Starlight on the Rails by Utah Phillips.
I was reminded that yesterday would have been Bruce Phillips’ 85th birthday. My old friend and Fellow Worker in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was one of the towering figures of American folk music and an inveterate organizer and trouble maker. Back around the time I first met him about 1971 or ’72 on a self-organized tour of folk clubs, saloons, and occasional college coffee houses he was billing himself as U. Utah Phillips the Golden Voice of the Great Southwest. He hung his hat at the IWW General Headquarters Hall on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago on that trip and jungled up on a folding army cot in the Library. One of the brilliant original songs he played and sang back then was Starlight on the Rails.
|The original sleeve from Utah Phillips' album Good Though on Philo Records, 1973,|
The song was featured on his breakthrough Philo album Good Though! in 1973 along with other now classic songs including Queen of the Rails, Daddy What’s a Train—try not tearing up for that one—, Phoebe Snow and the famous moose turd pie story. It was also the title piece for his 1974 song book,
|Utahy's 1974 songbook Starlight on the Rails & Other Songs.|
Perhaps Starlight on the Rails resonated especially for me was that like Utah I also grew up “way out west where the states are square” and as a boy in Cheyenne, Wyoming watched the last of the great steam locomotives—the Union Pacific Big Boy engines and listened for their whistles on back-yard campouts under the canopy of the Milky Way.
In this recording the song is prefaced by the sounds of locomotive and a recitation of quote by novelist Thomas Wolf from Of Time and the River. Utah’s close friend and folk music mentor Rosalie Sorrels from Idaho sings harmony on the cut.
|Utah Phillips a folk elder, Wobbly Old Timer, and transmitter of an oral tradition of resistance and solidarity.|
For me, now an old man confined to walking a few blocks on the streets of a Midwestern berg during the Coronavirus lockdown, Starlight on the Rails represents a longing to get away and frankly to be young again.