George Washington "Wash" Phillips (January 11, 1880–September 20, 1954) was an American gospel and gospel blues singer and instrumentalist. The exact nature of the instrument or instruments he played is uncertain, being identified only as "novelty accompaniment" on the labels of the 78rpm records released during his lifetime.
People who knew him as an adult recalled him as standing about 5 ft 8 in (1.73 m) or 5 ft 9 in (1.75 m) tall, and being "stocky" or about 180 lb (82 kg); and that he was a snuff-dipper. He farmed 30–40 acres (12–16 ha) of land by the settlement of Simsboro near Teague, Texas. He was described as a "jack-leg preacher" – i.e. someone not necessarily an ordained minister, who would attend regular services at churches hoping for an opportunity to preach, but who would more often address spontaneous gatherings in the street, or set up their own storefront churches. He was a member of Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church in Simsboro, but is also known to have attended the "sanctified" St. Paul Church of God In Christ, and the St. James Methodist Church, Teague. His song "Denomination Blues" criticizes sectarianism in organized religion and hypocritical preachers. His uncomplicated and sincere faith is summarised in the last two lines of that song:
It's right to stand together, it's wrong to stand apart,
'Cause none's going to heaven but the pure in heart. And that's all.
In 1927–29, he recorded 18 songs for Columbia Records in a makeshift recording studio in Dallas, Texas, under the direction of Frank B. Walker. Six of those songs were the first and second parts of three two-part songs, intended for opposite sides of one record. Four songs were unreleased at the time, and two are thought to have been lost.
On September 20, 1954, he died of head injuries sustained in a fall down a flight of stairs at the welfare office in Teague. He is buried in an unmarked grave in Cotton Gin Cemetery, six miles west of Teague. His wife Marie outlived him.
Some sources give his birthdate as c. 1892 and/or his date and place of death as December, 1938 in Austin State Hospital. Research has shown that that was a different Washington Phillips, the son of Houston Phillips and Emma Phillips (née Titus); he too farmed near Teague.
Some sources (notably, some AllMusic entries) refer to him as "Blind Washington Phillips". There is no suggestion in better sources that he had anything less than perfect sight.
A photograph in The Louisiana Weekly of January 14, 1928 shows Phillips holding two fretless zither-like instruments. That date lies between the second and third of his five recording sessions. The instrument in his right hand has been identified as a celestaphone and that in his left as a phonoharp, both manufactured by the Phonoharp Company; in both cases with the hammer attachment missing (the instruments as sold were a type of hammered dulcimer).
In the 1960s, Frank B. Walker identified Phillips' instrument to musicologist and author Paul Oliver as a "dulceola", saying that "nobody else on earth could use it except him". Before a recording session, Phillips would spend half an hour or more assembling it. It has often been assumed that Walker meant a dolceola, but that cannot be so: the dolceola was manufactured, sold, and recorded commercially, and did not need assembly before use. It seems more likely that the name "dulceola" was coined specifically for unusual instruments made by Phillips himself from broken discarded ones.
The aural evidence suggests Phillips strummed and plucked the strings of his instrument, and did not hammer them. Some listeners have claimed to discern differences between the instruments he used in different songs.
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:
- Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded "That's All" in 1938 (Decca 2503B): it is "Denomination Blues" with altered words and with a different title, taken from the refrain
- 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).
- Jorma Kaukonen covered "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today" as the closing song of his 2002 album Blue Country Heart.
- 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 Phillips' "Lift 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.
- Sullivan, Steve (October 4, 2013). Encyclopedia of Great Popular Song Recordings, Volume 2. Scarecrow Press. p. 171. ISBN 978-0810882966. Retrieved August 20, 2015.
- Corcoran, Michael (December 29, 2002). "Exhuming the Legend of Washington Phillips". Austin Statesman. Retrieved August 20, 2015.
- van Rijn, Guido (2003). "Washington Phillips – Storefront and Street Gospel". document-records.com. Retrieved August 20, 2015.
- Miner, Gregg; Williams, Kelly. "The Instruments of Washington Phillips". Retrieved August 20, 2015.
- Miner, Gregg. "Washington Phillips CD study (Yazoo Records)". Retrieved August 20, 2015.