Sunday, January 14, 2007

Washington Phillips and the Harps of Gold

Posted by olvlzl.
Washington Phillips was one of the obscure gospel singers recorded on a set of CDs put out by the JPS label*, the same set mentioned in the post about Arizona Dranes from last month. Unlike the energetic Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips’ singing is very soft, softer than that of the WWI victim of mustard gas “Whispering Jack Smith” who recorded pop music during the same period. Phillips almost seems too shy to be performing and recording music, even the gentle sounds of his accompaniment wouldn’t require such soft singing. Maybe he was like one of those reluctant prophets who felt driven to testify against his will.

Phillips accompanied himself on an instrument listed on the original recordings as a dolceola, a kind of tiny piano zither manufactured and sold for a very short time in the early decades of the last century. Given the gentle sounds of the music, it seems odd that a controversy of sorts exists about that obscure point. One of the few pictures of Washington Phillips show him holding an amazing double zither, half of melody strings, the other half arranged in groups of strings, probably tuned in chords. Some think that it’s Phillip’s own invention and almost certainly unique. Whatever it is, his playing is very confident and sophisticated, a real contrast to his gentle, unassuming voice. The technique is very advanced and also seems to be the invention of the player. You can find MP3s of Washington Phillips many places if you are interested in hearing him and his music is available on the two CDs mentioned below.

Here are some fun pages I found while looking for information on the rather mysterious Washington Phillips. They have information, pictures and sound clips of different types of zithers being manufactured in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Just the names of the instruments, Dolceola, Marxophone (and what leftist doesn’t notice that name), Bosstone ukelin, Celestaphone, etc. conjure thoughts of irregular and rare sounds, obscure instruments played in obscure corners of life by people who wouldn’t ever make the big time. I just know somewhere there was a self taught virtuoso of the Marx Guitarchimes known only to her family and friends. And then there are the pictures of them. If you like the unusual in folk music, you will want to see and hear them. These are instruments to excite the imagination.

Here is the record of an exhibit of some of them, The Harps of Gold Exhibit

Here is a modern clip of a dolceola playing The Cue Ball Blues. And here are some short excerpts of a dolceola playing with Leadbelly. I recall reading that these are the only verified, recorded use of the instrument in music of the period.

One of the great things about the internet is that it can show you entire worlds of activity and interest that you wouldn’t have known existed. The people who devote themselves to documenting, recording and reconstructing this music don’t do it out of the expectation of getting rich. But you could do worse things with your time than restoring and playing these wonderful contraptions.

* Key to the Kingdom :Yazoo #2073
Spreading The Word, Early Gospel Recordings JPS7733