George Washington "Wash" Phillips (January 11, 1880 – September 20, 1954) was an American gospel and gospel blues singer and instrumentalist. The exact nature of the instrument or instruments he played is uncertain, being identified only as "novelty accompaniment" on the labels of the 78rpm records released during his lifetime.
He was born in Freestone County, Texas on January 11, 1880, the son of Tim Phillips (from Mississippi) and Nancy Phillips (née Cooper, from Texas).
People who knew him as an adult recalled him as standing about 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) or 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) tall, and being "stocky" or about 180 lb (82 kg); and that he was a snuff-dipper. He farmed 30–40 acres (12–16 ha) of land by the settlement of Simsboro near Teague, Texas. He was described as a "jack-leg preacher" – i.e. someone not necessarily an ordained minister, who would attend regular services at churches hoping for an opportunity to preach, but who would more often address spontaneous gatherings in the street, or set up their own storefront churches. He was a member of Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church in Simsboro, but is also known to have attended the "sanctified" St. Paul Church of God In Christ, and the St. James Methodist Church, Teague. His song "Denomination Blues" criticizes sectarianism in organized religion and hypocritical preachers. His uncomplicated and sincere faith is summarised in the last two lines of that song:
In 1927–29, he recorded 18 songs for Columbia Records in a makeshift recording studio in Dallas, Texas, under the direction of Frank B. Walker. Six of those songs were the first and second parts of three two-part songs, intended for opposite sides of one record. Four songs were unreleased at the time, and two are thought to have been lost.
On September 20, 1954, he died of head injuries sustained in a fall down a flight of stairs at the welfare office in Teague. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Cotton Gin Cemetery, six miles west of Teague. His wife Marie outlived him.
Some sources give his birthdate as c. 1892 and/or his date and place of death as December, 1938 in Austin State Hospital. Research has shown that that was a different Washington Phillips, the son of Houston Phillips and Emma Phillips (née Titus); he too farmed near Teague.
Some sources (notably, some AllMusic entries) refer to him as "Blind Washington Phillips". There is no suggestion in better sources that he had anything less than perfect sight.
A photograph in The Louisiana Weekly of January 14, 1928 shows Phillips holding two fretless zither-like instruments. That date lies between the second and third of his five recording sessions. The instrument in his right hand has been identified as a celestaphone and that in his left as a phonoharp, both manufactured by the Phonoharp Company; in both cases with the hammer attachment missing (the instruments as sold were a type of hammered dulcimer).
In the 1960s, Frank B. Walker identified Phillips' instrument to musicologist and author Paul Oliver as a "dulceola", saying that "nobody else on earth could use it except him". Before a recording session, Phillips would spend half an hour or more assembling it. It has often been assumed that Walker meant a dolceola, but that cannot be so: the dolceola was manufactured, sold, and recorded commercially, and did not need assembly before use. It seems more likely that the name "dulceola" was coined specifically for unusual instruments made by Phillips himself from broken discarded ones.
The aural evidence suggests Phillips strummed and plucked the strings of his instrument, and did not hammer them. Some listeners have claimed to discern differences between the instruments he used in different songs.
In 2016, journalist Michael Corcoran discovered a 1907 newspaper article which reported that Phillips' name for his instrument was a "manzarene", and further described it as "a box about 2×3 feet, 6 inches deep, [on] which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp. . . . He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs." This newly discovered name for the instrument was factored into the title of a 2016 collection of Phillips' surviving recordings, Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams.
The album "Washington Phillips And His Manzarene Dreams" received two nominations for the 2018 Grammy Awards, for Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes
Numerous compilations of Washington Phillips' complete recorded work have been released, such as The Key to the Kingdom on Yazoo Records in 2005. His songs have been covered by a variety of artists:
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