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East Texan Washington Phillips was one of the founding fathers of American gospel music. Although he recorded only eighteen tunes (sixteen of which have survived) in five sessions in Dallas between 1927 and 1929, Phillips helped to lay the foundation that resulted in such spiritually-oriented performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Dixie Hummingbirds and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama.
A travelling preacher, Phillips accompanied his soulful vocals on what was believed to be a dolceola, a zither-like instrument with a small keyboard invented by Ohio piano tuner David P. Boyd in the 1890s. Only around a hundred of this odd instrument were ever made, leading to the question of how a route preacher in East Texas ended up with one. Recent studies suggest that Phillips may have actually played a modified fretless zither on his recordings rather than a true dolceola, and in fact, he may have been playing two such instruments at the same time, one with the left hand and one with his right.
Other elements of Phillips' life also remain a mystery. It was long thought that Phillips was committed to a state mental institution in Austin, Texas less than a year after his last 78 was recorded, and that he spent the final years of his life confined there until his death in 1939 of tuberculosis at the age of 47. There is some compelling new evidence, however, that this was a different George Washington Phillips, and that the gospel musician actually settled in Simsboro, Texas after his recording sessions, living there until 1954, when he died from injuries sustained in a fall at the age of 74. Whichever version is accurate, Phillips never recorded again and his 16 surviving recordings from the late '20s remain one of the most distinctive in all of early blues and gospel.
Washington Phillips (January 11, 1880 – September 20, 1954) was a Texan gospel singer and musician, born in Freestone County, Texas. Phillips died in 1954 in Teague, Texas.
Phillips recorded eighteen songs, all between 1927 and 1929 in Dallas, for Columbia Records, though only sixteen survive. Some of his songs amount to highly specific and detailed gospel sermons, featuring Phillips' voice self-accompanied by an instrument that sounds like a fretless zither. This instrument, which has been variously identified as a Dolceola, a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, or a Phonoharp (and also is considered by some to be an instrument entirely home-made by Phillips) creates a unique sound on these recordings that makes them immediately recognizable. Columbia A&R exec Frank B. Walker, who supervised the Phillips sessions said in a 1962 interview that Phillips' instrument was homemade. “Nobody on earth could use it but him,” he said.
Numerous compilations of Washington Phillips' complete recorded work have been released, such as The Key to the Kingdom on Yazoo Records in 2005. His songs have been covered by a variety of artists:Ry Cooder covered Phillips' "Denomination Blues" on his 1971 album Into the Purple Valley and "You Can't Stop a Tattler", as "Tattler", on his album Paradise and Lunch (1974)."Denomination Blues" has also been covered by the contemporary Christian groups 2nd Chapter of Acts on their 1975 live album To the Bride with Barry McGuire, and The 77s on their debut album Ping Pong over the Abyss (1983).Will Oldham covered Phillips' "I Had a Good Father and Mother" on the Palace Brothers album There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993). Gillian Welch also covered this song on her 2003 album entitled Soul Journey.The Be Good Tanyas covered "What are They Doing in Heaven Today" on Hello Love."What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" was used in a scene in the movie Elizabethtown where the main character visits The Survivor Tree in Oklahoma.Mogwai perform a version of "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on the Les Revenants original soundtrack for the French TV series of the same name.Phish has covered "Paul and Silas in Jail" on 78 occasions. This song became a relatively common part of their live performance from 1990 to 1993, but has been played on occasion since.Phillips' "I Am Born To Preach the Gospel" features on the soundtrack of Werner Herzog's 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. It was also featured in the song "The Dyslexic Porn Star Who Funked In Her Space" by the British band Morcheeba.Ralph Stanley covered Phillips' "Lift Him Up, That's All" on his 2011 album "A Mother's Prayer".In 2009, Atlas Sound sampled the Phillip's "Lifted Him Up That's All" for the song "Washington School" on the Logos album. Phillips' song "Mothers Last Word to Her Son" was featured heavily in the film We Need to Talk About Kevin.Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson covered "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. The track features Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on vocals.Mavis Staples covered "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune.