Phillips recorded some of the most hauntingly affecting music of the pre-war era.
There’s something truly haunting about the sounds of the so-called “old weird America.” Coming down through the years as dust-speckled, spectral voices, these pre-war recordings of artists both known and unknown have long held sway over those drawn to a time and place long since passed. Through the acquisition of worn-out 78s or, in the digital age, compilations lovingly assembled by those who spent countless hours and even years poring over recording session logs, obsolete record label catalogs and other assorted trivialities, these long-forgotten artists and the recordings they made have managed to exist well beyond the lifetimes of their creators. It becomes something of archeological pursuit, with passionate individuals assuming the role of historical detective to help ensure these stories and individuals remain within the public consciousness. All this regardless of how inconsequential an artist or recording may have seemed at the time.
While it’s easy to get lost working your way through the countless collections featuring pre-war artists, many of them consisting of willfully obscure one-off recordings delivered in a stereotypical blues or string band style about which little of any substance is known, there are those whose sound has had such a bewitching effect on modern listeners as to make their obsolescence tantamount to heresy. It is through these artists that we begin to glean a clearer picture of the level of creative thought and musical ambition inherent in many of those pre-war performers. Here we find innovation comparable to the more highly touted stylistic revolution of the mid-‘60s, with performers not only creating their own sound out of existing musical styles, but in some cases literally inventing their own.
Since his music first began garnering attention courtesy of its “rediscovery” at the hands of Ry Cooder in the ‘70s, Washington Phillips has seen his profile rise to unimaginable heights. Of course this isn’t saying much considering, as the accompanying book to Dust-to-Digital’s brilliant collection of Phillips’ work makes abundantly clear, that even those closest to the man had no idea he had ever embarked on a recording career. And yet from 1927 to 1929, Phillips recorded a handful of sides for the Columbia label, having been tapped by Frank B. Walker during one of his yearly scouting trips to Texas at the urging of Blind Lemon Jefferson. It’s an interesting story that ends all too unceremoniously with the stock market crash of 1929, after which time Phillips abandoned recording in favor of tending his farm and continuing with his ministry.
Yet within those two years, Phillips recorded some of the most hauntingly affecting music of the pre-war era. Accompanied by his Manzarene – a pair of attached zithers modified to allow for simultaneous chordal and melodic accompaniment – the music transcends its secular origins to become something almost otherworldly. The sound is cascading, almost carnivalesque in its depth and intricacy, yet retains a certain simplistic beauty akin to a child’s music box. Adding to this Phillips’ mournful, world-weary voice and heavily spiritual bent and you’ve got some of the most affecting music ever created. From the opening moments of “Mother’s Last Word to Her Son,” perhaps his best known recording from a modern standpoint, the listener is virtually at a loss for words, finding themselves lost in the otherworldly nature of the sound of Phillips and his Manzarene.
Over the ensuing 16 tracks, a sound like nothing before or since flows forth from the speakers, an impossibly melancholic sound that has, with good reason, continued to influence performers from Cooder on down to Owen Ashworth (Advanced Base and Casiotone for the Painfully Alone). Heavily spiritual in content, the music is nonetheless rooted in a blues tradition making for an accessible assemblage of sermons disguised as song. With Phillips beginning many of the tracks with a spoken-word preface, his religious roots are placed front and center on songs like “Denomination Blues,” “I Was Born to Preach the Gospel,” “Jesus is My Friend” and “The Church Needs Good Deacons.” Yet even those who generally find themselves turned off by such deeply spiritual and dogmatic material will find themselves entranced by sound of Phillips and his Manzarene.
Similar to the many pre-war artists whose material now largely exists within the public domain, these recordings have been made available numerous times over the past several decades, notably in the form of collections from Yazoo and Mississippi Records. But none have provided as in-depth a look at the mystery surrounding the music of Washington Phillips as Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. The resulting product functions as an audio/visual documentary that far surpasses mere liner notes and assorted artist information to create a holistic portrait of Phillips, his music and the world in which he lived.
As they have proven time and again with their exhaustively researched and lavishly presented collections of long-forgotten music, the folks at Dust-to-Digital have done a masterful job in presenting the story of Phillips and his music. In addition to the 16 tracks, the collection is accompanied by a 76-page, hardback book with fascinating insight by writer Michael Corcoran. Through firsthand research and interviews, Corcoran presents for the first time a fully realized picture of one of pre-war music’s more mysterious figures. Featuring interviews with those who knew Phillips, along copies of an evidentiary paper trail that helped disprove a number of the previously held inaccuracies surrounding his life and work and a wealth of new information, Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams stands as the definitive statement on the man and his music.