Sunday, November 13, 2016

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Washington Phillips
Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams
Atlanta GA: Dust-To-Digital
2016: 76 pages plus16 track CD

Atlanta-based Dust-To-Digital has another important Book-CD combination with "Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams." As noted on its website, Dust-To-Digital's, inaugural release, 2003’s "Goodbye, Babylon," included two recordings by a mysterious gospel musician from Texas named Washington Phillips. Now, this book and CD by this unique singing evangelist who played a very unusual instrument provides much new information on this artist as well new masterings of all of his extant recordings from pristine copies.

Michael Corcoran has uncovered new information on Phillips, just like he did on another great Texas evangelist, Blind Willie Johnson. He was able to track down Phillips family history, including that his grandfather was a slave born in Kentucky and was in Texas during the Civil War. He uncovers the facts of Phillips death, refuting the story he died in an mental asylum (it was a cousin, also named Washington Phillips who died there), but rather died after falling down the stairs in a Texas state building in 1954. Corcoran also refutes the generally accepted idea he backed himself on the duceola, a rare kind of portable piano. Rather he cites a 1907 newspaper clipping that refers to what Phillips called the Manzarene. This may have been one or two zithers (which he was photographed with at one of his recording sessions) to which he may have employed a self-invented stringing along with a unique tuning.

Additionally, with interviews of persons who knew Phillips, Corcoran rounds out our knowledge of this evangelist and his life. There is also discussion of his recording sessions and a consideration of several artists who have been affected by the unique, almost ethereal, recordings he made. Compared to Blind Willie Johnson he lacks perhaps the overt, fiery passion, but when Phillips sings "Mother's Last Word To Her Son," "I Was Born To Preach The Gospel" or the two-part "Denomination Blues," there is a smoldering intensity to his singing along with his unique accompaniment resulting in these often mesmerizing performances. There also are lyric transcriptions included in this handsomely packaged and illustrated music reissue and book.

I purchased this from Dust-To-Digital and for more information on a book-CD package that would make a marvelous Christmas present, check out

Here is Phillips from an earlier mastering of perhaps his most famous recording, "Denomination Blues, Part 1."

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