Wash­ing­ton Phillips - ’I Am Born to Preach the Gospel’

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - TICKET STUBS - Donal Di­neen

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.

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