Gospel artist Washington Phillips has been shrouded in mystery for decades. The east Texas musician recorded only 18 songs at a makeshift studio in Dallas in the late 1920s. A handful of dedicated audiophiles have pored over his music. But for the most part, Phillips is unknown to mainstream listeners.
One Texas music journalist made it his mission to learn the truth about Phillips’ life. And that digging inspired an Atlanta-based record label to remaster and re-release his music. The new collection is called “Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams,” and is up for a Grammy award on Sunday. Georgia Public Broadcasting’s Trevor Young has the story.
You’re probably thinking: ‘surely this guy’s some sort of legend?’ Turns out, he lived a pretty humble life. Let’s rewind to the 1920s. The place: Simsboro, Texas.
“He would just play the music up and down the backroads of the Simsboro community,” recalled Teague resident Doris Nealy. As a child, she remembers being transfixed by Phillips.
“He would come on into Teague with his donkeys and his wagon and his music,” Nealy said. “And he would play the music to let people know that he was coming.”
He was an odd character and an outsider. To get by, Phillips sold herbal remedies and ribbon cane syrup from his cart. But his passions were religion and music.
“[He] didn’t have a church of his own and he was not recognized by any of the key denominations. He would go around to the churches — sometimes they would let him preach,” remembered Nealy. “He was just different. He was unique, he was artistic. But at that time, we had no appreciation for the artistic ability.”
“And I think his introspective style of songwriting was totally unique for the time,” said music journalist Michael Corcoran, former critic for the Austin American-Statesman. He first heard Washington Phillips in 1999, and instantly wanted to learn more about him. But there wasn’t much out there.
“That’s where the mystery started with me,” explained Corcoran. “The music – I just thought ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before.’ Or since.”
Corcoran became obsessed. He even traveled from Austin to meet people who’d known Phillips. His first question to folks like Doris Nealy: What on earth was that instrument?
“I started talking to the people from Simsboro and from Teague and I asked them to show me what it looked like when he was playing,” Corcoran said.
“He was playing something that was flat,” recalled Doris Nealy. “He would lay it down in this little wagon, [and] the donkeys would be in front. And as a child, I never paid any attention to its form or what it was.”
Music historians who had looked into Phillips presumed it was a dolceola – a kind of small piano that’s plucked. But Nealy’s description, and people’s imitation of it, told a different story.
“They were strumming strings. And a dolceola is a keyboard instrument,” argued Corcoran.
Washington Phillips called his instrument a “manzarene.” It was a Frankenstein creation of his own making, essentially built of two plucked zithers. That was one mystery solved.
The next mystery was how he died. For decades, it was thought he died at a mental institution in Austin in 1938. Michael Corcoran discovered the truth.
“You know, I did a lot of research on the guy who died, and then I found out later on that it was his cousin actually,” said Corcoran. “It was a different Washington Phillips.”
That’s right, his cousin. They had the same grandfather and the same name. According to locals, our Washington Phillips died after falling down some stairs in 1954.
Corcoran took all this back to Austin and published a big story in 2002. That caught the eye of Lance Ledbetter, co-founder of Atlanta-based record label Dust-to-Digital.
“I think people that hear Washington Phillips, it either strikes a chord inside them or it does not. And the people it does strike a chord inside, it strikes it very hard,” Ledbetter expressed.
Dust-to-Digital tracked down 16 of the 18 songs Washington Phillips recorded in the late 1920s. They remastered the songs, and last year released a new collection called “Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams.”
Ledbetter said he hopes the collection can preserve Phillips’ memory and cement his legacy. For Doris Nealy, hearing Phillips again made it all come flooding back.
“It brings back memories to me because it’s so real. That’s how he was. That’s how he sounded,” Nealy said. “My main song was ‘Take Your Burden To The Lord and Leave Them There.’ I became a little teary just reflecting on it.”
Nealy said that song has inspired her all her life.