With many old blues and gospel 78s it can be difficult to pin down details about the recording or even the artist, but you often have a good idea what instrument is being played. The same cannot be said for Washington Phillips. He was born in 1880 in Freestone County, TX and farmed some acreage near Teague, and when he wasn’t farming he became known as a “jack-leg preacher,” meaning he was not ordained by a particular faith but would often attend churches with the hope of speaking. If that didn’t work, he spoke to gatherings on the street or in shop-window churches. Though it was long argued Phillips played a novelty instrument called a dolceola, but fans of his work and of zither music have debunked that theory. Eyewitnesses to Phillips performing said that he played an instrument that he assembled himself and since the dolceola was commercially sold at the time it would not have to be assembled. So where did these dreamy sounds come from?
An article from the Nov. 8, 1907 issue of the Teague Chronicle describes the instrument as a 2′ x 3′ box that is 6 inches deep which Phillips called the “manzarene.” Being a Texas newspaper from the early 20th century, there was some racism thrown in for good measure which I won’t repeat here.
It is unclear whether the instrument described in the article is the same one which appears on this and other recordings which Phillips made for Columbia records between 1927-1929. You can read more about the research into Phillips instruments in this blog post from a harp guitar enthusiasts’ site. He doesn’t reach a conclusion regarding what instrument Phillips used, but he did list some possibilities, which include
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.
Regardless of what instruments he played, it’s amazing these recordings survived all the way to the present. They were first re-issued by a Dutch blues imprint called Agram Blues in 1980. An American roots label called Yazoo Records has reissued recordings by Phillips twice, once under the name I Am Born To Preach The Gospel in 2003 and then again under the name The Key To The Kingdom along with recordings by Blind Mamie and A.C. Forehand. Mississippi Records also released a compilation What Are They Doing In Heaven Today in 2006. In November 2016 Dust-to-Digital released the most comprehensive version of Phillips’ music entitled Washington Phillips And His Manzarene Dreams. Along with remastered recordings, it also contains a 72 page booklet which collects the research of Michael Corcoran of the Austin Statesman, who probably knows more about Phillips than anybody. The history of Phillips is fascinating, but I’ll warn you before you dive in: you may learn more about zithers than you thought was possible.