3 Dec 2016

Washington Phillips, founding father of American Gospel

From Access All Areas, 3:00 pm on 3 December 2016
Washington Phillips

Washington Phillips Photo: Doris Foreman Nealy

Washington Phillips Newspaper Clipping circa 1927

Washington Phillips Newspaper Clipping circa 1927 Photo: supplied

Gospel Singer Washington Phillips' entire recorded output consists of 18 songs recorded between 1927-1929. His life has been shrouded in mystery despite his songs being covered by the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Ry Cooder, Abigail Washburn, and Linda Ronstadt.

Now, as a result of a new album called Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams, he is suddenly getting extensive coverage in publications such as The New Yorker and Pitchfork.

Author Michael Corcoran has written liner-notes for the album. A critic and reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, he became infatuated with Washington Phillips in 2002, when he heard Phillips on an obscure British Gospel compilation of street corner preachers and country-blues singers. "I couldn't believe what I was hearing. I'd never heard anything quite like it before." Corcoran subsequently did some extensive archeological digging, and cleared up a case of mistaken identity.

Washington Phillips-Louisiana Weekly Jan. 1928

Washington Phillips-Louisiana Weekly Jan. 1928 Photo: supplied

Relying on memories of elderly people who had known, or seen Washington Phillips play during the 1940s, Corocan found out that Phillips accompanied himself on a home made instrument called a Manzarene, which was basically two zithers welded together.

A contemporary of Blind Willie Johnson, Corcoran says of Phillips "He had a Blues basis to his music, but he sounded nothing like anybody else. It wasn't any of this shouting fire and brimstone - the Gospel music of the time was very upbeat, and over the top, and Washington Phillips pioneered the introspective style of Soul music. It was more about what he was feeling inside." 

"You listen to a song like 'I Had A Good Father And Mother' - to me, that's the sort of music that we need today, especially in America, it's timeless, it really soothes you. It makes you realise that no matter who's President, or what's going on, your family is what matters. Your faith is what matters. I think his music is definitely universal, and timeless." 

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  • Music Details

    Artist: Washington Phillips
    Song: What Are They Doing In heaven Today?
    Composer: Charles Tindley
    Album: Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams
    Label: Dust To Digital

    Artist: Washington Phillips
    Song: A Mothers Last words to her daughter, I Am Born to Preach The Gospel, Denomination Blues Part 1, Take Your Burden To The Lord, I had a good father and mother, Lift Him Up That's All, You Can’t Stop A tattler, I’ve Got the Key to The kingdom.
    Composer: Washington Phillips
    Album: Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams
    Label: Dust To Digital

    Artist: Sister Rosetta Tharpe & Lucky Millinder & His Orchestra
    Song: That's All
    Composer: Washington Phillips, arranged by Tharpe
    Album: Tiger Rag
    Label: Upbeat Jazz