by Michael Corcoran
The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. For me that was in 1999, when Phillips’ mournful, moralistic “Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter” on a knock-off compilation of 1920’s black church singers knocked me out. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also intricately developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. From what background did this completely original artist emerge fully formed?
His grandfather, also named Washington Phillips, was a slave, born in Kentucky in 1801 and most likely ”sold down the river” to a Texas landowner in the 1850s, along with his wife Ann and teenaged sons Austin, Houston and Tim. Not long after they were emancipated on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 1865, the Phillips men started buying farmland in the freedmen’s community of Simsboro, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.
Both Tim and Houston Phillips had sons they named after their father, who lived to be 81. The oldest grandson, Tim’s boy “Little Wash,” was born in 1880 and went on to record for Columbia Records from 1927-29.
Houston’s son Washington Phillips, born in 1891, was a farmer who went crazy, was committed to the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1930 and died there eight years later.
When the haunting spirituals of Washington Phillips were first made available on CD in 1991 with I Am Born To Preach the Gospel (Yazoo), the liner notes incorrectly based biographical information on the death certificate of the cousin who died in the state asylum at age 47. The Washington Phillips who recorded such distinctive gospel tunes as “Denomination Blues,” “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Paul and Silas In Jail” lived until 1954, when he died at age 74 after a fall down the stairs at the city hall in Teague, the nearest town to Simsboro.
I stumbled upon this case of mistaken identity in 2002 when I was a music critic for the Austin American Statesman and used the Austin death of the “wrong” Washington Phillips as a local connection that would justify a lengthy profile of an intriguing gospel obscurity.
Another bit of misinformation passed on was that Phillips backed himself on a dolceola, a rare “portable grand piano” produced only from 1903-1908 in Toledo, OH. What a weird tale this was, a preacher with a head full of voices playing heavenly tunes on a doomed miniature keyboard!
But the dolceola theory has also been discredited, once and for all, by a recently-discovered article which ran in the Teague Chronicle in November 1907. Under the headline “A Unique Instrument,” the brief detailed “a negro in town, named George Washington Phillips,” who played music from “a box about 2 X 3 feet, 6 inches deep, and which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp…He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs.” The 27-year-old Phillips called his homemade instrument a “Manzarene,” the article said. East Texas had never seen or heard anything like Washington Phillips, who dropped the “George” as his grandfather and cousin did. Sixty years after his death, the world still hasn’t heard anything like the 18 tracks this son of freed slaves recorded in Dallas on five December days from 1927-29.
Washington Phillips was the sixth of 11 children born to Tim Phillips (b. Kentucky 1843) and Nancy Cooper Phillips (b. Tennessee 1848), who were married in 1867. The family lived on a farm in Simsboro whose ownership can be traced to Dr. James Wills, the great grand-uncle of Western swing king Bob Wills (born in nearby Kosse). According to Freestone County deed documents, James Wills sold “Abstract 217” in 1854 to H.M. Ewing, who sold it to James McMillan just before the Civil War.
In 1870, Tim and Houston went in together on 320 acres, purchased for $240 from neighbor McMillan, head of one of the last few white families in Simsboro. Their older brother Austin (b. 1838) and wife Drucilla bought their first parcel in 1867 and accumulated 203 acres over the next two decades. Land was freedom to the ex-slaves. Music was just something you sang and played to lighten the burden.
Prejudice has long been the social soot in the farming community of Freestone County, where slaves surpassed the number of whites, about 3,600 to 3,200, in 1860. From 1850 to 1860, the decade the Phillips family is believed to have relocated from Kentucky (because of place of birth information on the children), the slave population of Texas grew from 58,161 to 182,556, as white planters fled south and west to keep their slaves from deserting and joining the Union Army.
Kentucky was one of the northern slave states known for “stocking and raising” slaves for sale to the southern states after the transatlantic slave trade was discontinued in 1808, according to Michael Tadman’s seminal 1996 book Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders and Slaves in the Old South.
Wash’s family took the Phillips name from the plantation they worked on, according to an 85-year-old Earl Phillips, the grandson of Wash Phillips’ uncle Austin. Earl served as the family historian in 2002 when I interviewed him by phone from Denver, but like so many elderly witnesses from 13 years ago, he’s passed on since. Earl told me his great-grandfather Washington Phillips was owned by the men named Karner and Phillips, who founded Mexia’s Karner-Phillips department store. But I originally dismissed that info because Karner-Phillips wasn’t established until 1878. There were a few bits of Earl’s family history disputed by public records, so everything had to be independently verified.
Reading the 1860 Slave Schedules for Freestone County with my index finger, however, it shows that a John Karner owned slaves whose ages (names weren’t listed) roughly matched the elder Washington Phillips (60), his wife Ann (45), sons Houston (20) and Tim (17) and daughters Katy (12) and Susan (6). Patriarch Phillips was actually 59 and Houston 19, but it wasn’t uncommon for census takers of the time to round up ages, especially for African-Americans, who often didn’t know their own birthdays.
A native of Bavaria, Karner stowed away to the land of opportunity as a teenager and fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto that brought Texas independence in 1836. Later, known as “Dutch John,” the Indian fighter, Karner was given land for his service and he also bought up parcels around his grant- 65 properties in all- in the 1850s. According to deed documents kept at the Freestone County clerk’s office in Fairfield, some of his dealings were with a man named Frank A. Phillips, who may have owned the plantation Earl Phillips told me about, but I was unable to find any other information to back that up. A 1860 county agricultural report said there were seven plantations of over 500 acres in Freestone County, where cotton was king and corn was queen, but didn’t name any of them.
When the Civil War broke out and Freestone County voted 585-3 to secede from the Union, Karner joined the Confederate Army. His slave quarters were empty soon after he came home in defeat. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order that proclaimed slaves were free men and women.
“The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and free laborer.”
Although Gen. Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in April 1865 ended the Civil War, it took awhile for the Union Army to come to Texas to enforce the Emancipation Proclamation.
“Juneteenth was always a big day for Wash Phillips,” said Doris Foreman Nealy, a retired nursing school instructor who grew up on a farm next to Phillips “He’d dig a pit and slaughter a hog and cook it all day.”
Juneteenth, the oldest statewide celebration commemorating the end of slavery, was sponsored in Simsboro by the Magnolia Burial Club and held in the grassy picnic area common to all three black churches: Hogie Primitive Baptist, Wesley Tabernacle A.M.E. and Mount Pleasant Missionary Baptist Church. Phillips was acquainted with the pulpits at all three and often led the preaching and singing, Nealy said..
That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in “Denomination Blues,” the song which forged a bond with the counterculture crowd when it was discovered on a blues compilation in the 1960s and covered by Ry Cooder on 1972’s Into the Purple Valley. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: “You can go to college, you can go to school/ But if you ain’t got Jesus, youse a educated fool.” On the second part of “Denomination,” Phillips hits harder, singing of preachers who “think they’re doing well” and that “all they want is your money and you can go to hell.”
Wash Phillips was a product of post-slavery black America, when blues and gospel music were next door to each other- like a liquor store and a church on many a ghetto street- and yet spiritually an ocean apart. Not only were blacks separate from whites, they were divided amongst each other as sinners and saints. Then once again in church, split between the mainstream Baptist and Methodist denominations and the screeching, pounding “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal sect.
But Phillips, an unordained “jack leg preacher,” wasn’t made for those categorical times. “He was just so different from everyone else,” said Nealy. As a younger man, Wash would roam Freestone County on Sundays to sing and testify at Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal services. The 1930 U.S. Census found him living in Dallas, occupation “Holiness minister.” But later in his life he settled into his role as Rev. Wash Phillips at the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, just down the road from his 87-acre farm. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin Earl Phillips said in 2002, recalling that the singing farmer/preacher smelled of linament oil and made herbal remedies that he sold from his mule cart, along with plums and ribbon cane syrup.
I Am Born to Preach the Gospel and I Sure Do Love My Job
The lyrical distaste found in “Denomination Blues” and “The Church Needs Good Deacons” was perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called to the pulpit while less-pious men with degrees spewed their pretentious babble. But his former neighbors said he didn’t carry the same bitterness about a promising musical career that didn’t happen. None of the half-dozen former Simsboro residents I interviewed were even aware that Wash Phillips had ever made a record. Nobody from back home knew that one of his songs “You Can’t Stop a Tattler” was covered by Linda Ronstadt on her platinum-selling 1976 LP Hasten Down the Wind. Royalties never rolled his way, because no one knew anything about this Washington Phillips, who could’ve come from anywhere.
When the Teague Chronicle ran an article about Phillips’ death on Sept. 20, 1954, there was mention of the mule cart, but not the musical career. They didn’t even get his name or age right, calling him Wash Williams, 77. But posterity holds Phillips in high regard.
Calling the music of Washington Phillips “the absolute height of rural originality,” musicologist Garry Harrison wrote in his fretlesszithers.com blog in 2005 that, “It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what (Phillips) did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections… and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument.” While playing two zithers simultaneously, one hand for the chords and one hand for the melody, this self-made virtuoso also sang in a vulnerable, penetrating voice of faith.
Washington Phillips recorded 18 sides for Columbia in five sessions in Dallas, from Dec. 1927 to Dec. 1929. His first three ‘78s- all released in 1928- registered his best sales, topping off with 8,725 copies of the debut “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” b/w “Lift Him Up That’s All.” But then came the Stock Market Crash in Sept. 1929 and suddenly food became a bigger priority than buying downhome gospel blues records at 75 cents per. Forty-seven when he made his first recordings, Phillips was washed-up by 50. By the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe changed “Denomination Blues” to “That’s All” and had a secular hit with it backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in the early ‘40s (the first record on which she played electric guitar), Phillips had completely recessed into the country life.
But there’s too much talent and originality in Phillips’ music for it not to eventually find an audience and what Cooder revived continues to grow slowly. A swell in interest in the zither-playing preacher came when his song “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son” wove a spiritual thread through We Need To Talk About Kevin, the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about a school massacre. Covers of Phillips songs by the likes of Vince Gill, Mogwai, Phish, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell and Mavis Staples continue to bring attention, while many more musicians are content to listen and be inspired by the true artist who created against all odds.
“Leave it there, oh leave it there,” he sang in that sweet tenor of the truth. “Take your burden to the lord and leave it there.” Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 18 songs is the whole shot.
The three men named George Washington Phillips- the grandfather from Kentucky and his grandsons from Freestone County- are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But several searches of the “colored” side could locate only two tombstones. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel’s great disappearing act would take his eternal rest in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.
The great musician didn’t die in the state asylum. And his instrument was not a dolceola. It never really mattered what he played- it doesn’t change the music he left behind. But it’s comforting to know, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly, didn’t live out his last few years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who knew and respected him for who he was.