Nearly 90 years ago, a peddler and part-time preacher arrived at a makeshift recording studio in Dallas carrying a strange instrument and a fierce aversion to spiritual hypocrisy.
The producer Columbia Records had sent down from New York was baffled by the man’s contraption, cataloging it simply as a “novelty.” But Columbia liked Washington Phillips’ songs enough to record him five times from 1927-1929, in sessions that produced some of the era’s most beautiful and beguiling gospel music.
Phillips’ records sold decently. His first moved more than 8,000 copies, a nice number for “race records,” as they were called at the time. “Washington Phillips tells that Old Time Religion,” Columbia announced in advertisements, even though his lyrics castigated established churches, a rarity for gospel records. The melodies Phillips strummed on his lyre-like instrument mellow the prophetic condemnations, like a soapbox preacher standing next to a carousel ride.
After recording 18 songs (two are missing), Phillips faded into obscurity. It was thought that he died insane in 1938, paranoid and haunted by divine revelations. He was “gospel’s great disappearing act,” said his biographer.
Last month, though, Dust-to-Digital, an Atlanta label that specializes in unearthing rare and early recordings, cleared the cobwebs of myth and supposition, shedding welcome light on Phillips’ mysterious life. In addition to the 16 newly remastered songs, “Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams,” includes a new biography by Michael Corcoran, a former music critic who scoured the hot plains of East Texas, hunting down details.
“So many early artists were underappreciated,” said Lance Ledbetter, Dust-to-Digital’s co-owner. “We want them to get the respect they should have gotten when they were around.”
Washington Phillips cast a spell over the people of Simsboro, Texas, a small town full of churches and the descendents of freed slaves.
“The word that came up most often was ‘peculiar,’” said Corcoran, who tracked down the few people who remember Phillips.
He was a Main Street mystic, one of those ageless eccentrics who haunt small-town America like real-life Boo Radleys. When he wasn’t shooing kids away from his mulberry bushes, he was playing music for them, or showing them how to eat a fish like a sandwich and spit out the bones. In the few photos of Phillips, he looks stern and a little sad, as if disappointed by our downward drift into sin. The people of Simsboro thought he would never die.
Phillips farmed a bit, and sold ribbon cane syrup and herbal remedies from his mule-driven cart. Graced with little formal education, he nonetheless seemed to know things that other people didn’t. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin, Earl Phillips, told Corcoran.
His real passion was music. In 1907, Philliips’ unique instrument drew the attention of the Teague Chronicle, the white newspaper in a town a few miles from Simsboro. It was a box about 2 feet by 3 feet, 6 inches deep and strung with violin strings, the paper reported.
“He is as black as the ace of spades, but the music he gets out of that roughly made box is certainly surprising.” Phillips called that musical box a “Manzarene,” according to the newspaper.
Corcoran and other music sleuths have spent decades trying to figure out exactly what a Manzarene is, and whether it was the instrument Phillips played on his recordings. An excavated picture from 1927 shows Phillips holding two fretless zithers, neither of which look anything like the newspaper description.
Even the name of Phillips’ instrument is mysterious. It sounds like Nazarene, as in someone who lived in Nazareth, like Jesus. Corcoran supposes that Phillips might have named his instrument in homage to the Church of the Nazarene, a Protestant denomination starting to tear through Texas in the early 1900s.
Certainly religion was never far from Phillips’ mind. A “jackleg” preacher for much of his life, he wasn’t formally a part of any church or denomination, and seemed to have little regard for the latter. Phillips began recording songs when he was 47, old enough to have sussed out a few hypocrites in the sanctuary and sinners in the pulpit.
“A lot of preachers is preaching, and they think they’re doing well/ And all they want is your money and you can go to hell,” he sings in “Denomination Blues Part 2.”
In the song’s first part, he lists the beliefs of several denominations, belittling their battles about baptismal rites. The Primitive Baptists believe you can’t get to heaven unless you wash your feet, he sang, while the Missionary Baptists believe in full immersion. None of it amounts to much, Phillips sang. “Well, denominations have no right to fight/ They ought to just treat each other right.”
Phillips was even tougher on deacons, accusing some of running around at night and living with two or three women at once. “A man like that is in a bad fix,” he sings, “and the devil has got him by the hand.”
Not all of Phillips’ songs are about sinners. Some sweetly wonder what the saints are doing in heaven, or encourage Christians to take their burdens to the Lord and leave them there.
“No other gospel musician has come as close to convincing me that Jesus’ love might not stress me out,” one critic wrote on the indie music site Pitchfork.
At a concert in Washington a few days after the presidential election, Phil Cook, a folk-inspired musician, sang “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave it There,” a hymn Phillips helped make famous. For a brief and almost sacred moment, memories of the long and brutal campaign lifted. By the end of song, everyone in the crowd was smiling.
For decades after his death, few people outside of Simsboro knew anything about Washington Phillips, and much of what they knew was incorrect.
In the 1980s, a Dutch record label released an album of his songs and included a short biography. But the biographer had received the wrong death certificate from Texas. The Washington Phillips who died insane was a distant relative to the man who recorded gospel songs.
In fact, Corcoran found, Phillips died in 1954 after falling down the stairs at the State Department of Public Welfare building in Teague. The Teague Chronicle noted that Phillips and his donkey-pulled wagon were a familiar site around town, but still, the paper got his name wrong. The headline reads, “Wash Williams, Negro, Dies After Fall Downstairs.”
If not for Corcoran’s legwork, the world might never have learned the truth about Phillips. The former critic says he feels the weight of that accomplishment, and its burden. “If anyone else came up with anything, even something small, I would be upset with myself.”
Corcoran still hasn’t found Phillips’ unmarked grave, which seems fitting for an obscure blues and gospel singer who left indelible music but few other traces.
Corcoran did see the site of Phillips’ farm, in particular the porch where he sang and strummed through so many nights. In that part of Texas, thousands of stars sparkle above, a celestial complement to Phillips’ ethereal music – and perhaps an inspiration as well.
“I think I know what he was trying to do there on that porch,” Corcoran said. “He was trying to reach heaven musically.”