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Exhuming the Legend of Washington Phillips

I was on a mission to find the gospel truth about a mysterious Texas music pioneer whose ethereal sound was like no other. What I found wasn't what I expected.

Micheal Corcoran

Originally published: December 29, 2002

Myth No. 1: Texas gospel pioneer Washington Phillips died at Austin State Hospital on Dec. 31, 1938.

Myth No. 2: He played the dolceola, a rare keyboard instrument.

The mystery begins the first time you hear the flowing gospel of Washington Phillips, whose entire recorded output consists of 18 songs from 1927 to 1929. His sweetly sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child's music box, stand out among the work of guitar evangelists and streetcorner Scripture-ites of the era. Phillips' sacred porch songs provide evidence of a higher power, for how could man alone create music for the angels?

After just five sessions in a Dallas studio, where he'd been summoned by Columbia Records field recorder Frank Walker, Phillips faded back into obscurity. Ry Cooder led a slight revival in 1971, when he covered Phillips' "Denomination Blues," and newer bands, such as Austin's Knife In the Water, have interpreted moralistic lullabies like "A Mother's Last Words To Her Daughter" for the art rock crowd. For the most part, however, Phillips is virtually unknown except to a cult of rabid musicologists who revel in the mystique of the man who emerged out of nowhere as a fully formed artist -- and just as quickly disappeared.

The liner notes to Phillips' only American CD, "I Am Born To Preach the Gospel," on the Yazoo label, provided the first bit of biographical information in 1991, reporting that the singer was admitted to Austin State Hospital on Guadalupe Street in 1930 and died there of tuberculosis eight years later. That would explain why he never recorded after 1929. The All-Music Guide, a favorite Internet reference source for critics and fans, repeats the information, taken from the death certificate of a Washington Phillips of Freestone County, as does Amazon.com.

The truth, however, is that another man of the same name, from the same place, is the one who made that mesmerizing music. The "real" Washington Phillips returned to the farming life in the black settlement of Simsboro, 60 miles east of Waco, content to play for neighbors and churchgoers until 1954, when, at age 74, he died of head injuries suffered from a fall down the stairs at the welfare office in nearby Teague.

I didn't know about this case of mistaken identity in November, when I stood over a grave on the old "colored" side of the Austin State Cemetery off 51st Street, thinking that I'd found the final resting place of the man who helped create modern gospel by putting religious lyrics to 12-bar blues. "It's gotta be this one," said Dave Roup, the hospital's director of maintenance, who led me out to the site where only numbers mark many of the graves. "We know that No. 1692 died in early December '38 and No. 1694 died in April '39." The information on the death certificate, which said a Washington Phillips had been buried at the state cemetery Jan. 2, 1939, placed him in grave No. 1693.

Later that day, Roup called with some interesting news. It turned out that the body had been exhumed the day after it was buried and taken back to Teague, near Simsboro, by brother Sim Phillips.

A few days later, I was making the same trek. According to the liner notes, the parents' names were Houston Phillips and Emma Titus Phillips, which gave me a 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 South Carolina, then to Arkansas and finally to Fairfield, Texas, in 1852. What's more, 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 an uneducated black man from rural East Texas managed to get his hands on a dolceola, a strange keyboard instrument produced in Toledo, Ohio, from 1903 to 1908 and sold almost exclusively in the Northern states as a "miniature grande piano." Phillips' accompaniment was identified as a dolceola in the '60s by noted British musicologist and author Paul Oliver, who said he got the information from a Columbia executive. Through the years, the dolceola (fewer than 50 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 on his recordings, Phillips was believed to be the only artist to ever record with the instrument, which measures 16 inches wide and 22 inches long and weighs about 15 pounds.

'My cousin Wash'

Still on the trail of the wrong Washington Phillips, the one who died at the state hospital, 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 lives in California. When I asked her if she remembered anything about her uncle, the gospel singer, she 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 was it possible that someone could record eight masterfully played and sung tracks in one day in December 1929 and then be sent to a sanitarium 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 78-rpm records.

Three days later I would find what I hadn't been looking for: eyewitness evidence that Washington Phillips, the gospel pioneer, was not the one who died in Austin in 1938. It was a Monday at 9 p.m., borderline cutoff for calling a stranger at night, but while looking over my notes, 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, I thought. "I think he's sleeping," said the voice on the other end of the phone. "Wait, I hear him stirring. Virgil! Come get the phone." After a couple of minutes came a tired hello.

"Oh, yeah, I knew Wash Phillips, the gospel singer," he said when I told him what I was calling about. "He used to live in Simsboro with his mother, my Aunt Nancy. He used to play this harplike instrument that he made himself. Sang like a bird, man." Born in 1920, Keeton said he first saw Phillips perform in the mid-'30s ("I was a teenager") and visited him and his mother in Simsboro regularly. Virgil and his wife, Jewell, said they last remember seeing Phillips a couple 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 to the date Sept. 20, 1954, and saw the name George Washington Phillips. According to the death certificate, he was born on Jan. 11, 1880, which means he was 47, not 36 as previously believed, when he made his first recordings. 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. Showed a picture of a dolceola, Keeton said, "No, that's not it."

Even with this new eyewitness account, some Phillips fans maintain that only a dolceola could make the heavenly accompaniment found on Phillips' recordings. "I'm 100 percent sure it's a dolceola," said Memphis producer Jim Dickinson, who played the "completely illogical instrument" on Ry Cooder's "Crossroads" soundtrack. "The way it sounds like part of it is going backwards, that's a dolceola. You can also hear the (keyboard-activated) hammer action in a couple places," he said.

The debate has even carried over to academia. At the 1991 International Conference of African American Music and Literature in Belgium, Dutch musicologist Guido van Rijn ended a lecture on Phillips with an argument for the dolceola theory.

Is it possible that Phillips played a dolceola in the '20s, but then lost it or broke it and switched to a "harplike" instrument in the '30s? But what about the 1927 photo of Phillips, discovered in 1983? It shows him in the recording studio holding two zithers, which look like autoharps and are played in a manner consistent with Keeton's recollection.

Born to preach

Ex-Simsboro resident Doris Foreman Nealy finds it curious and somewhat amusing that musicologists would be giving lectures or arguing over details about her neighbor Wash almost 50 years after his death. "He was what they called a 'jack-leg preacher,' " she said. "He didn't have a church, so he'd kinda roam the town looking for someplace to preach. In Simsboro, we had a big picnic every June 19, and Mr. Wash would always start it off with a song. But none of us kids knew he ever made any records."

He belonged to the Pleasant Hill Trinity Baptist Church in Simsboro, but May Nella Palmore, 82, of Teague recalled Phillips also preached and performed at the "sanctified" St. Paul Church of God In Christ. "His singing really fit in with that crowd," she said. "He had such a strong, powerful voice." The Keetons said they last saw him doing the devotion at St. James Methodist Church in Teague. "I am born to preach the Gospel," he 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 Tharpe (who renamed it "That's All") and 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 less-pious men 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.

But where the memories of the man fade, the musician's work is stuck in time, vibrant and eternal. "Without knowing much about him, I feel that his recordings tell his story," said Knife In the Water guitarist Adam Blount, who became acquainted with the songs six years ago when the grieving father of a friend gave him a Phillips tape and asked if he knew anyone who could play that kind of music at the funeral. "His music is so simple, yet highly developed to the point that it's almost psychedelic," Blount said. "You can hear the essence of a true artist, creating against all odds."

Phillips had some success with his first 78 record, which had the updated church song "Take Your Burden To the Lord" backed with "Lift Him Up That's All." The record sold just over 8,000 copies in 1928. Then came the stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression. The scouts and field recorders stopped coming from New York in search of raw talent, and the labels instead focused on making more refined records that would comply with the escapism sought by a dour populace. In the 1920s, Texans such as blind Pentecostal pianist Arizona Juanita Dranes of Dallas and Marlin's Blind Willie Johnson, whose classic compositions have been covered by Led Zeppelin ("Nobody's Fault But Mine") and Eric Clapton ("Motherless Children") were spicing "Negro spirituals" and songs of praise with barrelhouse piano and slide guitar before anyone else. But the innovative recordings from Texas suddenly stopped. Like Phillips, Dranes made her last recordings in 1929 and Johnson never stepped inside a studio again after April 1930.

'Mr. Wash, all right'

How Phillips spent the first 47 years of his life remains a mystery. He was a brilliant instrumentalist, but did he receive formal training or was he self-taught? And what was his relation to the Wash Phillips who was 11 years younger and died 16 years sooner?

The two men named Washington Phillips are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But an hourlong search could locate only the tombstone of the Phillips who died in Austin State Hospital. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel's great disappearing act would take his eternal nap in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.

Sixty-two-year-old Durden Dixon is one of the few black people still living in Simsboro. "They knocked down all the houses and put together these big ranches," he said, waving his arm across the horizon. From '44 to '54, a young Dixon lived down the road from the man he described as "kind of a hermit." Sometimes the old man would bellow neighborhood boys away from his dewberry bushes. Other times he'd invite them up to his porch, where he'd sing and strum a boxlike instrument Dixon said the man "made from the insides of a piano." Dixon didn't know Wash Phillips made records, so as he rode shotgun to show me where Phillips used to live, I played him "A Mother's Last Words To Her Daughter," a song about shirking temptations to become a child of God. Dixon's face lit up. "That's Mr. Wash all right," he said, in full-beam delight. "I remember he used to sing us that one."

The shack is gone, but Dixon showed me where it used to sit, about 20 yards in from the road. Aside from a few bottles of Coors Light discarded under a tree, the land seemed untouched in the 48 years since 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 and showed Dixon, he laughed. "That's his snuff bottle, man." The next day an appraiser at Rue's Antiques in Austin 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 come from where you least expect it.

The great musician Wash Phillips didn't die in the insane asylum. 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 few 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 songs is the whole shot and you accept that and go on living the life you sing about.

mcorcoran@statesman.com; 445-3652