PHILIP M. ZIMMERMAN, loving husband to Marcia Goodman and devoted father of Jeremy and Kathrin Zimmerman, and brother to David Zimmerman and Diane Zimmerman, passed away on April 16, 2021 at his home in Cromwell, Connecticut at age 77.
Phil was born on March 4, 1944 in Indianapolis, Indiana to Hyman and Kathrin (Jones) Zimmerman. A talented bluegrass musician, Phil played mandolin, banjo, guitar and autoharp throughout the Northeast for over 50 years. In addition to performing in several bands including Last Fair Deal, Stacey Phillips and His Bluegrass Characters, Traver Hollow, American Flyer, and North by Northeast, Phil served as Director of Music Camps North, overseeing multi-day music camps in Charlton, MA.
As well as a passion for traditional bluegrass music, and especially Bill Monroe, Phil also had a love of photography and nature. Inspired by the works of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, he studied with renowned photographer Paul Caponigro and worked for many years as the staff photographer for Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company.
In 2008 he brought together these two passions in a book titled Bluegrass Time: A Musician's Photographs of the Early Days of Bluegrass Festivals. This entire collection along with a number of live recordings and memorabilia will now have a permanent home at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame & Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.
Phil is survived by his beloved wife Marcia, his son Jeremy, his daughter Kathrin, his brother David and his sister Diane, along with many dear friends in the bluegrass community. He was preceded in death by both parents and his brother Robert.
No public funeral services are planned but it is expected that a musical event celebrating his life will be scheduled in the future. Phil was cremated and his ashes will be returned to the earth beneath a private tree in a forest stewarded by Better Place Forests in Litchfield, Connecticut.
The family asks that memorial contributions in Phil's honor be made to Southern Poverty Law Center or the National Resources Defense Council.
What follows is a free-form obituary, an edited collection of comments and remembrances, culled from family and friends. We are so grateful to all of you who knew Phil and as such, have added to his story. We hope this brings Phil to life -- for those who knew him as well as others who never will. It is our own mourner's kaddish, a celebration of Phil. We invite you to add your comments and remembrances to this site.
When asked to describe him:
• genuine, soulful, kind
• very honest about what he was thinking—never phony and could be humorous
• Phil was a realist, "It is what it is” was his mantra
• true quality and grit as a human, as a man, and as a musician
• always learning, passionate about his ongoing projects
• fearless — intrepid in fact, in an unassuming way — with the ability to follow and realize his inspirations
• he made me feel special
• he knew instinctively what to do/how to act/what to say to make you feel everything would be fine
• I remember just what Phil said and did. I don't remember anything that anybody else said and did. It reminded me of something that Dotsy Field once said: "Phil always knows what to say." She was referring to his ability to always say things that eased people's minds and made them feel that whatever the problem was then, things would turn out not so bad
• Whenever I think of Phil, I think of the word calming
FROM PHIL'S DAYS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF ROCHESTER:
• (by Peter S. Shenkin) While at U of R, Phil grew interested in the abandoned subway tracks that ran under downtown Rochester, and in typical methodical manner, he went to the local history section of the public library to research it. The subway had run in an elevated, covered viaduct across the Genesee River, and had been built as part of the original Erie Canal. In the canal days, the viaduct would have been left open but that section of the canal had been replaced by the NY State Barge canal, and the right of way was ceded to the city for train tracks. The tracks were originally designed for freight service to downtown Rochester, but when that effort failed, they were turned into an equally short-lived subway system whose outermost reaches were now roadways. But the tracks were still there, and somehow Phil learned that they could be accessed by climbing down a 12-foot drop adjacent to the city's War Memorial. So Phil, Peter Craig and I, accompanied by a large Burgess flashlight (which Phil called the Burgess Basher) scaled our way down. We saw signs of a homeless encampment, embers of a fire whose denizens had fled upon hearing our approach. A small dusty switchman's shack with a padlock on the door stood before us. It had tall glass windows so the switchman could easily view approaching trains. Shining the light in, we saw a long winter coat hanging from a coat tree and a large ledger book open on the desk with a pen lying across it. Everything was covered with a thick layer of dust. Phil said, "It looks like he went out for lunch and never came back." We walked out of the tunnel and found a place where we could climb back up to grade level, and as it turned out, right in the vicinity of Stutzman's guitar store.
• (by Jim Carrier) Phil and I were classmates (1966) at the University of Rochester, and our paths crossed at a grungy student radio station, WRUR, in the basement of Todd Union. The AM signal was "broadcast" to dorms on the AC electrical system so it always had a 60-cycle hum. In preparing for an FM license that could reach across the city, I surveyed students and found that there was substantial interest in folk music and - gasp - rock 'n' roll. While I spun 45s as a rock jock, Phil's folk music show "Trip O'er The Mountain" on Sunday nights featured records from his personal collection, and interviews of musicians from around the world. He was already a font of traditional music. We reconnected just a couple of years back at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Vermont where Phil and Marcia camped and hosted one of the best jams I've ever been to. I last saw Phil at the Joe Val Festival two years ago when I sat in on his clawhammer banjo class. With his passing, we lost one of the kindest, gentlest, most knowledgeable music historians and good guy pickers.
• (by Peter Craig) When Phil and I were at Rochester, we spent far too much time goofing off, playing music, exploring, and generally not doing school work. But Phil had an amazing ability to write a grade A paper in two hours on the night before it was due. I would read them occasionally, and marvel at how he pulled them out of thin air, with no apparent studying involved. He would laugh it off, saying, "yeah, I was really slinging the BS in that one". But they weren't BS - they were well-reasoned, well-written, and right to the point. I would think, "damn, I can't write a paper this good, even if I take a week to do it."
• (by Linda Rossman) I think of when we were little and he would be so proud (with good reason) of all his activities as an eagle scout and the badges that he’d wear. It really helped me when Phil and I were at the University of Rochester together for a year, and he was always supportive to me as a Freshman!
FROM EARLY BLUEGRASS FESTIVALS:
• (by Peter S. Shenkin) On the way back from Fincastle '65, Phil was driving us along Skyline Drive. The experience of the first bluegrass festival for all of us had been overpowering. 24 hours a day BG, courtesy of parking-lot and field jams. Phil turned and said to me "Do you hear banjos?" And in fact, I had just been thinking that in every rush of the wind was the sound of banjos!
• (by Larry Marschall) I also remember driving back (in a separate car) along Skyline drive--- it was the second (1966) Fincastle---and stopping with Phil at a high vista. We all took out our instruments, and played "My Home's Across the Blue Ridge Mountains". Much of our lives was punctuated by quotes from songs like that.
• (by Paul Howard) One of my fondest memories is the day the first LFD album, “Whole New Ride" arrived at Tapeworks Studio in Hartford, CT. Phil and I jumped in his old Volvo 122, the one on the cover of that album, to pick up the vinyl LPs. We crammed as many boxes as we could into the back of the Volvo and headed for Avon where we were living with Billy Abraitis at the time. On the way over Avon Mountain the rear axel gave out from the weight and left us on the side of the road. "An auspicious beginning to our recording career," Phil said.
• (by Larry Marschall) In the late 1960's I once visited Phil when he was living on Long Island. At the time he was using large-format sheet film in a view camera to take landscape photos ala Ansel Adams. One expedition involved a trip to the shore on a frigid winter day---I still have the photo of Phil in a parka trudging purposefully down the beach with the camera gear strapped to his back.
• (by Larry Marschall) Of course anyone who played music with him will remember that Phil was one to watch when you were taking an instrumental break--not only did he chop powerful time on the mandolin, but if you managed to pull off a really soulful or creative twist in your break, you might get one of his incredible grins of approval, where he would literally rock back on his heels with a smile.
• (by Paul Howard) Whenever we performed, if I hit a good lick or Tom played some crazy line on the button accordion or took a hot solo, Phil would break into a big grin and like Larry said, rock back on his heels and shout out his encouragement. He had a great love of giving a soulful performance and when the band was hitting it he was a happy man
• (by Andy Bromage) Phil liked to tell the story about the night he and I met at a bluegrass jam in New Haven, at an Irish pub named Anna Liffey's. I've heard stories about love at first sight, and when we sang together that night. (I remember doing "True Life Blues" by Bill Monroe) it was an instant connection -- like lightning striking, the way our two voices blended together.
• (by Billy Abraitis) Circa 1983 Phil and I had been roommates for about 5 years and I had seen and been amazed by his musical and photographic talent. I was finishing my engineering degree which included tons of advanced math. I had an algebraic equation that "proved" two equals one. I had shown it to engineers, math professors and students. No one ever spotted what was wrong with the equation except Phil. He instantly declared that I had made a mistake because ... and he stated the correct mathematical rule I had violated. He told me he hadn't studied or used math since college and I was stunned. That was Phil.
FAVORITE MEMORIES WITH MY BROTHER PHIL (by Diane Zimmerman)
Phil had a pretty dry sense of humor. When I was in grade school I remember listening to scary stories of Miss Tredenek -- his junior high school teacher. She would ask the ill-equipped and unprepared students, "Have you got a pencil?" and when the student shrugged or said no, she would ask "Well (long pause), have you got a friend?" and "Has your friend got a pencil?" Of course it wasn't the actual words she was saying, but the nasal, snarky tone Phil would use when imitating her. Rumor had it that she once got so angry at a student that she poked the pencil she had been tapping on his head into his skull. Maybe this is why it made sense to me that the first sentence Phil learned in German was "Warum bist du so ein bleistif?" Translation: "Why are you such a pencil?" I guess he goofed up the last word but when he learned what he had said he used it for life, often asking me or my brother Bobby why we were such pencils.
Odd "no soap radio" jokes were common, like "What's the difference between a stove?" - the answer being "the more you polish it it gets." Another favorite question was "Do you go to school or by bus?"
It’s totally in keeping with family tradition that Phil was a "word nerd." Our mother was a big fan of crossword puzzles and word games. My parents original plan was to have 2 boys and 2 girls, with the girls being anagramatically named "Nadine" and "Dianne." That didn't happen, as there were 3 boys and one girl. But Phil's hebrew name is itself kind of palindromic: Shraga Fyvil ben Chaim Josef ben Fyvil Shraga.
My favorite memory of Phil came shortly after our dad passed away. We were working on a photograph of him to be used as a sort of frontispiece in personal copies of our dad’s final book on hepatotoxicity. The photo we had was a career photo from a professional photographer, but in one eye, there were two "catchlights" that Phil found highly problematic. We spent the afternoon working with photoshop to remove the second catchlight, and at one point he turned to me and said "hell of a way to spend the afternoon," and I said "I can think of worse ways to spend time than gazing into the twinkle in Dad's eyes." It was a moment of real connection, as we were both reeling from our loss. Phil has seen me through the loss of both parents as well as our brother Bobby. Wish I had a few catchlights to gaze into tonight.
FAVORITE MEMORIES WITH MY BROTHER PHIL (by David Zimmerman)
Some of my earliest memories include Phil's avid interest in little league baseball. Earliest we lived in Oak Park on Scoville Street, and Phil practiced regularly with Dad in the front yard playing catch. His early love for ball continued up until high school, as he played yearly in the little league teams, and ultimately one year in "pony" league. He would fastidiously saturate his glove with neatsfoot oil and then tie it up with a baseball trapped inside to form the perfect "pocket" He loved wearing spikes (cleats) on his baseball shoes, and created a routine for cleaning them after games. His favored position was short stop, with stints in the center field. When not playing competitively he would go to the local ball field at Horace Mann elementary and create pick up games with two, or three or four others, often playing until dark. He and I often played on the front sidewalk using a "whiffle ball" - a hollow, hard plastic ball with slots to make erratic curves, using a broomstick as a whiffle bat. We would take the names of big leaguers like Whitey Ford and Mickey Mantle, and our bats or pitching. rules were very elastic to include home runs and errors, strike outs and tie games.
Phil's second interest that comes to memory was scouting, and from the earliest I followed him into Cubs, and then Boy scouts, where he earned the rank of "life scout" after completing ten merit badges. His greatest pride came when he was fourteen (and I was 12) when we attended the scouting camp in Waupaca, Wisconsin, named Camp Shin-Go-Beek. Two weeks of sleeping 12 to a cabin, hiking, swimming, archery, and exposure to the rifle range where we actually practiced with .22 caliber rifles, the mess hall, kp duty, and making handicrafts. Phil was selected during one of the bonfire nights into the select group "The Order of the Arrow" in front of a crowd of two hundred of his peers. Very serious and secretive society of the boy scout elite. We marched the "Tomahawk Trail" overnight, a twenty mile hike through back woods, rural roads, cow pastures only to end up at the mess hall for breakfast, where we would wash down our vittles with bug juice (kool-aid) made with heavily saturated iron flavored water. He was a patrol leader, and ascended to the ranks of Scout, Tenderfoot, Second Class, First Class, Star, Life. His interest in scouting was gradually curtailed as he entered high school and his friends dropped out, thus diluting his motivation to become an eagle scout.
A couple of his youthful treasures were his first transistor radio he got for his bar mitzvah. It was a green portable, large by today's standards, about the size of a lunch box. He was terribly enamored of it and played his favorite station "WLS" where he listened to early rockers with the broadcaster DJ named Dick Biondi. His other treasure was his first guitar, a Silvertone arch top guitar with "f" holes. I remember Uncle Joe visiting and helping Phil tune it, telling Phil "Higher. No, higher. No, higher!" SPROING! Of course the string broke, and Joe in his wisdom said "That's too high!" Boy, was Phil cheesed. He also had a favorite flashlight that used a sealed beam (type of bulb) and an oversized 12 volt battery, unusual for the time.
Phil also had an early love for science fiction and instilled in me a love for A E Van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Andrea Norton, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark. We spent hours pestering Miss Erickson to let us check out more books from the Horace Mann library, where we often checked out three and four at a time
His first musical group was formed with Steve Antler (friend from Temple) and Melanie Mandeville, and they posed as troubadours for the very earliest Renaissance festivals we had in Oak Park, in the early 60's. Steve played guitar, Phil the banjo, and Melanie sang along with them. I don't remember if they had a name, but they lasted together a while, until Phil went off to the U of R. It was about this time that Phil got his first permanent guitar, his Gibson, about 1964 or 1965.
FAVORITE MEMORIES WITH MY DAD (by Kathrin Zimmerman)
1. All the times we went out to eat together
2. Our phone talks. Even if they were short, he was always there to listen
3. Going on Rhonda Vincent’s tour bus
4. The times we sang together
5. Going to Strawberry Park and Podunk
6. Trip to Grand Canyon
7. Trip to Israel
FAVORITE MEMORIES WITH MY DAD (by Jeremy Zimmerman)
Even at my lowest, when everyone else had given up on me, he never did. He was always my most staunch supporter, no matter what the decision, and no matter whether he thought I might be wrong. He always wanted to help -- from the simplest of projects to the most complex. In 3rd grade we had to do a report on a founding president and I chose Thomas Jefferson. He left the writing of the paper and required reading up to me, but helped guide me in drawing the Jefferson Memorial so accurately that my classmates doubted I had done it myself. But that’s how dad taught. He was willing to guide and help without ever doing it for you, and he took immense pleasure watching you succeed.
He always had several projects he was working on. Some were normal house or yard projects, but others got a little weird… just like him. I asked him once why he still had remote controls for VCRs and cable boxes that we had gotten rid of years ago and he told me he “might need the parts one day”. That was dad, always thinking about how he might use things most people would discard for some as yet unplanned project. All that tinkering sometimes paid off in big ways. Like the time we rented an RV for a week long vacation between Bluegrass festivals and the rental’s exhaust started leaking into the main cabin. We stopped at a local hardware shop, bought some copper pipe, metal clamps, and a few other things he needed to run a makeshift exhaust pipe up the side of the camper. It worked, we stayed alive and enjoyed the rest of the vacation. We started at the Nopet Hill festival and ended at a festival in northern NH at a race car track where dad played with one of his favorite bands, Traver Hollow.
Then there’s the story of his character Norman Otto Namron, the palindromic photographer. He was playing a gig with longtime friend Dick Bowden and Dick asked everyone in the band to play "in-character" during the set, but as characters they created. Dad decided to merge his 3 loves into one onstage character. So his love of photography and the English language (having ended his teaching career as an English teacher), were finally merged with his passion for bluegrass. And so Norman was born. Dad enjoyed the idea so much that he created several self-made books of his palindromic photos. One of those photos actually was a winner in a local contest.
As a kid he always made me feel special, whether it was creating a children’s book with me on how to grow radishes or finding me in a crowd during a certain part of The Train Carrying Jimmy Roger’s Home.
He is the reason I love to read and more specifically, why I like to read vintage science fiction. As a kid he read from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to me every night. Just a little bit each night so that we didn’t go through it too fast. Then he gave me a copy of Robert Heinline’s Tunnel in the Sky in the 5th grade. I stayed up all night to read it. I haven’t been able to put down books since then. I owe that to him. It is, aside from the emotional support he has given me, the single greatest gift. Everybody’s parent leaves them with memories. Mine left me with a lifelong love affair with the written word, along with a treasure trove of musical memories and great expeditions with nature.