Monday, December 12, 2016

Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams

Washington Phillips. Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. Dust-to-Digital. 2016.

Mother’s Last Word to Her Son : Take Your Burden to the Lord and Leave It There : Paul and Silas in Jail : Lift Him Up That’s All : Denomination Blues — Part 1 : Denomination Blues — Part 2 : I Am Born to Preach the Gospel : Train Your Child : Jesus Is My Friend : What Are They Doing in Heaven Today : A Mother’s Last Word to Her Daughter : I’ve Got the Keys to the Kingdom : You Can’t Stop a Tattler — Part 1 : You Can’t Stop a Tattler — Part 2 : I Had a Good Father and Mother : The Church Needs Good Deacons

Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music (Folkways, 1952) was first issued with extraordinary cover art: a Theodor de Bry drawing of a celestial monochord, a one-stringed instrument, tuned by a hand emerging from a cloud. The instrument is a representation of musica universalis, the music of the spheres, the harmonies of heavenly bodies in motion. In the 1960s the mystical gave way to social realism: Folkways replaced the de Bry drawing with a photograph of a Depression farmer. But the monochord returned for the anthology’s 1997 CD reissue. There is no getting away from the music of the spheres.

It’s unfortunate that Washington Phillips did not find a place in the Smith anthology. A monochord is, in essence, a zither, and Phillips (1880–1954) was a zitherist of extraordinary ability, playing, it seems, two zithers, joined (again, it seems) to make a single instrument played with two hands. Phillips called his instrument the manzarene (a play perhaps on “Nazarene”). Its sound is unique in American music. It suggests to my ears a celeste, a harp, a kora. Between 1927 and 1929 Phillips’s manzarene and voice were preserved on eight 78s, not by a folklorist or musicologist but by Frank Walker, a producer and talent scout for Columbia Records, who discovered Bessie Smith and later signed Hank Williams.

Phillips’s music is blissful stuff, a plaintive tenor voice with celestial-sounding accompaniment. Where Blind Willie Johnson knocks you down with his power, Phillips invites you to sit and visit a while. He sings of Jesus as a friend and easer of burdens, and as the one truth that makes all theological disputes irrelevant: “But you better have Jesus, I tell you that’s all” (“Denomination Blues”). Several songs concern relations between parents and children, and the necessity of having children “under good control” (“The Church Needs Good Deacons”). Phillips is skeptical of book learning, twice rhyming school and fool. Consider this maxim:

Education is all right
I will tell you before you start,
Before you educate the head,
Try to educate the heart (“Train Your Child”)
And though Phillips sings of hell, his depiction of the world’s badness is fairly mild, centering on everyday pleasures and domestic treachery: card playing, dancing, making dates with married men, buying dresses for women other than one’s wife. A lost two-part recording, “The World Is in a Bad Fix Everywhere,” may present a more dire picture.

The most affecting performance here is from Phillips’s final recording session, “I Had a Good Father and Mother.” Its story is poignant but without self-pity, with Phillips alternating between his tenor voice and an ethereal, wordless falsetto. This song might be the music of the spheres.

Dust-to-Digital has produced the definitive edition of Washington Phillips’s recordings, with excellent remastering. For the listener who (like me) knows the music from previous reissues, Michael Corcoran’s liner notes make this release a must, with photographs, extensive documentation of Phillips’s life, recollections from neighbors and relatives, and the clearest account we are likely to have of Phillips’s instrument. Misconceptions corrected, one after another.

Here’s a page about this release: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. Thanks to Dust-to-Digital for a review copy of this recording.


11:28 a.m.: The link to the image of the celestial monochord is fixed. It was a Blogger problem.

[An aside: I first saw de Bry’s drawing of the celestial monochord in the April/May 1969 issue of Sing Out! magazine, still on my bookshelves. That issue had the first installment of a John Cohen interview with Harry Smith.]

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