific variations. He ran away from home and rode the rails in the early 50s. He fought in the Korean War and began writing songs.
The last time I saw Phillips he was practicing yoyo tricks at the Kate Wolf Festival, in Laytonville. He was performing, mingling with the campers, telling a story about the last time he hopped a freight. It hadn’t been that long ago, he beamed. Then he played another favorite, “Hallelujah I’m A Bum”, a classic from 1897.
In 1999 his recording with Ani DiFranco, “Fellow Worker”, was nominated for a Grammy Award and in 2005, he got the deluxe treatment with a four cd set, “Starlight on the Rails: A Songbook”. He had a nationally syndicated radio program, Loafer’s Glory: The Hobo Jungle of the Mind”, available for listening at the Nevada County Library.
A lot of people have fond memories of Utah Phillips and his kind and ageless wit. He leaves behind a big shadow and many friends.