There are few musicians who can make something that sounds as sweet as a lullaby and as haunting as a death rattle. There are not many Christian religious singers who convey a sense of humility and quiet acceptance that is powerful enough to make me fully believe his words. There are not many musicians who directly influenced the great Blind Willie Johnson.
Needless to say, Washington Phillips was a singular artist. No one has ever sounded like him, and likely no one ever will. It wasn’t just that his instrumental accompaniment sounded like a cross between a harp, a guitar, a piano, and a set of ringing chimes, which sounded a heavenly cloud of notes. Beyond that, there is a certain clarity and weariness to his singing that cuts to the heart. It is that world-weariness, that wise and passive acceptance of suffering, which transforms his songs’ potentially sentimental or preachy lyrics into poignant prayers that cut through all pretense. Washington Phillips is like the painter Fra Angelico, whose humility separates his paintings from every other renaissance artist. He crafts small, unassuming gems which hold an authority born of wonder, honesty, and a devotional attention to detail. Both artists do what medieval churches do: they make me want to believe in a simple, holy glory upon which I can rest my burden and be lifted up. This music is not about salvation; it is salvation.
Washington Phillips is bearing witness to God as he sings to us, and he is baring his soul equally. There is no distance (intellectual, spiritual, or emotional) between Phillips, God, and us. He is present and with us at every moment, sharing his devotion and cultivating our own. It is this presentness, I believe, which collapses the time between the recording of these songs (1927-29) and now. We can’t believe like Washington Phillips believed anymore, no more than we can believe as they believed in medieval times. Our world is larger; our heaven is smaller. Yet these songs, but for their residual layer of surface noise, sound like they were made tomorrow. Joanna Newsom would do well to hear these recordings, as would all of the hyped-up singing preachers currently polluting our spirits and airwaves.
There are also 4 tracks on this cd from Blind Mamie and A.C Forehand, a street-singing duo that sounds like Blind Willie Johnson with a haunting female singer and a chiming hotel desk bell to keep time. Two of the tracks appeared on the excellent John Fahey-produced compilation American Primitive Vol.1: Raw Pre-War Gospel, available through Revenant Records.
A Note on Washington Phillips’ instrumentation:
For years it was thought that Phillips played a dulceola (a zither-like instrument with a small keyboard attached that was invented by piano tuner David P. Boyd in the 1890s) at these sessions, but it now appears that he actually played two self-modified table zithers (one a phonoharp and the other a celestaphon) simultaneously to get his unique, celestial sound.
–from the AllMusic Guide entry
my rip | mp3 192+vbr kpbs | 79mb | cover included in mp3 files
also see the Phillips post at BluesRoots; that album has fewer tracks and lower bitrate, for all you dial-up pirateens.
also check out this extensive Washington Phillips discography.