There aren't many artists for whom the come-on "New Research!" would yield much fuss. But Washington Phillips—a stocky, snuff-dipping gospel singer from East Texas, who recorded eighteen songs for Columbia Records between 1927 and 1929—is an uncommonly captivating cipher. Since at least 1991, when Yazoo Records issued "I Am Born to Preach the Gospel," the first digital compilation of Phillips's work, listeners have been trying to suss out exactly what Phillips was doing in the makeshift Dallas studio where these songs were recorded. They simply do not seem born of this earth.
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.' "
I am not sure, in the vernacular of the time, what playing "all sorts of airs" might have meant. Me, I'm not taking it as metaphor—it seems possible, if not likely, that Phillips was conducting an actual orchestra of gentle, tolling breezes, corralling the wind in benevolent service.
If I may boast for a moment, I own one of Phillips's 78-r.p.m. records—a just slightly compromised copy of "Denomination Blues," purchased in a thrift store on the outskirts of Milwaukee in 2011. It took several tries for me to dislodge a crumpled dollar bill from my clammy palm and deliver it to the cashier; I am certain I looked as if I had very recently done a large amount of methamphetamine. Phillips's 78s are not impossible to find, but they are not easy to find, either. Per collector estimates—and old issues of "78 Quarterly," a defunct print periodical once dedicated, in part, to calculating such things—there are less than a dozen known copies of some of his releases. In 1928, Phillips sold eight thousand seven hundred and twenty-five pressings of "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There" / "Lift Him Up That's All," his astonishing début. But by the end of his recording run—with the country now mired in a depression—he was selling far fewer records. His last release, "The Church Needs Good Deacons" / "I Had a Good Father and Mother," moved fewer than a thousand.
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."
I don't know from adamant religious faith—mine is rickety, fickle—but there's an assuredness that animates the best gospel music, a bottomless self-possession that I hardly ever hear in secular music from the same era. "I've got the key to the kingdom, and the Devil can't do me no harm," Phillips sings, calmly, on "I've Got the Key to the Kingdom." Who wouldn't envy that certitude? Amid the wild tumult of a life, it remains striking to hear a person sound so confident—to know something, and thoroughly. Phillips was forty-seven when he recorded "Denomination Blues." He would return to Dallas almost exactly a year later to do four more songs, then, a year after that, another eight. By the age of fifty, he was done with the recording business entirely, and, for a while, mostly forgotten outside the clapboard churches and picnic fields of East Texas.
Then, in 1938, the gospel singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded "That's All," a rowdy adaptation of "Denomination Blues"; her iteration is vigorous, declarative, and only tangentially kindred. It was a hit. Later on, Phillips's work endured primarily in the music rooms of the 78-r.p.m. collectors who dutifully convened and doted over his discs. In 1972, the slide guitarist Ry Cooder covered "Denomination Blues" on his second album, "Into the Purple Valley." He attempted to approximate the sound of Phillips's manzarene by deploying a small squad of backing musicians; his take is an airy jumble of glockenspiel, mandolin, horns, and percussion.
Mostly, Phillips has remained a phantom. Corcoran, perhaps his most tireless champion, was at least able to uncover when, where, and how Phillips died—with prewar musicians, these kinds of facts are often disturbingly elusive. For years, misinformation (that Phillips had died alone in a state asylum, curled up in a crawl space, yammering about God) was bandied about as fact. But another article Corcoran found in the Teague Chronicle corrects the record: at seventy-seven, Phillips tumbled down the stairs of a welfare office, and "never regained consciousness after the fall which happened about 4 p.m. He lived northwest of Teague and was a familiar sight around Teague with a small wagon pulled by two donkeys."
During his last session for Columbia, on December 2, 1929, Phillips recorded another multi-part song, "The World Is in a Bad Fix Everywhere." It took him two takes. Although there is a session card indicating that this happened, the record itself was never pressed or commercially released, and, Corcoran writes, still "cannot be located in the Sony vaults." It's not particularly uncommon for early rural performers to have "lost" songs, though anyone who is prone to chasing ghostly emanations understands the dizzying, treacherous allure of such a thing. Even the title feels teasing, as if it might contain information about how to right our perpetually wobbling ship. Though we now know more than ever about Phillips's life and work, it's difficult not to get swallowed up anew by the romanticism and possibility of it all, to wonder what remains, obscured. It is easy to believe that if anyone might know how to lead us kindly toward salvation it'd be Phillips, hugging his manzarene, singing softly of Heaven.