Artist: Washington Phillips
Format: Hardcover book bound with CD
Release date: November 11, 2016
Reissue label Dust-to-Digital made a big splash with their inaugural release Goodbye, Babylon in 2003. The wonderfully packaged multidisc box set explored many long forgotten and unreleased songs by gospel artists and sermons from preachers recorded in the early 20th century.
One of the standouts from that collection was the work of one Washington Phillips (1880-1954). On his two tracks included on Goodbye, Babylon, Phillips’ singing is backed by a mysterious instrument of his own creation called a Manzarene. Those two tracks sparked a renewed interest in Phillips, leading to a search for more recordings. Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams is a newly remastered and expanded edition of Phillips’ worked pulled from original 78-rpm discs recorded between 1927-1929.
As with many high quality box set releases, an excellent complement to the music itself is the pristine 76 page hardcover book/liner notes included with this collection (the CD is slipped inside the front cover). The book traces the legend of Washington Phillips from birth to death, debunking oft retold misinformation that may have been circulated in prior collections of his work. Tapping people that knew the man himself, as well as his own meticulous research, writer Michael Corcoran explores the history of Phillips dating back to his grandfather, born into slavery in 1801, and up to Phillips’ death in 1954. Along the way Corcoran details stories about Phillips’ home life, career, the creation of the aforementioned manzarene and even a cousin with the same name whose life journey ended much differently than Phillips’ own. The book also includes photos and reproductions that help bring Phillips’ story to life, contextualizing his musical contributions. His work has since been covered by artists such as Arizona Dranes, Mavis Staples and Phish. This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.
Reviewed by Levon Williams