Gospel singer Washtington Phillips in 1950

Music

Rediscovering an Enigmatic Texas Gospel Singer and His Dallas Recordings

A newly restored recording and new research sheds new light on the life and legacy of gospel singer Washington Phillips, who cut 16 tracks in Dallas in the late 1920s

Dallas has done a pretty poor job of packaging and communicating its musical history. Austin usually gets billed as the most important Texas city when it comes to this state’s musical legacy, and there is no doubting the long shadow the capital city casts of that history. But Dallas has its own unique and important musical story to tell.

In the 1920s and 1930s, thanks to its rising role as a commercial center, Dallas was a major hub of early Texas recording. The hugely influential recordings of Blind Lemon Jefferson, Robert Johnson, and Lead Belly would go on to shape and transform the history of popular music. A few days ago, The New York Review of Books wrote about more important recordings made in Dallas, these ones by an enigmatic figure in gospel music and which are the subject of a newly remastered recording and book-length study (also written about today in The New Yorker).

Washington Phillips was a singer and preacher, the son of slave-born parents, who spent much of his life preaching in a Baptist church in east-central Texas. In the late-20s, he came to Dallas to record: 

The sixteen songs he recorded for Walker in five Dallas sessions over three consecutive Decembers—1927, 1928, and 1929—had been available together since 1979, and some began circulating on compilations well before then. (Another pair of songs, now lost, was recorded but never released.) In his own time, Phillips had been a brief commercial success. His first 78 sold more than eight thousand copies, and one wonders how many other songs he’d have had the chance to record if the Depression hadn’t forestalled his three-year-long career.

Not much detail is known about Phillips’ life. He spent much of it around Teague and Simsboro, small communities east of Waco. He also played a strange instrument that lent a particularly quality to Philip’s sound, even if no one is really sure exactly what it was. That has only deepened the sense of mystery and intrigue around his style and performance:

For twenty years before his Dallas sessions, Phillips had been playing—in churches, at local functions, and at his house in a small farming community outside Teague—for neighbors and fellow believers; he kept doing so long after his last 78 appeared. (As a young man he experimented with Pentecostalism, but he spent much of his later life installed as the reverend of a local Baptist church.) In his case, performing in this atmosphere was a chance to develop a technically confounding and startlingly original kind of gospel song. Phillips’s Columbia recordings are sermons or hymns, some of them covers and others original, bleated out in a clear, confident but warbling voice and backed only by the harp-like plucking of a mysterious stringed instrument his studio documents called, cryptically, “novelty accomp.”

For years, there has been a debate among musical historians about Phillips’ instrument, but in the new book-length essay that accompanies remastered recordings of Phillips 16 Dallas-recorded tracks, former-Austin American Statesman music critic and historian Michael Corcoran digs up new leads:

One of the discoveries Corcoran reports in his essay for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, Dust to Digital’s authoritative new edition of Phillips’s music, is a 1907 item from the Teague Chronicle suggesting that Phillips used a kind of “box…[on] which he has strung violin strings,” which corroborates some eyewitness accounts but raises more questions than it answers.

As fascinating, though harrowing, are the accounts of Phillips’ previously miss-reported life (his biography was previously confused with that of his brother) that Corcoran also digs up:

As Corcoran observes, Phillips’s two brothers left Simsboro around the time, in 1922, that the murder of a white woman and the subsequent lynching of at least three black men turned the nearby town of Kirvin into a “racial battleground.” Phillips stayed, and it’s as if some of his more vulnerable performances absorbed the mood of anxiety and peril those events left. (Well before then, Phillips’s skin color had been the occasion for a more personal indignity. “He is as black as the ace of spades,” the 1907 Teague Chronicle author remarked, “but the music he gets out of that roughly made box is certainly surprising.”)

This tiny glimpse into Phillips’ experience of life in Texas in the 1920s offers an invaluable and intimate look into the past. Curiously, I initially assumed these recordings were made at 508 Park Ave., the site of the legendary studio where Robert Johnson recorded in the late-1930s. But that building was constructed in 1929, so Phillips’ recordings must have been made elsewhere, a fact that only deepens the story of Dallas’ music history.

One wonders what picture we could create of this city if all of the stories of Dallas’ musicians and musical past were brought together, perhaps in in the form of a Dallas music museum. Though 508 Park Ave. sat in disrepair for decades, a palpable symbol of this city’s neglect and disinterest in its own rich cultural legacy, in recent years First Presbyterian Church has done a great job restoring the historic building. Now that the building is preserved, maybe it is time to revive the call, expressed here by writer Joe Nick Patoski, for a better way to honor, preserve, and teach Dallas’ rich musical history:

“Dallas is locked into old thinking — that culture means the ballet, art museums, opera, not jukejoints,” said Joe Nick Patoski, the Fort Worth-born co-author of the 1993 Stevie Ray biography Caught in the Crossfire. “Dallas is not a place without a soul and without a past. It’s just done a [terrible] job in recognizing its soul.”

For now, here’s a taste of Phillips’ unique sound:

 

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