Reviewed by Lins Honeyman
Over the years, the life and work of Dallas preacher/musician Washington Phillips have become increasingly shrouded in myth and dogged by misinformation and this CD/book from Dust To Digital helps to unravel the mystery and reveal the real man behind other worldly-sounding sanctified songs like "Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There", "Paul And Silas In Jail" and "What Are They Doing In Heaven Today". Presented as a beautifully-finished hardback book in A5 landscape form, this definitive piece contains a short but very detailed biography of the pre-war recording artist's life, ancestry and career by music writer Michael Corcoran who starts by accurately stating "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." Corcoran goes on to immediately debunk the claim that the source of that sound was an instrument called a dolceola or even a briefly-manufactured portable grand piano and instead, via a newspaper cutting from 1907 which gives an eye witness account of Phillips' playing, suggests correctly that Phillips' homemade instrument was a box-like contraption called a manzarene. Regardless of the terminology, the sound that exuded from Phillips' apparatus has become the stuff of legend with some scholars even suggesting that his recordings were effectively the progenitor of '60s psychedelia. That point is certainly up for grabs but what can't be disputed is the fact that the handful of Columbia sessions that Phillips recorded in the late '20s have proved more influential than we might have thought with the likes of Ry Cooder, the 77s and many others covering Phillips' "Denomination Blues" whilst other elements of his songs have been scattered throughout the blues if you only listen hard enough. Whilst most blues aficionados will be used to hearing the occasional Phillips song or two on a compilation album, hearing a full set of the man's work presses home the plaintive quality of his voice - a million miles from the raspy performances given by contemporaries like Blind Willie Johnson and Blind Joe Taggart - and this makes the rather stern and preachy nature of tracks like "The Church Needs Good Deacons", "Train Your Child" and "You Can't Stop A Tattler" all the more affecting and interesting. A number of historic photos, session notes and press cuttings complement this exquisitely-crafted document of the life and short-lived recording career of Washington Phillips and, through it, hopefully new listeners will be drawn to the mystery of the man and his marvellous manzarene.
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