Washington Phillips - ’I Am Born to Preach the Gospel’
People leave their mark on music in all sorts of ways. Some strive for a lifetime to realise their elusive dream. Others make it and then promptly lose it. Plenty more fall by the wayside on their journey up the lost highway.
Very few are satisfied with just one shot at the target, but Washington Phillips was different in that and in many other ways. He was small farmer from Texas who combined a love of music with a devotion to the lord. This love found its expression in the form of spiritual songs that he composed on homemade zithers fashioned from parts of discarded pianos.
This need to express himself was simply born of a desire to spread the word. There was no other fire burning within him. Music was the vehicle for the articulation of his beliefs and as a completely self-taught musician without an instrument, he improvised in all manner of unusual ways.
Not being an ordained preacher his modus operandi was to attend regular services at other churches hoping for an opportunity to preach.
Enter Frank B Walker, a Columbia Records field recorder who had set up a mobile studio in Dallas in 1927. Walker had made his name by signing Bessie Smith to the label four years earlier and was given free reign to scour the southern states for other would-be stars.
Phillips’ reputation as a hymn-singing street evangelist brought him to Walker’s attention and a recording session was organised. He was 47 years old when he paid his first and only visit to a studio.
The results of those sessions are 18 songs that stand out as some of the most affecting gospel blues ever recorded. His sweetly-sung celestial hymns are a balm for any soul, lost or found. The arc of his beautiful voice points upwards to the heavens. Belief is not a necessary requirement to feel the higher power at work here. This is no ordinary love.