April 10, 2008

The Mystery Instrument Of Washington Phillips

Phillips.jpgWashington Phillips was a Texan gospel singer who only ever recorded 16 songs back in in the late 1920's, but he has been a source of enduring musical fascination ever since. One of the main reasons for that fascination is the instrument he plays on those recordings to accompany his singing. The sound it produces is reminiscent of a battered toy harpsichord which is capable of veering from the ethereally beautiful to the completely carnivalesque, but no one knows exactly what it is.

Some musicologists have speculated that it might be a Dolceola, a commercially-produced early twentieth century cross between a toy piano and zither, but according to the engineer who recorded Phillips, the instrument was a homemade creation that "nobody on earth could use except him".

Over the years, Phillips' work has appeared on a variety of compilations and has been released in full by several labels (most recently Yazoo and Mississippi). For your listening pleasure, I'm passing on two tracks that have been covered by famous fans of Phillips. (The first one appeared on a 1971 album by Ry Cooder, and the second was covered by Will Oldham's band, Palace Brothers, in 1993.)

Washington Phillips - Denomination Blues
Washington Phillips - I Had A Good Father And Mother

Posted by Warren at April 10, 2008 09:10 PM | Instruments