By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
The mystery begins the first time you hear the flowing gospel of Washington Phillips, whose entire recorded output consists of 18 tracks recorded in Dallas from 1927-1929. His sacred porch songs, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from a strange instrument identified as a dolceola, sing out the existence of a higher power, for how could man alone create music for the angels?
Chicago has been credited as the genre's birthplace, but a trio of Texans (Phillips, guitar evangelist Blind Willie Johnson and piano player Arizona Juanita Dranes) were laying the foundation for Christian blues--which is all gospel music is, really--at a time when "the father of gospel," Thomas A. Dorsey, was still playing juke joints as Georgia Tom. Before Dorsey first mixed the spiritual with the secular on 1928's "If You See My Savior," Phillips was putting religious lyrics to 12-bar blues, blind sanctified songleader Dranes was inventing the gospel beat by spicing spirituals with barrelhouse piano and Blind Willie was sliding a knife over his guitar neck and moaning crucifixion songs.
When gospel's glory years erupted in the '30s, Phillips, Dranes and Johnson had already been tucked back into obscurity. They remain virtually unknown except to cults of rabid musicologists, who revel in the mystique of these artists who emerged out of nowhere as fully formed visionaries, then almost as quickly disappeared.
In Phillips' case, the ending of his recording career is easily explained in the liner notes to his only American CD, I Am Born to Preach the Gospel (released by Yazoo in 1991), which reports that the singer was committed to the state sanitarium in Austin in 1930 and died there of tuberculosis eight years later. The All Music Guide (www.allmusic.com), a favorite Internet reference source for critics and fans, repeats the information, taken from the death certificate of a Washington Phillips of Freestone County.
The truth, however, is that another man of the same name, from the same place, is the one who Ry Cooder briefly resurrected in the '70s with covers of "Denomination Blues" and "You Can't Stop a Tattler." After just five recording sessions, the "real" Washington Phillips returned to the farming life in the black settlement of Simsboro, content to play for neighbors and churchgoers. When he died in 1954 from head injuries suffered from a fall down the stairs at the welfare office in nearby Teague, the local newspaper got his last name and age wrong. "Wash Williams, 77, Negro, Dies After Fall" was the headline on the 2-inch story that never mentions a music career. Phillips was 74 when he passed away. The man who was previously believed to be the gospel singer died in the state hospital at age 47.
I didn't know about this case of mistaken identity a couple of months ago when I stood over a grave on the old "colored" side of the Austin State Cemetery thinking that I'd found the music pioneer's final resting place. Most of the graves were marked only by numbers, and the dead were buried in chronological order, which placed Washington Phillips at #1693.
Later that day, the cemetery maintenance man did some research and discovered the body had been exhumed January 3, 1939, the day after it was buried, and taken back to Teague by brother Sim Phillips.
A few days later, I was making the same trek to the small town 60 miles due east of Waco. According to the liner notes, the parents' names were Houston Phillips and Emma Titus Phillips, which gave me some place to start. Before I left, I sent a few e-mails to historians of Freestone County (also the home of 1920s blues legend Blind Lemon Jefferson) and soon received a phone call from Wilbur Titus of Fairfield, whose grandfather was Emma Titus' brother. Wilbur had traced the Titus roots from the slave depots of the Caribbean to Fairfield, Texas, in 1852. What's more, he said, three of Sim Phillips' children were still alive. A volunteer with the Freestone County Genealogical Society, meanwhile, e-mailed me to say she'd found that a Washington Phillips was buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery near Teague. This search was going too easily, I thought.
The main challenge would be to find out how a black man from rural Texas managed to get his hands on a dolceola, a rare keyboard instrument produced in Toledo, Ohio, from 1903-1908 and sold primarily in the Northern states as a portable grand piano. The "novelty accompaniment," as it was called on Phillips' record labels, was identified as a dolceola in the '60s by noted British musicologist and author Paul Oliver, who said he got the info from a Columbia exec. Through the years, the dolceola (less than 50 are known to exist today) has been such a part of Phillips' lore that modern Memphis dolceolist Andy Cohen told me, "Without Phillips, the instrument would be completely forgotten today." Until Cooder tinkered with a dolceola, Phillips is believed to be the only artist to ever record with the instrument, which measured 16 inches wide by 22 inches long and weighed about 15 pounds.