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January 11, 1880|
Freestone County, Texas, USA
|Died||September 20, 1954
Teague, Texas, USA
Phillips recorded eighteen songs, all between 1927 and 1929 in Dallas, for Columbia Records, though only sixteen survive. Some of his songs amount to highly specific and detailed gospel sermons, featuring Phillips' voice self-accompanied by an instrument that sounds like a fretless zither. This instrument, which has been variously identified as a Dolceola, a Celestaphone, two Celestaphones tuned in octaves attached side-by-side, or a Phonoharp (and also is considered by some to be an instrument entirely home-made by Phillips) creates a unique sound on these recordings that makes them immediately recognizable. Columbia A&R exec Frank B. Walker, who supervised the Phillips sessions said in a 1962 interview that Phillips' instrument was homemade. “Nobody on earth could use it but him,” he said.
Numerous compilations of Washington Phillips' complete recorded work have been released, such as The Key to the Kingdom on Yazoo Records in 2005. His songs have been covered by a variety of artists:
- Ry Cooder covered Phillips' "Denomination Blues" on his 1971 album Into the Purple Valley and "You Can't Stop a Tattler", as "Tattler", on his album Paradise and Lunch (1974).
- "Denomination Blues" has also been covered by the contemporary Christian groups 2nd Chapter of Acts on their 1975 live album To the Bride with Barry McGuire, and The 77s on their debut album Ping Pong over the Abyss (1983).
- Will Oldham covered Phillips' "I Had a Good Father and Mother" on the Palace Brothers album There Is No-One What Will Take Care of You (1993). Gillian Welch also covered this song on her 2003 album entitled Soul Journey.
- The Be Good Tanyas covered "What are They Doing in Heaven Today" on Hello Love.
- "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" was used in a scene in the movie Elizabethtown where the main character visits The Survivor Tree in Oklahoma.
- Mogwai perform a version of "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on the Les Revenants original soundtrack for the French TV series of the same name.
- Phish has covered "Paul and Silas in Jail" on 78 occasions. This song became a relatively common part of their live performance from 1990 to 1993, but has been played on occasion since.
- Phillips' "I Am Born To Preach the Gospel" features on the soundtrack of Werner Herzog's 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?. It was also featured in the song "The Dyslexic Porn Star Who Funked In Her Space" by the British band Morcheeba.
- Ralph Stanley covered Phillips' "Lift Him Up, That's All" on his 2011 album "A Mother's Prayer".
- In 2009, Atlas Sound sampled the Phillip's "Lifted Him Up That's All" for the song "Washington School" on the Logos album. Phillips' song "Mothers Last Word to Her Son" was featured heavily in the film We Need to Talk About Kevin.
- Montreal-based saxophonist Colin Stetson covered "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on New History Warfare Vol. 3: To See More Light. The track features Bon Iver's Justin Vernon on vocals.
- Mavis Staples covered "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" on her 2015 EP Your Good Fortune.
List of recordings
- "The Church Needs Good Deacons"
- "Denomination Blues – Part 1"
- "Denomination Blues – Part 2"
- "I Am Born to Preach the Gospel"
- "I Had a Good Father and Mother"
- "I've Got the Key to the Kingdom"
- "Jesus Is My Friend"
- "Lift Him Up That's All"
- "A Mother's Last Word to Her Daughter". This song shares tune and chorus with "Bye and Bye I'm Goin' to See the King" by Blind Willie Johnson
- "A Mother's Last Word to Her Son"
- "Paul and Silas in Jail"
- "Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There"
- "Train Your Child"
- "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today"
- "You Can't Stop a Tattler – Part 1"
- "You Can't Stop a Tattler – Part 2"