What Are They Playing in Heaven Today?

This week’s blog is not harp guitar-related, but on a different topic I long ago became associated with: the gospel music of Washington Phillips (my title being of course a riff on one of his best-known songs).

Phillips’ popularity continues to increase among musicians of all stripes, and for multiple reasons – one being the mysterious angelic-sounding instrument(s) he played.  Long and erroneously thought to be a Dolceola, a rare but well-documented American novelty fretless zither with a keyboard, it was Austin Statesman music critic Michael Corcoran who first exposed the misconception back in 2002.

As Michael wasn’t familiar with fretless zithers, a topic I knew something about, I then ran with this story, making a lot of new friends (and apparently a couple enemies) along the way.  My exhaustive studies (with help from Kelly Williams) on both the instruments and Phillip’s recordings published on my web site continue to be a resource for Phillips fans, and I’ve just added some new clarifications there.  Of course there is also my late friend Garry Harrison’s more detailed examination of stringing theories on his own web site.  That site (fretlesszithers.com) disappeared after his death, but thankfully his family has recently resurrected it.  (Garry’s instrument collection was donated to the MIM in Phoenix)

Garry’s “two-simultaneous zithers” theory is an amazing bit of detective work and provides an unwieldy but theoretical working answer to the sounds we hear on the recordings, assuming he recorded with the two re-purposed fretless zithers Phillips holds in the famous photograph.  Which I originally believed he did, and still do – after all, it was published during the month following his first recording session.

However, the ever-diligent Mr. Corcoran has now thrown a new wrench into the mix!  He has discovered another possibility: a huge custom fretless zither that Washington Phillips built himself!

Phillips even named it: the “Manzarene.”  The brief article is from the Teague (Texas) Chronicle, Nov. 8, 1907, and is a wonderful find (if one ignores the casual racism).  The only detailed clues it reveals are that it was homemade and it was large: about 2 by 3 feet in size and 6” deep!  Playing with two hands was also mentioned, as one would expect for a giant fretless zither.

The thousand dollar question: Was this handmade creation what he played on the recordings?!   It certainly could explain the expanded range of custom stringing we hear.

And for me, an additional important question: Was this the mysterious “homemade” instrument described by so many witnesses to both Corcoran and myself?

Both questions are related, and now we must perhaps re-consider all the excruciatingly complicated work Garry and I did, along with all the other clues in Corcoran’s articles and our own investigations.

By “we,” I mean someone else!  Garry is gone and my “homework” was completed a dozen years ago.  In any event, there aren’t enough specifics to positively I.D. the Manzarene as the – or one of the – recorded instruments.  There is only its new candidacy if one feels a need to disprove Garry’s and my existing proposals – and those have held up.

So while it’s certainly possible – and a romantic notion – that Wash’s personal Manzarene survived twenty years to be played for the recordings (or, say, the first session), it’s equally likely that it had fallen apart long before then.

That got me re-thinking about “the” homemade instrument reported by witnesses, and I had to re-familiarize myself with the vast amount of conflicting information reported in my two articles.  What a puzzle!

The original Manzarene doesn’t seem to match any of the many descriptions given of his instrument beyond that he made it himself.  Nor would I expect it to.  After all, Phillips was playing it in 1907, the other instrument being seen from sometime in the mid-thirties to about 1950.  (I should say instruments as I now recognize that there could easily have been multiple salvaged or from-scratch zithers.)

The one thing the newly-discovered Manzarene convinces me of is that this ingenious musician was capable of continually creating simple but effective – and musically rich – fretless zithers by any means necessary – from scratch, from cannibalizing pianos, from completely re-configuring production zithers, and building more from salvaged parts.  All he really needed were a few simple tools and new steel strings when required.

At various times, Washington Phillips played a giant homemade box zither, a secondhand Phonoharp and gizmo-less Celestaphone that were possibly assembled into some giant super-zither, and at least one, but possibly multiple, additional homemade zithers, smaller and eventually played with just one hand.

I so wish my friend Garry was alive to hear this news – I can only imagine his reluctant groan (but private thrill) of having to revisit all that analysis.   I’d like to re-print here Garry’s words on “Wash”:

“In my opinion, the music of Washington Phillips represents the absolute height of rural originality. It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what he did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections, to change the base key by roughly a fourth interval, and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument. And while the country virtuoso deftly tickled celestial sounds out of his instrument, he sang. All this, all by himself and presumably with no help from anyone, in the isolation of rural Texas, sometime in the early years of the 20th century.”

Yes, Washington Phillips could have simply played guitar like all the others, but he was serendipitously struck by a different muse.  And we continue to find fascination with the story behind it all.  From the Dolceola (not) to a pair of re-purposed American fretless zithers (most certainly) to the giant Manzarene and later one-hand instruments – could Washington Phillips be any more enchanting?!

  1. MaryEllen Brown Says:

    Purchasing the Dust to Digital recording of Washington Phillips, I can say the music is haunting and mysterious. As a music buff my recordings extend from bluegrass to opera excluding present C&W. All involved in bringing this musician to light deserve a huge thanks. Do we know where Phillips got the name “Manzarene”? Would it be a take of Nazarene”? Of course, I have scanned several articles so perhaps I missed this information. Thank you for your consideration of my request.


  2. Andy Cohen Says:

    Mary Ellen,

    I had that same thought many years ago. Guido van Rijn, who lives in the Netherlands, first reissued the 78s, as clean as he could get them, in the early 1980s. There have been several reissues, getting progressively better, as time has gone on. I have my own thoughts, but they echo yours. I can see a newspaperman talking to Mr. Phillips, and hearing ‘manzarene’ instead of ‘Nazarene’. I don’t know if anyone knows enough of the area’s localism to know, though.

    Andy Cohen

  3. Gregg Says:

    After talking with Gerrick G. Phillips Sr. in September, 2020, I suggested he write something up about himself and his recent investigations. His reply is in the form of an article, published here:

    The Manzarene Dreams of George Washington Phillips
    By Gerrick Garland Phillips Sr.
    September 20, 2020

    What’s a “manzarene” you say? My grandfather called it his instrument, and that it was, though it seemed of an odd sort, and was referred to as a type of Frankenstein styled object of his own making. Still, in the design, the craftsmanship and the instrumentation of that instrument, that looked like two Baby, baby grand pianos joined together, East Texan, George Washington Phillips, has been credited as one of the founding fathers of American Gospel Music, and Gospel Blues, according to sources like AllMusic.com, RootsWorld.com The Texas State Historical Society, and Wikipedia, to name a few.

    He was born January 11, 1880, In Teague, Texas, and in later years migrated only 3 miles northwest from Teague to Simsboro, TX, where he was known as a farmer and itinerant/route preacher, or ‘jack-leg’ preacher as they were often referred to. In 1927, Phillips caught ears, intrigue, and opportunities, when Columbia Records discovered and recorded Phillips and his songs in five sessions in a Dallas studio. His career lasted from only 1927 to 1929, but Phillips became one of the bestselling soloists in that short period, with his first RPM recording, “Take your burden to The Lord and leave it there”, selling more than 8,000 copies in 1928. Again, Preacher Phillips is given credit, according to documented sources, for helping to lay the foundation that has helped pave the way and motivate such spiritually magnified gospel talents as the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, and Rosette Tharpe.

    According to nationally known publicist Michael Corcoran, Chicago has mostly been known as the birthplace of genres, but a trio of Texans, Phillips, a guitar evangelist named Bind Willie Johnson, and a piano player named Arizona Juanita Dranes, were laying the foundation for Christian Blues, (which is all gospel music really is), at the time when the ultimate father of gospel, Thomas Dorsey was still playing in juke joints and calling himself Georgia Tom, not at all to diminish Professor Dorsey, but he had just not yet made his mixture of spiritual with secular music in the recording of, “If You See My Savior” in 1928. Numerous compilations of Washington Phillips works have been released, such as The Key To The Kingdom on Yazoo Records in 2005. Also a variety of his songs have been covered by such artists as Mavis Staples and Linda Ronstadt. According to Corcoran, he believes Phillips “really started the singer-songwriter genre” back in those early nineteen hundreds; the songs were recorded between the years 1927 through 1929, but we don’t know when they were written or how long he performed them, or the places he performed them in. “His music was primitive in a way, but also very sophisticated”.

    In the 1960s, nationally renowned talent agent Frank B. Walker identified the instrument Phillips used to musicologist as something “nobody on earth could use except him”, placing Phillips in somewhat of an elevated stance within the arena of musicianship, since no one was seemingly able to deduce weather his instrument was produced by himself, or manufactured in Toledo, Ohio between 1903 and 1908. According to sources, Phillips would spend half an hour assembling the instrument himself. It has been assumed that Walker meant it was a Dolceola, but Dolceolas were manufactured and commercially sold. A photo taken in 1928 shows Phillips holding two conjoined instruments that somewhat appear to look like ‘fretless zithers’. But the Teague Chronicle, a local Texas newspaper, clarified Phillips equipment as being homemade, and “the most unique musical instrument we ever saw”.

    As my interest in George Washington ‘Wash’ Phillips cultivated through research, I came upon a senior relative in Teague, by the name of Ms. Joyce Phillips Busby, believing I’m correct with the name, introduced myself by giving my name and announcing myself as the grandson of Washington Phillips, along with details of my research, which allowed Ms. Joyce to feel at ease and talk with me. She gave me information and told me stories that made me feel as if I were a small boy and it was Christmas time once again. I never knew my Phillips family, my grandfather, grandmother, uncles or aunts, and after meeting my dad at the age of 12, for twenty minutes, when I became an adult, we communicated and maintained a loving relationship until he passed away March 10, 2007. He was not able to communicate much with me about the family, as he was not well, and was cared for by the V.A. until he died.

    However I did manage to find that my granddad had been able to acquire 81.25 acres of land with gas minerals underneath in freestone county, TX. Apparently he had portioned off the land to his wife Electra and their 8 children which included my father, William Lee Phillips. But four sections of the land was fraudulently taken by Mr. Don Poe, of Don Poe and Assoc., Katy, Texas, again including my father’s portion. But according to State decrees, my father was declared incapable of making any legal transactions. During my self-investigation of these frauds, I began to wonder about my grandfather’s music also. He had an 8th grade education, and most likely did not know about copywriting songs, or did he? Did he know copyright laws? If he didn’t know, was there someone so moved by his efforts and his God given talents that they took the time? Did Columbia Records take the time to help him protect his works? I’ve written four songs since 1995, just did the copyright on the first one two months ago. I started a book in 2005, “The Music Ministry Manual – A Basic Structure for the Church”. I finished it in 2018, copyright was 2020. So it’s possible for things to happen by your own hand, but did it?

    I began to seek answers, calling BMI, Dust to Digital, The Texas State Historical Society, and Michael Corcoran, who, when I did get to speak with him, quickly referred me elsewhere, stating he had little information himself; quite the contrary. Referencing The Freestone County Times, as posted by Karen Leidy, 2017, nominated for Best Historical Album of the year, and nominated for Best Album Notes, was “Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams”, compiled and produced by April G. and Steven Lance Ledbetter, and guess who, one of the best musicology studies and publicist around, Mr. Corcoran. According to the Freestone County Times, The Dallas Observer, and blackgroves.org, Corcoran announces his historical exploration into Phillips life dating back to his grandfather being born in slavery, 1801, up to Phillips Death in 1954. Corcoran goes into detail with stories of my grandfather’s home life and musical career, compiling it into a hardcover book that comes with the copy of the CD “Washington Phillips and his Manzarene Dreams”, when ordered online.

    The deciding factor that thrust me into the arena of investigation was not only the fact that no one would communicate any knowledge they had of Phillips with me, but was unable to refer me to anyone that might have. I see it this way, when we’re all, or all but a few gone, computers, drones, and machines will stop working and rust.

    When we’re all but completely gone, money will rot, because there’ll be no one to spend it, or a thing to spend it on. But a heritage, a history, a familiarity of who you are, where you come from, a deeper knowledge of what you do in life, and why. That gold is more than you can ever calculate or spend. You carry it where none can ever take it from you; in your heart. That’s the gold I want to leave for my only son and grandson; the same that was left for my father’s only son.

    I became a Gospel preacher before I knew who my grandfather was. I became a singer before I knew who my grandfather was. I became a composer before I knew who my grandfather was. Yes, He was with me; I didn’t know. My determination through faith has begun a new road for me as Matthew 25:23 teaches, where the Master said to his servant, “Well done thy good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things, now enter into your Master’s joy; I will put you over many”. I want to continue my search, because I’m thankful to my God, my Father, William Lee Phillips, can’t dare leave out my mom, The late Mrs. Henri M. Floyd Phillips, and my Grandfather George Washington Phillips.

    If there is any contribution of information or reference or comment that you would like to make concerning either of the topics presented in this article, please contact me by email: gerrick.phillips@yahoo.com

    Gerrick Garland Phillips Sr.

  4. Andy Cohen Says:

    Mr. Phillips.

    I have a Dolceola, play your granddad’s music on it quite handily, and an interest in his music and his instrument similar to yours. The name is puzzling. For a long time I thought it would transliterate as you heard it, into Nazarene. Some of the other fretless zithers at the time were likened to mandolins, and a common Southern pronunciation for fiddle is ‘Vio-leen’. So the instrument also might be a ‘mando-zither-een, that is, a mandolin sounding zither. The Dolceola was advertised as sounding like ‘two guitars and two mandolins’ played at once, and several zithers i have bear names like Mandolin=harp, mandolin zither, piano-mandolin.

    But this is commentary. I commend you for finding your granddad’s ways to be noble, because they were to me as well. I would be delighted to correspond with you about him. My email address is >andy.cohen@riverlark.com>

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