Folk Revival in Salt Lake City?
Folklorist Polly Stewart talks about
Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels
I’m here with folklorist Polly Stewart at USC during the Western States Folklore Conference – on April 15, 2011. I’ve asked Professor Stewart to talk to me about a paper she will be presenting at the conference entitled “Itinerant Folksingers and Other Communist Threats on Chief Skousen’s Watch, Salt Lake City, Utah 1956-1960.” Well, you see a title like that in an otherwise innocuous looking program schedule and you just naturally find yourself getting curious as to what lay behind this paper. After all, there is a well-traveled narrative of the Folk Revival that starts back east in Greenwich Village with Bob Dylan and in Cambridge with Joan Baez, yet here we have a folklorist who found herself in the middle of a very different Folk Revival in Salt Lake City. Let me just start off with a couple background questions before we get into the subject of your paper. You are now a retired professor of English from Salisbury.
PS: Salisbury University, yes.
RA: And that is in Maryland.
PS: Yes, that’s the town of – eastern shore, the Town of Salisbury.
RA: Okay, and it’s pronounced Salzbury.
PS: Salzbury. Everyone who comes to Salisbury, that’s the first thing they learn. It’s not Salisbury, it’s Salzbury.
RA: I see. And you taught folklore within the Department of English, is that right?
PS: That’s right; I was hired because they were looking for somebody who could teach Chaucer and folklore, because the guy who taught those two subjects was going somewhere else and I could, and so I was – it could hardly have been a better match. I ended up teaching three areas: folklore and mythology, or really comparative mythology. I developed a comparative mythology course, and medieval and that included Chaucer and Arthurian and Norse literature in translation. And I also did a lot of freshman teaching and it was a really nice little place—used to be a teacher’s college. A normal school, they used to call them, and so it was in the eastern shore. It was a very rural area and I was just as happy as can be my whole career.
RA: Can you to describe a little bit of the background that went into an interest in itinerant folksingers? I’ve learned that you actually knew two rather well known itinerant folksingers, even before they became itinerant well known and were still essentially living in Salt Lake City learning their trade. Why don’t you take us back to some of that early time when you were actually a musician yourself in Salt Lake City and your lives intersected with the community of folk musicians there.
PS: I lived in the Avenues of Salt Lake City and my family had moved there in 1951, and in 1958 or thereabouts, the Sorrels family moved in up the street and this was the home of Jim and Rosalie Sorrels, and I had grown up in a kind of a Roosevelt Democrat household and we sang Burl Ives’ songs. We had all the albums and we knew them all. We knew the songs, and my cousins had the other albums. We had one and they had the other. We knew them all and we always sang Burl Ives – along with other things, and we were a singing family. We liked to sing, but then I became aware of this very glamorous family up there on the corner house, which had a big front porch. It was a wraparound porch, and they used to hold sing-alongs. They called them hootenannies and they’d be out there all night, singing and playing, and it was just so exciting to hear them through the window. So I got to know them that way. I was in the neighborhood and my folks wanted to know who they were, so they invited them down for an evening. Jim wasn’t able to come, but Rosalie came, and Rosalie – you see, I didn’t understand this as a 15 year old, but my folks didn’t really know what to make of her because she was unconventional. And so she was very obliging. She told them all about her life in Southern Idaho and in Boise, and how her husband, Jim, had been a lineman for the phone company and they were interested in the theater and the arts, and they did a lot of theater. They came to Salt Lake because he was promoted into management and he was from Salt Lake; they just wanted to know something about them. So I think they were satisfied that for all the sort of Bohemian ways that they seemed to project, Jim was a very solid wage earner and Rosalie was the mother of several children and there were more to come, and so they were pleased and not unhappy that I would be able to go and visit the Sorrels family. So I got to know them and they included me in the cast, or I guess in the program – the first big program that the Intermountain Folk Music Society was put on and the IFMC was founded by Rosalie in that same year, 1961.
RA: About how old would she have been at that point?
PS: She would have been 27; I know this because she’s exactly ten years older than I am.
RA: Oh, I see.
PS: And I was 17, so she was 27, and we sang a concert of urban revival folksongs in the Orson Spencer Hall Auditorium at the University of Utah, and it was the first time I’d ever – I mean, for me, it was like being in heaven. I was fresh out of high school and I was just completely blown away by being included in this group. Later on, I came to have opportunities to perform on television and do other kinds of public singing because Rosalie was extremely generous and she wanted other people to develop, and so when she had something that she got an invitation, if she didn’t have time to do it, she had a little stable of people that she was developing, and I was one of them. And so she called periodically and said, “Look, I can’t do this. You want to be on television?” So I got to do all these things that would never have happened otherwise. I don’t think that there’s anybody more generous and warm hearted about – and unselfish and unthreatened by other performers. She just was at home with everyone.
RA: She certainly projects that on stage, so . . .
PS: Yeah, oh yes.
RA: . . . so it’s nice to hear that the person behind the performer is of a piece.
Polly and the Valley Boys (Dave Roylance and Bruce “Utah” Phillips) in Salt Lake City, 1964
PS: You’re so right. And in 1964, there had been a group – a Bluegrass group – called The Utah Valley Boys; it was Bruce Phillips and he wasn’t called Utah yet. He called himself Bruce Utah Phillips, the golden voice of the great southwest; but he wasn’t Utah yet, and so we called him – people who knew him before 1969 always called him Bruce. But anyway, he was in a group that had blown apart, because there were three members of the group that wanted to do pure bluegrass and Bruce wanted to sing his own stuff. And so it was an artistic mismatch from the get-go. They had been struggling along for three years and when the three bolted to go with the Salt Lake City Bluegrass Band, the remainder, the rump, was Bruce Phillips and the banjo player, Dave Roylance, and in the fall of ’64, the two of them approached me and asked if I would like to sing with them. I said yes, and so we formed a group called Polly and the Valley Boys.
RA: That’s wonderful. I’m trying to remember the name. It reminds me of the Maddox Brothers and Rose. It was that kind of thing.
PS: Something like that, so they kept the Valley Boys part. This was before the era of Valley Girls, and there was no confusion about that, and we were a very, very compatible group and we were extremely successful for Salt Lake City. We did a lot of performing—didn’t make any money, of course, but we got to sing out a lot, and that group lasted until . . .
RA: And you played autoharp in that?
PS: Yes. I did vocals, autoharp, tambourine, spoons, and a little bit of rhythm guitar. But I’m not a musician. I’m really a vocalist. You know the autoharp is the easiest instrument to play and it sounds wonderful, but it’s really easy. I was very profound on it.
RA: I interrupted you. That group lasted until?
PS Yeah, it lasted until September of 1966. I had graduated from the University in the spring of 1966 and I knew I was going to go to the University of Oregon for graduate school. And so we said a farewell and the group had to break up because I left town.
RA: Oh, I see. They didn’t try to replace you.
PS: No. You know, it was hard because Bruce’s life was taking a very difficult turn and his marriage had ended. His second marriage had ended and he made a very quick, disastrous third marriage which was very painful for him, and that ended, and then he ran into trouble finding employment because he ran – in 1968, he ran for the Senate – the United States Senate – on the Peace and Freedom Party. I’m not sure if you knew that.
RA: I did. And had he ever held elected office before he ran for Senate?
PS: No, no. But he was very, very impressed by Eldridge Cleaver and the Peace and Freedom Party. And so he did garner 6,000 votes. Now in the State of Utah, you can tell which party those votes would have been stolen from. The Democratic party. And so he had been employed for many years by the State in the archives and the Governor of Utah was so mad at him – this is Bruce’s story – that he just iced him out. He lost his job as the archivist in the archives, and he couldn’t get a public job anywhere. And so he was driven to . . .
RA: This was a Democratic governor, I assume.
PS: Yeah, oh yeah.
RA: Who felt that Bruce had damaged the Democratic party by running for a third party.
PS: Well, he took 6,000 votes.
RA: Okay, kind of the Ralph Nader of Salt Lake City.
PS: Well, yeah. I never said that, but I thought about that later on when I saw what Nader did, but it was – you know what? He was so naïve. He did not have any idea. He hadn’t thought it through. He didn’t understand politics at all, but in the article – in the Utah Historical Quarterly, which I think you now have, there’s a picture of him. He was very clean-cut. He didn’t have – he had his hair all combed and . . .
Utah Phillips; candidate for US Senate On Peace and Freedom Party Ticket, Salt Lake City, 1968
RA: I know. I could hardly recognize him.
PS: And that was his candidate photo.
RA: The article is called “Urban Pioneers” and it refers to Utah Phillips and Rosalie Sorrels and a group of fellow folk musicians that all got their start in Salt Lake City at about that time.
PS: That’s correct.
RA: So this, though, is a little bit later actually than the time period addressed in the paper you’re going to be presenting tomorrow and the Chief Skousen, when I first saw that, I thought, gee, is there some Native American angle to this story? But it turns out that Chief Skousen was the Chief of Police.
RA: Okay. And were you living in Salt Lake City at the time?
PS: Yes, I was in junior high between 1956 and 1960, from the eighth grade through the eleventh grade, so I was an adolescent growing up; meanwhile the Sorrels family had moved in up the street, and I was reading the paper with not too much comprehension, but I learned that Chief Skousen was really stirring up a lot of emotions in a lot of people because he had been brought in to clean up Salt Lake City. And his idea of cleaning up Salt Lake City was to eliminate bingo in church bazaars. And it was to even-handedly apply the law to all people who were breaking the law and so he would invade private clubs that were the domain of Salt Lake’s elite and he would find gambling machines down in the basement. And he would confiscate the machines and he made everybody mad, and he made life miserable for people who did things that he believed were bad, were evil. And he believed – he was a religious Mormon. He believed in sin and he believed in retribution and he believed that there would be a judgment of everyone. And so he was applying religious principles, whether he – he didn’t speak it that way, but the language that he used was a clear indication that he was essentially applying Mormon theology. And it was conservative Mormon theology. There are plenty of Mormons who are liberal. But he was not one of them. And so he thought – he wanted to get rid of alcohol, he wanted to discourage people from going out and drinking alcohol in public places, and he wanted to get rid of prostitution, and he wanted to get rid of girlie shows. He wanted to – and so his efforts affected lots and lots of people. There were some people who, in the sex trade, who – they were behaving illegally, but there were lots of people in churches who did raffles and did bingo to fundraise. And he said, “No, you can’t play bingo. It’s a game of chance.” And so there were a lot of people who were very offended by Skousen. Well, in addition to the sin part, he also had a very, very strong conviction born out of his cold war mentality that he learned in the FBI, about the dangers of communism and in his view, communists were everywhere in the United States. And this was after the 1938 Pact. I mean, there were a lot of disillusioned people who had been communists, but that was a long time before, and he still believed in his very sort of tunnel vision way that unless Americans forthrightly and openly battled communism at home, it wouldn’t be long before we would be overtaken by the Soviet Union and it was this cold war paranoia.
Polly and the Valley Boys (Dave Roylance and Bruce “Utah” Phillips) 2007
RA: Well, this was right in the heart of the McCarthy era, even though McCarthy had been censored in 1954, but Pete Seeger had just, in 1955 in August, been brought up before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, so it was still very much a part of the national political climate.
PS: Absolutely, and folk singers were suspect because he associated them with the left, and with good reason. I mean, you still don’t find too many right wing folk singers. You know, it’s a left activity. So he was after the folk singers and he developed this term “itinerant folk singers.”
RA: Oh, he came up with that?
PS: Yeah. That’s why I put it in quotes because he wanted to find a way to sweep the streets clean of people who didn’t live here, who couldn’t prove they had an address here. And so if he saw people on the street with a guitar, especially if they were playing it, he could come – he would send his men in to interview this person and ask for other ID and proof of their residency, and if they couldn’t prove that they had a residence here, if they were itinerant, off they went. They would be encouraged to leave. And so he made life very unhappy for a lot of people who came through town. You may realize, Salt Lake City is at the crossroads of the major highways, east and west, and anybody that was coming from Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles—they all had to go through Salt Lake if they were going to go east. And so there was just a huge back and forth, and Salt Lake has always been, had a kind of below the radar counter culture of artistic people who just are a little bit out of the center, you know?
RA: Nobody hears about that on PBS. The counter-culture is never traced back to Salt Lake City.
PS: No, and this was before it was popular to be in a counter-culture. This was in the late fifties and these were guys who were really beatniks. And they were, as Rosalie says in her interview, they were gentle souls. They were not rabble-rousers. They were artists and poets and maybe they smoked a little dope, but they were not troublemakers. And their lives were made very difficult by Skousen.
RA: Did you happen to know any of these people or was Rosalie involved in this situation?
PS: Yes, Rosalie was famous for putting people up who were traveling. Somebody would say, “Get in touch with Rosalie.” And she would put them up. She would accept strangers into her home and into her backyard. And she loved to feed people. She loved to take care of them, and she always had somebody there. And so yes, she did know a lot of these people. And I was a little too young. See, I was only – in the late fifties, I was only 13 to 17 years old. And so I had a very fringe view of this. I was aware of the beatnik movement and all this kind of thing, but I was too young to participate in any of it–-like there was a famous coffeehouse/bar in downtown Salt Lake called the Abyss, which I never set foot in because I was too young, and I was fearful – I mean, I was a good girl. I never got a fake ID or anything.
RA: Now this was before Joe Hill House. Is that right?
PS: Well, it was around the same time. Ammon was sent out to Salt Lake by the Catholic workers, by Dorothy Day, and he came to Salt Lake . . .
RA: This was Ammon Hennacy.
PS: Yes, Ammon Hennacy. He came in, I believe, ’59 and he set up the Joe Hill House and he actually – I don’t know if you know this, but he met Bruce, and Bruce says that his life was really saved by Ammon, because Ammon told him that he didn’t have to be angry, that he could transmute his rage into public service and to activism. And that’s what Bruce did for the rest of his life.
RA: Part of that rage came from his experiences in Korea.
RA: That was my understanding.
PS: That’s true—and also the loss of his first marriage. And he never quite got over that. I had a lot of sorrow for him, but he held onto that for a long time. He’s gone now. I can say this. But he used it as a way to fuel his rage. And some of his best poetry and songs are songs about his lost love.
RA: Well, Rock Salt and Nails is one of the angriest songs and the music belies the lyric. So really, you lived through this time and then came back to it later as a scholar and realized that you had actually been a part of something that had some historical meaning and value.
PS: That’s exactly right. It took decades to figure it out. I really distanced myself a lot for a number of reasons. I didn’t go, I stopped doing folk singing, and I still taught folklore as a college professor, but I did not do any of the singing. I shut the door on it and it took some 3½ or four decades to realize the significance of it. And that’s when I started the oral history project.
RA: The oral history project in Salt Lake City?
PS: Yeah, and I’ll tell you how it happened. There was a book that was published called Folklore in Utah, which was a survey of the scholarly side, the study of folklore in Utah, and it was edited by a man named Dave Stanley, and it was published by the Utah State University Press, and I was asked to be the outside reader because I knew the book was being worked on, but I did not contribute to it because I hadn’t done any work in Utah for decades. So they thought I would be a good person to read it. I read the manuscript and was horrified to see that there was virtually nothing about Bruce and Rosalie, and nothing about the urban folk music revival. We didn’t call it that in those days, and I got a new name for it as time passed, but the reason for it was that Dave had asked his contributors to rely strictly on documentary material and he also had a stable of writers who were mostly too young to know anything about the period. He himself was not from Salt Lake City, and so the book was produced by people who were relying on documents who did not have any direct memory of anything connected with the early sixties folk music scene, and that’s what made me understand, if somebody doesn’t document these guys, when they died, it’s going to be gone. And so I took it on myself to start documenting that era.
RA: And so you interviewed Utah while he was alive and Rosalie?
PS: Yeah, I went to his home in California; it’s Nevada City.
RA: Nevada City.
PS: Yeah, and I went there two times. I went there in the fall of 2004 and I went there again in the summer of 2005 and I got two interviews with Bruce. And I went to interview Rosalie. I got a couple of interviews with her up in her home in Idaho, which is north of Boise, and it was on the basis of that that I wrote that essay for the Utah Historical Quarterly and I included other historical information in there, but I began with them, because they really were the ones that made it possible. They were the originators. People gathered around them. They were very attractive and they influenced other people. So after that, in the second interview, the 2005 interview with Bruce, he said toward the middle or the end of that interview, he said, “You know, we ought to get a concert of these old guys together.” This was remarkable, because he had left Utah Square and he would never go back again. He was full of rage and betrayal. He didn’t like anybody who was in Utah and he said he’d never come back, and he had burned some bridges, and there were some really hard feelings. And for him to say, “We ought to get together and give a concert,” meant that he was willing to open the door to that past and to mend some fences. And that was wonderful and that’s what happened. We gave this reunion concert. We called it Urban Pioneers in a high school auditorium in Salt Lake City in January of 2007, and Bruce came and virtually everyone who was in that original group was there.
RA: Did they feel any sense of connection to Salt Lake as a center of a folk revival on the basis of the fact that Joe Hill had actually been tried and executed there? Convicted and executed in Salt Lake?
PS: Everybody knew about Joe Hill, but not everybody thought of him as a – I mean, we all revered his memory and all that, but I don’t think there were any Joe Hill clubs or any, you know, anything like that, but it was certainly in our mind.
RA: But there was Joe Hill House; I mean that’s . . .
PS: Yes—that was done by Ammon and he was from the outside. When you’re in the middle of a thing, you don’t really see it the same way. It’s like skiing. Utah is famous for skiing, but I have never skied in my life. I took one ski course as part of my undergraduate curriculum and that was enough. I nearly froze my butt off and I said, “I’m not going to do this anymore.” But people would kill to come to Alta, for example. And I couldn’t care less about skiing. So it’s part of the thing about being in the culture as opposed to looking in and coming in.
RA: Were there a lot of folksingers who just kind of floated through Salt Lake City at that point?
PS: There were. Salt Lake City, as I mentioned, is an important crossroads, and for example, one of the things that happened was that if people were traveling through town across country, they might give a house concert or they might give a concert, and there was a fellow named Walt Connelly of Denver, a folksinger. I don’t know if you know that name.
RA: Not really.
PS: But I never knew it, and this again, in 1959, he was an African-American and he was a lefty. He apparently had a fabulous singing voice and he came to Salt Lake with Judy Collins, who was just getting started, and the two of them gave a show at the Abyss and it was sensational.
RA: In 1959?
Rosalie Sorrels, in Salt Lake City, early 1960s
PS: ’59. And Rosalie used to talk about meeting Judy Collins back there in ’59. Anyway, there were – it was very typical of people coming through town to stop and give a show. And the Abyss was usually the place where this happened, but I’m sure there were other venues as well.
RA: My goodness. Now I’m assuming that Chief Skousen had really very little more authority than to be able to arrest people, throw them in the clink for a night or so, and send them on their way. Did he tell them, “Get out of Dodge”? Was it that kind of a thing? Because he didn’t have subpoena power or the power to really put people on blacklists and that kind of thing as the Chief of Police. Did he?
PS: No. And to tell you the truth, I don’t know the facts, but I believe that he went into the job in 1956 with a fully formed agenda about the things that he wanted to accomplish and he was a firm believer in the rule of law, not of men. And that means that he did not play favorites, and he was extremely even handed in his sort of ham-fisted enforcement of the law, and in fact, when Lee came in and fired him, he said afterwards that he thought that Skousen was running the police department like a kind of Gestapo.
PS: And he was mad because . . .
RA: Them’s fighting words.
PS: His own ox was being gored. He didn’t like Skousen’s men coming and break up card games. But anyway, the thing that is distinguished about Skousen as an administrator and leader of the police force is that he improved it in quantum ways. I mean, he made huge improvements and so he was brought in partly to put an end to cronyism and favoritism.
RA: Is there any sense in which you might say that by his very targeting of folk singers as a part of his political agenda that he, in fact, helped to create a sense of identity – a community identity amongst the artists that he was accusing of being troublemakers in some way? Just by the very fact of shining that kind of a light on it?
PS: Yeah, though first of all, there is not anything in the newspaper record. The only thing I studied for primary material from the era was The Salt Lake Tribune. But I looked through four years of microfilm and I read virtually every article about him or the police force, and I did not see any scrap of evidence that he had expressly an agenda to harass folksingers. There is no record anywhere that he used the term “itinerant folksingers”, for example.
PS: There is no record of that anywhere, but it was in the oral history of the people who were affected by it. I mean, I can remember people making jokes. I was a kid, 18, 17, making jokes about these itinerant folksingers, you know? And everybody would laugh, but it was quietly a kind of a hollow thing, because everybody was made uncomfortable by realizing that they didn’t have any – I’m not sure whether this would have been allowed today, but it was really a First Amendment issue because what he was doing, according to the oral history, was he was stopping people on the street and asking for their ID. And I don’t think this would be allowed in today’s police enforcement.
RA: But I believe that very close to that time similar things were actually being done in Washington Square Park in Greenwich Village where folksingers had begun to congregate, and I’ve seen documentaries where they actually were subject to arrest and as we’ve said before, Greenwich Village was a famous magnet for Bohemian artists of every stripe, but Salt Lake City would not be the first place you think of where something similar would actually be going on.
PS: Now that’s a good point. I don’t think that the Salt Lake police ever – we were too small a town — for there to be a history of police brutality on a regular basis. New York is famous for its being brutal, police brutality was part of the scene for a long, long time, and so with them, for New York it was just a whole different kind of deal. I don’t think that Skousen would ever – I don’t think he would ever – let’s see – I’m thinking he probably would not do paddy wagon stuff. But you know what? From what I know from the record, there was really no specific story about any of the stuff that is of primary interest to the folksingers who remember the era. In other words, they have a narrative which is not supported by the record.
RA: Isn’t that interesting? They created their own folklore around it.
PS: Exactly, yeah. And I didn’t realize it. I thought I was going to be able to corroborate things in the paper, but I couldn’t.
RA: How interesting! Now at what point did Utah Phillips gravitate to Salt Lake City? Rosalie is already there in the late ’50s.
PS: Right. He was actually brought to Salt Lake City as a 12 year old, by his mother and her new husband, who was a movie theater operator, and they came in 1947 when he was 12.
RA: Oh, so he was already there.
PS: From Cleveland. And he went to East High School in Salt Lake and he did a lot of work with the arts. He was in plays and things. And then he was involved in a series of things; he joined the Army and he went to Korea, and he left in ’57 and he came back in ’60.
RA: I see.
PS: And so he was gone – or maybe ’59 – but he was gone for a good chunk of the time when Skousen was there, and in fact, when he came back, he was a changed man. He was no longer a boy, and he was very scarred and very, very full of pain and rage and his wife had left him, and he was just a mess. So anyway, that’s that.
“This is the end of Part 1; Part 2, on the last lynching in Maryland from a folklorist’s perspective continues in this column for the September/October issue of FolkWorks
Ross Altman may be reached at email@example.com Ross will be doing a concert at the Institute for Musical Arts on Saturday, August 27 at 2:00pm. IMA is at 3210 W. 54th St., LA, CA 90043; (323) 300-6578; firstname.lastname@example.org