December 18, 2016


Born to Sing the Gospel (Max Nelson, 12/17/16, NY Review of Books)

Of the range of musicians included on Goodbye, Babylon--Baptist and Pentecostal; urban and rural; black and white--the Texas singer and preacher Washington Phillips was both one of the best-known among gospel enthusiasts and one of the most mysterious. The sixteen songs he recorded for Walker in five Dallas sessions over three consecutive Decembers--1927, 1928, and 1929--had been available together since 1979, and some began circulating on compilations well before then. (Another pair of songs, now lost, was recorded but never released.) In his own time, Phillips had been a brief commercial success. His first 78 sold more than eight thousand copies, and one wonders how many other songs he'd have had the chance to record if the Depression hadn't forestalled his three-year-long career.

SOME OF US ARE HAUNTED BY WASHINGTON PHILLIPS (Amanda Petrusich, October 20, 2016, The New Yorker)

In the book that accompanies "Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams," a newly remastered boxed set that will arrive later this fall, the writer Michael Corcoran calls Phillips's sound "highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic." Its prettiness is disorienting, hypnotic. Imagine, for a moment, pulling down a heavy, cobwebbed music box from a high shelf in a dim corner of an antique barn. Picture yourself creaking it open. And then, over the box's strange, mechanical tinkling, you hear a man's voice--the sweetest you've ever known--imploring you to better serve your God: "Lift him up, that's all."

A reasonable response would be to get spooked, whack the box shut, back away. But Phillips's songs--ethereal, elysian, toothsome--have inspired plenty of scholars and fans to go scouting for more information, beginning with the musical apparatus that might have been responsible for that celestial chiming. On the catalogue card for Phillips's first recording session, the box marked "Accomp."--or accompaniment--contains only the word "Novelty," written in a steady, loping script. For decades, it was reported that Phillips played a dolceola, a kind of "portable grand piano" manufactured in Toledo, Ohio, between 1903 and 1908. A photo taken in 1928 shows him holding two conjoined instruments that vaguely resemble fretless zithers--later identified as a celestaphone and a phonoharp, variations on the hammered dulcimer, a percussive string instrument that was popular in Europe during the Middle Ages, and in America starting in the eighteenth century. Corcoran, a critic and reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, recently excavated a short article--published in the Teague Chronicle, a local Texas newspaper, in 1907--that clarifies Phillips's equipment, describing it as homemade and "the most unique musical instrument we ever saw. It is a box about 2×3 feet, 6 inches deep, [on] which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp. . . . He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs. He calls it a 'Manzarene.' " [...]

Corcoran reports that Frank B. Walker, a talent scout from Columbia's New York office, probably discovered Phillips via his association with Blind Lemon Jefferson. (In Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield's "Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas," it's suggested that they played fish fries and house parties together.) Jefferson was a popular country-blues singer from the same county as Phillips. Walker had an ear for rural visionaries--he'd previously launched the careers of Bessie Smith and Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. In December of 1927, he set up a temporary recording studio in Columbia's warehouse on Lamar Street in Dallas.

No one knows for sure how Phillips got there, though he likely took the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway up from Teague. A couple of days earlier, a blues singer named Blind Willie Johnson had travelled north from Marlin, Texas, to record "Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground)" for Walker in the very same room. Johnson plays his acoustic guitar with a bottleneck slide--or maybe a penknife--and moans a great deal. His singing voice is raw and gory, like the sound of something alive being slowly fed into a meat grinder. The song has no lyrics; Johnson seems given over, only half there. "Mmmm-mmm, well, oh well," he mumbles. There is an indescribable depth of melancholy in his vocal. I can't imagine what Walker must have been feeling, hearing Johnson and Phillips perform in the same weekend--the sorts of dreams he must've had, what he saw at night when he closed his eyes.

Phillips recorded six songs at that first session, including "Denomination Blues," which is in two parts, one for each side of the record. It's nominally a recounting of the differing beliefs of various Christian faiths, followed by an indictment of hypocritical preachers ("A lot of preachers is preaching, and they think they're doing well / All they want is your money and you can go to Hell"), and then, finally, a calm entreaty for solidarity ("It's right to stand together, it's wrong to stand apart / 'Cause none's gonna enter but the pure in heart"). There's something plaintive in Phillips's voice--some blamelessness, or sanctitude--that makes me feel endlessly delinquent, as if my own ceaseless and licentious carousing is now at least partially to blame for all the suffering in the world.

Phillips was known as a jackleg preacher, meaning he wasn't formally ordained by any religious organization, but he made regular appearances in the pulpit of the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church, just down the road from the eighty-seven-acre farm where he grew up. When he wasn't espousing the gospel, Phillips sold plums, ribbon-cane syrup, and homemade tinctures from his mule cart. Corcoran interviewed one of his former neighbors, Doris Foreman Nealy, in 2014. "He was just so different from everyone else," she told him. Darnell Nelms, who still worships at Pleasant Hill every Sunday, said, "He was a good church man. But he was so peculiar."

Posted by at December 18, 2016 9:25 AM