In Werner Herzog’s 2009 film, My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, a mentally unbalanced young man plays a recording of Washington Phillips singing an old spiritual, “I Was Born to Preach the Gospel,” for his girlfriend and tells her, “This is the voice of God.”
Even if Washington Phillips wasn’t God incarnate, he remains nearly as enigmatic. Until only a few years ago, everything that was known about Phillips could be summed up this way: between 1927 and 1929, the Texas-born Phillips recorded eighteen angelic gospel songs set to twelve-bar blues, including “I’ve Got the Key to the Kingdom,” “Denomination Blues (Pts. 1 & 2),” and “Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave it There.” Then he disappeared.
There have been a number of early and influential blues musicians, like Robert Johnson and Blind Willie Johnson whose recording histories were extremely limited, but at least we knew a little something about them. Those things we didn’t know for certain, we crafted stories and legends to explain. In comparison Phillips was like a fleeting hallucination, half-remembered for a few moments before vanishing.
It was unclear when he was born or when he died. No one seemed to have the slightest idea who he was or what he did either before or after that two-year stretch in the late ‘20s. In fact the biographical liner notes accompanying a 1991 disc of Phillips recordings turn out to be about a different Washington Phillips. Everything we knew about the gospel blues singer was in those sixteen of the eighteen spare, heartfelt, and gorgeous songs that still existed.
But the mystery didn’t even end there, as musicologists couldn’t even agree on what instrument Phillips was playing. It was a sweet, strange, ethereal sound, almost a hum, which smart joes with highly trained ears had over the years attributed to everything from a banjo played like a lap steel to the innards of a gutted piano to more obscure instruments like a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, a Phonoharp or some homemade instrument constructed from a wooden box and some strings.
Experts couldn’t even agree if Phillips was plucking something or striking something, which led the more zealous true believers to claim the music came directly from heaven itself. When the 1991 liner notes which claimed Phillips had died of tuberculosis in an Austin sanitarium in 1939 further claimed the instrument in question was a small portable autoharp-type keyboard known as a Dolceola, well, everyone just accepted that. Over the next decade, the Dolceola, a rare and rarely-heard instrument, became an inextricable part of the meager Phillips legend.
In 2002, a journalist and musicologist named Michael Corcoran began looking into the enigma of Washington Phillips, a man almost completely forgotten by everyone save for a handful of academics and musicians with an ear for the obscure roots of American traditional music. After a number of interviews and public records searches, he came as close to an accurate biography as we’re likely to see. Even then there isn’t much to tell.
Phillips was born in rural Texas in 1880, though what happened over the next 47 years remains virtually unknown. He was reportedly a deacon at assorted local Baptist and Methodist churches who (as detailed in several songs) had no patience for religious hypocrisy. He also enjoyed snuff. Although known to his family and local churchgoers for his beautiful singing, it wasn’t until he was discovered by a field recorder from Columbia Records that the idea of preserving some of his songs ever occurred to anyone, least of all Phillips himself.
He traveled to Dallas and recorded a few 78s (including a remarkable six songs during a single 1929 recording session), then returned to his quiet farming life in Simsboro, where he continued to sell homemade cane syrup and sing for his neighbors and family, but never recorded another thing. Despite claims he’d died in the madhouse in ‘39 (that was the other Washington Phillips, who was eleven years younger than the one in question), he lived until 1954, dying after he received a severe head injury falling down the stairs at the local Social Security office.
That’s all we have, save for those sixteen extant songs. But maybe those sixteen songs are all we need, maybe he’d said everything he’d needed to say and told us all we needed to know. So many of the songs, like “Train Your children” and “You Can’t stop a Tattler (Pts. 1&2)” take the form of simple poetic sermons whose gentle resolve (as it’s been termed) and accompanying celestial music are quite unlike anything else recorded at the time or since.
In the process of his research, Corcoran may have even solved the mystery of where that music comes from. A 1928 issue of a local community paper ran a photograph of Phillips in the studio. In the photo, he’s holding two fretless zithers. Although some still insist he was playing a Dolceola, there is no evidence apart from musical speculation to confirm this, Phillips himself having left no written record behind.
Of course there’s no evidence beyond that photo that he was playing a fretless zither, either. they might’ve just been sitting there in the studio at the time. As appropriate as it seems that today Phillips rests in an unmarked grave in the Cotton Gin Cemetery near Teague, TX, maybe it’s best that the source of the music he was playing remain a buried enigma as well. When you listen to the music, the honest grace of the music, it seems to me the precise identity of the instrument he was playing at the time simply doesn’t matter.