Lift Him Up
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.
Still on the trail of the wrong Washington Phillips, I found his nephew Cleo Phillips in Oklahoma through directory assistance. Born in 1940, he never knew his uncle, but he said he did have a cousin named Wash who used to preach and sing a bit. "He had this trick," Cleo said, "where he'd eat a fish like a sandwich and spit the bones out the side of his mouth." Cleo gave me the number of his sister Annie Mae Flewellen, who lived in California. When I asked her if she remembered anything about her uncle, the gospel singer, she also corrected me. "You mean my cousin Wash. He's the one who sang." Flewellen says she remembers her father going to Austin to bring back the body of his brother when she was a young girl. "I never knew him. They said he drowned in a water tank." But she had lots of memories of Cousin Wash. "He used to dip snuff, right, and when I was small I'd always ask him if I could have some," she recalled. "So one time he finally gave me a little pinch and showed me how to spit it out, but I just went to the floor. Passed out cold."
Giving snuff to a child? That didn't sound like the Bible-thumper who preached good parenthood on "Train Your Child."
But, then, a lot of things didn't make sense in the Washington Phillips story I was pursuing. For instance, how could someone's mental faculties deteriorate so quickly, so noticeably in 1929 Texas, that he could record eight masterfully played and sung tracks in a single day and then be sent to an asylum eight months later? I returned from my first visit to Freestone County without finding a single person who knew Wash Phillips, the son of Houston and Emma, as the singer who recorded a few 78s.
Three days later I would find what I hadn't been looking for: evidence that Washington Phillips, the gospel pioneer, was not the one who died in Austin on the last day of 1938. While looking over my notes one Monday night, I saw that I hadn't yet talked to Wilbur Titus' cousin Virgil Keeton, who used to sing in a gospel quartet. Since he's also related on the Phillips side, he could be a good source.
"Oh, yeah, I knew Wash Phillips, the gospel singer," Keeton said, after I apologized for calling so late. "He lived in Simsboro with his mother, my Aunt Nancy. He used to play this harp-like instrument that he made himself. Sang like a bird, man." Born in 1920, Keeton said he first saw Phillips perform in the mid-'30s. "He gave one of his 78s to the Titus family, and it eventually passed on to us," Keeton said, starting the chorus of "Lift Him Up That's All." Virgil and his wife, Jewell, said they last remember seeing Phillips a couple of years after they married in 1946.
At the Freestone County Clerk's Office the next day, I searched death records from the late '40s until I came up on the date September 20, 1954, and saw the name George Washington Phillips. According to the death certificate, he was born on January 11, 1880, which made him 11 years older than the crazy Wash Phillips. Just as Virgil had said, Phillips' mother's name was Nancy (Cooper). His father's name was Tim Phillips.
Next stop was the Keetons' house, where Virgil had just returned from his weekly cancer treatment in Temple. He demonstrated, with a thumb-plucking motion, how Phillips played the strings on his instrument. Shown a picture of a dolceola, Keeton said, "No, that's not it."
Flewellen recalls that "Cousin Wash" used to play her family's piano with great skill, but none of the other witnesses I interviewed described Phillips playing anything besides a stringed instrument. Nell Blakely, who grew up in Simsboro near Phillips' 30-acre spread, said he played "a homemade banjo that he laid down flat."
Even with this new evidence, some Wash-heads maintain that only a dolceola could make the heavenly accompaniment found on Phillips' recordings. "When it comes to trusting eyewitnesses or my ear, I'll stick with the dolceola [theory] until there's proof," said Memphis musician Rick Field. Producer Jim Dickinson, who played a dolceola on Cooder's soundtrack to Crossroads, is similarly adamant. "That's a dolceola on those Phillips records," he said, describing the keyboard-activated hammer action he hears in a few places. "I'm 100 percent sure."
Is it possible that Phillips played a dolceola in the '20s, but then lost it or broke it and switched to a "harp-like" instrument in the '30s? But what about the 1927 photo of Phillips holding two zithers, which look like autoharps and are played in a manner consistent with Keeton's recollection?
Phillips was what they called a "jackleg" preacher, one who received the calling to spread the word but hadn't been ordained. "He didn't have a church, so he'd kinda roam the town looking for someplace to preach," said former Simsboro resident Doris Foreman Nealy.
He belonged to the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church in Simsboro, but also preached and performed at the "sanctified" St. Paul Church of God in Christ. "His singing really fit in with that crowd," said May Nella Palmore, 82, of Teague. "He had such a strong, powerful voice." The Keetons said they last saw him doing the devotion at St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Teague. "I am born to preach the gospel," ol' Wash used to say, "and I sure do love my job."
That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in "Denomination Blues," his most famous song via covers by Sister Rosetta Thorpe (who renamed it "That's All") and Ry Cooder. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: "You can go to college, you can go to school/But if you ain't got Jesus, you a educated fool."
The lyrical bitterness, perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called, while preachers with an eye on the collection plate hogged the pulpit, didn't seem to apply to a musical career that never took off. "He knew he had talent," Keeton said. "But he was just ol' Wash Phillips, you know? Don't nobody get famous from Teague."
He was known more for his mule cart, from which he sold homemade ribbon cane syrup, than for a handful of records that gave him a blip of recognition many decades ago.
Phillips had some success with his first 78, "Take Your Burden to the Lord" b/w "Lift Him Up That's All," part of Columbia's legendary 14000 D series of race records that also included sides by Bessie Smith, Lonnie Johnson and Blind Willie.
Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. Suddenly, the New York labels stopped sending scouts and field recorders down south in search of raw talent. Like Phillips, Dranes last recorded in 1929. Blind Willie Johnson, whose compositions have been covered by Led Zeppelin ("Nobody's Fault But Mine"), Eric Clapton ("Motherless Children") and the Grateful Dead ("If I Had My Way"), did not step into a recording studio again after April 1930, when he was just 28 years old.
The two men named Washington Phillips are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But an hour-long search could only locate the tombstone of the Phillips who died in the Austin State Hospital. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel's great disappearing act would take his eternal nap in the anonymous ground seems about par for this course in music history.
The shack where Phillips lived is gone, but 62-year-old Durden Dixon, one of the few blacks still living in Simsboro, showed me where it used to sit, about 20 yards in from the road. Sometimes the old man would bellow neighborhood boys away from his dewberry bushes, Dixon recalled. Other times he'd invite them up to his porch, where he'd pull out a box-like instrument, Dixon says, "he made himself out of the insides of a piano." Dixon smiles broadly at the idea that someone wants to know such details about the man he said was "kind of a hermit."
Aside from a few bottles of Coors Light discarded under a tree, the land seemed untouched in the 48 years since Wash Phillips was called home. There are old pieces of tin and some rusted buckets. There was also a little brown bottle, half-buried where the porch used to be. When I picked it up, emptied the dirt and showed Dixon, he laughed. "That's his snuff bottle, man." The next day an antique appraiser confirmed that the bottle once held Garrett's snuff circa the early '50s.
What do you know, Annie Mae Flewellen's 74-year-old memory was on the mark. If there's anything the story of Washington Phillips has told me, it's that sometimes what's true and what's false comes from where you least expect it.
The great musician Wash Phillips didn't die in the nuthouse. And his instrument almost certainly was not a dolceola. The legend lessens with the mundane facts. It's comforting to know, however, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly didn't live out his last years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who respected him for who he was. "Leave it there, oh leave it there," he used to sing in his sweet tenor of the truth. "Take your burden to the Lord and leave it there."
Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 18 tracks are the whole shot and you accept that and go on living the life you sing about in those songs.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Dallas, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.