Join 3,551 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


the amazing Washington Phillips, gospel singer
June 14, 2010 8:25 AM   Subscribe

Have you heard of Washington Phillips? He was possessed of a wonderful voice, and delivered his simple but gorgeous gospel tunes in an easy and utterly unprepossessing style. He accompanied himself not on guitar or piano, as might be expected, but rather on a chiming, delicately ethereal zither, lending a curiously timeless air to his recordings from the 1920s. An altogether unique performer, his music is a real treat for the soul: Take Your Burden To the Lord, What Are They Doing in Heaven Today, Denomination Blues, I Had a Good Father and Mother, Lift Him Up, Paul and Silas in Jail, Mother's Last Word To Her Son and Train Your Children.

Exhuming the Legend of Washington Phillips
posted by flapjax at midnite (23 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
He's got a nice record out on Mississippi Records. Then again, most anything in their catalog is worth a listen.
posted by dobbs at 8:44 AM on June 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Fantastic. I heard one or two of his tracks on Dust-to-Digital's Goodbye Babylon and had always wanted to hear more of that instrument.
posted by The White Hat at 8:45 AM on June 14, 2010


Note the text on the Columbia record label from the Take Your Burden To the Lord clip. It reads: "Vocal - Novelty accomp." It was indeed novel, his zither. Reading about Phillips, you'll sometimes see mention of the Dolceola. Some have maintained that this was the instrument Phillips played, but this idea has been essentially debunked. Here's an interesting site from someone who's done a lot of thinking about and research on Phillips's instruments and playing techniques: Fretless Zithers.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:49 AM on June 14, 2010


Good stuff! Funny how Wikipedia says it's unclear on what instrument he played, while on the same page there's a picture of him holding two zithers.
posted by mahershalal at 8:50 AM on June 14, 2010


Yeah, that Wiki article ain't so great...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:51 AM on June 14, 2010


BTW, if Phillips's Denomination Blues sounds a little familiar to some of you folks, it might be that his fellow Texan Hattie Hudson's Doggone My Good Luck Soul is essentially the same tune. Of course, Hattie prefers subject matter like a lucky rabbit's foot, black cats and keys to the jail over Jesus and the fine distinctions between various Christian sects...
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:31 AM on June 14, 2010


An FPP from flapjax at midnite is pretty much guaranteed to improve my day.

"Take Your Burden to the Lord" is one of those tunes that I find myself humming even when I can't remember that I know the song.
posted by catlet at 9:49 AM on June 14, 2010


Washington Phillips is my favorite. There's something about his voice and the zither that comes together so well. His songs truly sound magical.
posted by OmieWise at 10:14 AM on June 14, 2010


The Gizmo-Harps page on Fretless Zithers is really interesting, as is the rest of this fine post.

Also, I quite like the illustration on What Are They Doing in Heaven Today?
posted by filthy light thief at 10:30 AM on June 14, 2010


gawdag it flapjax quit posting awesome so fast i can't even keep up.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:39 AM on June 14, 2010


slight derail
"I Had a Good Father and Mother" is the exit music for Alan Greenberg's nonpareil screenplay of Robert Johnson's life "Love in Vain" (which has been kicked around Hollywood for almost 30 years now). In the notes, Greenberg points out that the same field units from Columbia Records were recording Blind Willie Johnson at the time.
posted by minkll at 11:04 AM on June 14, 2010


Ethereal and spiritually uplifting. There's a wondrous, authentic quality to this music and it stirs the soul, as intended. Hats off to you again, flapjax.
posted by Seekerofsplendor at 11:19 AM on June 14, 2010


I saw Andy Cohen, who was then squiring David Honeyboy Edwards around Seattle during both their visits for their appearances at the Port Townsend Blues Festival in 2004, play a dulceola in 2004, during intermission when Edwards played an unadvertised gig at the Alki Tavern. He played Denomination Blues, for a fact, and it did not sound unlike Phillip's version. But then it was an homage. His dulceola had a very warm and bright sound as I recall.

Another reason people might recognize Denomination Blues, of course, is from its inclusion on Ry Cooder's first album.

He did not record all that much--both Yazoo and Document have compilations of his recorded works, if you are interested in old school hard copy CDs and, if not, there are 4 mp3s on the Document page. Also from Document is the short biography of Phillips which in part makes an argument that he recorded with a dulceola.

As for David Honey Boy Edwards--I was lucky to have I caught him on a good nite. He was flirting with a young woman in the audience and he got revved up. When he played Port Townsend, they treated him like a Faberge egg and, perhaps as a result of this, his playing was nowhere near as good as that night at the Alki. Oh, well, that was then. It's a pity they don't have Sunday blues nights anymore.
posted by y2karl at 2:04 PM on June 14, 2010


Thanks for those links, y2karl. The Dolceola/zither debate rolls on!

You know, the thing find most striking about Phillips, apart from the unusual accompaniment, is his vocal phrasing. It seems utterly modern to me, in a way that no other gospel or similar music of the period does. The way he rushes the lyrics, in certain phrases, the way he casually tosses them off, you know, it sounds like it could've been recorded by someone yesterday.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:47 PM on June 14, 2010


Funny how Wikipedia says it's unclear on what instrument he played, while on the same page there's a picture of him holding two zithers.

The liner notes in the CD I have claims he used a Marxophone, which both looks nothing and sounds nohing like what he actually used.

Gizmoharps are little-understood in the 21st century, apparently.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:50 PM on June 14, 2010


Sorry, not Marxophone -- dolceola, as y2karl said. The two are similar, in any case.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 4:55 PM on June 14, 2010


And folks, for those of you who don't know, the estimable Karlos the Jackal, who's just popped into this thread, is a zither-pluckin' man hisself. Be sure to check out some of his zithery, autoharpy, Marxophony goodness at MeFi Music, here and here and here, for starters!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:20 PM on June 14, 2010


The way he rushes the lyrics, in certain phrases, the way he casually tosses them off, you know, it sounds like it could've been recorded by someone yesterday.

He is an outlier among outliers. Someone--John Jeremiah Sullivan, in his Unknow Bards essay, if I recall correctly--made an aside that one reason that the early race record companies captured such an enormous range of performance styles in the 1920's and 1930's is that the white businessmen who recorded the musicians had no ideas to what black tastes in music were at the time--so they cast the widest of nets and recorded seemingly everybody who came their way. And ever since we have selected out the most arcane, the most obscure, the most rare recordings and, as a consequence, perhaps, the deepest pieces of music from that treasure trove.

Listen to Blind Mamie Forehand's Honey In The Rock from PreWar Revenants Vol 1, for example. There are maybe one or two known copies of that record--it makes you wonder how many people heard it.

Phillips, of course, was a bit better known to his gospel singing contemporaries and someone like Blind Willie Johnson was enormously popular in his day, and yet each is so unlike anyone else. So you wonder from where all these people came as each is so sublime in his or her own way.

Phillips sounds so modern and yet so timeless.

Not unlike the NuGrape Twins, in their I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape, who sound like they came from a whole 'nother time and space and, yet, I suspect, sounded just as out of this world in their own time.

I tend to think that part of it is the seeming disconnect between the instrument and the vocal in each case. The NuGrape Twins have that country harmony twang going on with that turn of the century parlor piano. And whatever Phillips is playing, it seems to be the juxtaposition of his vocal with the archaic sound of the instrument that hooks you. You just get sucked in by it.
posted by y2karl at 5:47 PM on June 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


Yes, y2karl, I Got Your Ice Cold Nugrape is one of the strangest of the strange and Old Weirdest of the Old Weird. That's one of those tunes that should, I dunno, be beamed out into the deepest reaches of space, every day, forever. Or played continuously over loudspeakers in Red Square, or hacked into everyone on the planet's iPod so it comes up when they meant to play Hotel California or I Will Always Love You.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:00 PM on June 14, 2010


It makes me want to drink NuGrape soda whenever I hear it, so it's still doing its job.
posted by Karlos the Jackal at 6:40 PM on June 14, 2010


Great post. (I do love Philips' rendition of "Take your burden to the Lord", but even more I love Blind Willie Johnson's. It's like a duet with a devil and an angel.)
posted by ericost at 7:57 PM on June 14, 2010


By the way, that Honey In the Rock link from y2karl's comment above... good lord, that's beautiful. Wow. I urge everyone to listen to that.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:56 AM on June 15, 2010


Washington Phillips has been a favorite of mine ever since I stumbled across the wonderful eMusic list Gospel for Rockers, Punkers and Other Sinners:

"Getting into gospel I got the same full-fledged, face-flushed, visceral excitement I experienced when I first saw punk rock bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag... I tell my old punk rock friends that gospel is really similar to punk, actually — it just has better lyrics."

Gillian Welch sings "I Had a Real Good Mother and Father". I heard her version first but like the original best -- Washington Phillips' wordless crooning over those ghostly strings gives me a tingle every time.
posted by stuck on an island at 11:17 AM on June 15, 2010


« Older The Singularity University is here. Founded by Ray...  |  Feds under pressure to open US... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments