East Texan Washington Phillips
was one of the founding fathers of American gospel music. Although he recorded only eighteen tunes (sixteen of which have survived) in five sessions in Dallas between 1927 and 1929, Phillips
helped to lay the foundation that resulted in such spiritually-oriented performers as Sister Rosetta Tharpe
, the Dixie Hummingbirds
and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama
A travelling preacher, Phillips accompanied his soulful vocals on what was believed to be a dolceola, a zither-like instrument with a small keyboard invented by Ohio piano tuner David P. Boyd in the 1890s. Only around a hundred of this odd instrument were ever made, leading to the question of how a route preacher in East Texas ended up with one. Recent studies suggest that Phillips may have actually played a modified fretless zither on his recordings rather than a true dolceola, and in fact, he may have been playing two such instruments at the same time, one with the left hand and one with his right.
Other elements of Phillips' life also remain a mystery. It was long thought that Phillips was committed to a state mental institution in Austin, Texas less than a year after his last 78 was recorded, and that he spent the final years of his life confined there until his death in 1939 of tuberculosis at the age of 47. There is some compelling new evidence, however, that this was a different George Washington Phillips, and that the gospel musician actually settled in Simsboro, Texas after his recording sessions, living there until 1954, when he died from injuries sustained in a fall at the age of 74. Whichever version is accurate, Phillips never recorded again and his 16 surviving recordings from the late '20s remain one of the most distinctive in all of early blues and gospel.