By Michael Corcoran
This is from the Teague (Texas) Chronicle from Nov. 8, 1907. Washington Phillips, whose songs have been covered but never bettered by Ry Cooder, Mavis Staples, Phish, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and more, was 27 at the time. He didn’t make his first recordings until he was 47. If Columbia Records didn’t send a remote recording unit to Dallas in 1927, there’s a good chance none of the music made by both Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson, who recorded five future classics a day earlier, would’ve ever been heard.
So, anyway, I had a day off and wanted to get out of town for a few, so I took a ride to Freestone County in East Texas, where Phillips grew up in the farming community of Simsboro. I hadn’t been back in 11 years, but hearing Jeff Tweedy doing Phillips’ “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today” on the Internet recently made me realize that I had some loose ends on my research into the life of this gospel pioneer. I wanted to see if there were any living blood relatives who might be entitled to whatever royalties there may be and I did find one, a second cousin, who owns the land where Phillips had a shack. There’s not a lot of money in royalties at this point since Phillips only wrote two of the songs he was “known” for – “Denomination Blues” (which Tharpe renamed “That’s All”) and “You Can’t Stop a Tattler.” But his music has such a unique character that I can see it being used in movies and on TV for years to come. Fifty years from now people are going to listen to those hard Christian lullabyes like “Lift Him Up, That’s All” and “I Had a Good Father and a Mother” and still be moved. There’s really nobody like Wash Phillips.
Driving back yesterday, I got a speeding ticket on I-35 outside of Georgetown. You add that cost to other expenses and the trip to Freestone didn’t seem worth it. I decided to hit the state library on the way home. All that driving had given me ideas on what to look up, and I didn’t want to feel like the trip was wasted. Maybe something new would turn up. I found a series of big books that compiled highlights from the Teague Chronicle, Wash’s hometown newspaper. They had indexes, so I just found the pages “Phillips” was mentioned on and jumped through a few books like that. Then I came across the Nov. 8, 1907 article on a 27-year-old Washington Phillips and his homemade string box. That’s the research slot machine paying out.
WASHINGTON PHILLIPS STUDIO HISTORY
In early December 1927, a field recording unit from Columbia’s “race records” division came to Dallas to record local artists in a makeshift studio. The label ran audition ads in all the black newspapers in Texas and the best of those who showed up were recorded right there. “They had made a phonograph record,” supervisor Frank B. Walker told an interviewer years later. “And that was the next best thing to being president of the United States.”
Phillips recorded his first four titles on Friday Dec. 2, 1927. Also recording that day was singer Lillian Glinn, backed by a combo. Phillips was asked back on Monday the 5th and recorded two more tracks.
When Columbia returned to Dallas the following year, Phillips recorded two songs on Dec. 4 and two more the next day. According to Columbia’s notes, Blind Willie Johnson also recorded in the same studio on Dec. 5, 1928, as did Laura Henton, accompanied by an unknown piano player who some have said was Arizona Dranes, though it doesn’t sound like her. Imagine if Wash Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes- the three pioneers of 1920s Texas gospel- had all played in the same Dallas studio on the same day!
On Dec. 2, 1929, Phillips recorded eight more tracks for Columbia, including the two-part “You Can’t Stop a Tattler,” which was not issued until 1979 on a Dutch label, and “The World Is In a Bad Fix,” which was never released.