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.
This track comes off what might be the best volume in the Air Texture compilation series. For each volume of the series, two artist curate a CD of contemporary ambient work, and perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that I like Volume IV so much because Steve Hauschildt (formerly of Emeralds) was one of the curators. Schleinz performs on synths be built himself, the schemes of which he shares on his website, which is well worth checking out for anybody interested in technical details of synthesizers and electronic music. He started building standalone circuits from various books and sites and soon graduated to assembling modular synths by putting his “toys” into larger modular cases, with an eye towards portability (no easy task with modular synths). As an amateur musician myself, I’m so thankful for the great resources he’s assembled on his site, including links to DIY synth designs, CD printing services, and resources for live visual effects. Schlienz has released quite a few solo tapes/CDs on labels like Sacred Phrases and Constellation Tatsu, which have released material by otherartists featured on this site. As if that weren’t enough, he also runs the label Cosmic Winnetou, which has featured some of my favorite artists including Pulse Emitter, Matthias Grassow, and TALSounds of Good Willsmith. I am always very pleased when in the process of writing these posts I learn that someone who I’ve previously just admired as a musician has been involved with a bunch of other artists who I also admire greatly. To hear more of solo work head over to Bandcamp. He also put out a series of collaborative tapes/CDs starting in the late 90s under the name Navel which have their own Bandcamp page. Just in case there weren’t enough Bandcamp links on this page, you can hear the rest of the Air Texture series here.
In my high school there was a rumor that would occasionally circulate that Prince attended for one day before switching to Minneapolis Central. It’s almost certain that this is not true, but it speaks to just how badly people wanted a piece of him to belong to them. What makes him so remarkable is just how hard that was to do. He gave up only what he wanted to and nothing more and got away with it. As one of the most prolific, popular, and respected artists of the last four decades he could have done whatever he wanted. So he built his own studio in Chanhassen, Minnesota and recorded material that we might not hear for another decade, if at all.
It’s not enough to say he was prolific. He was on a mission, and only he’ll know if he completed it or even what it was. I’m sure a lot of remembrances will mention his dogged efforts to keep his music off the internet, some painting it as a quixotic crusade and others as evidence of his desire to truly own his art forever. People might snicker at his DMCA complaints against Vine clips featuring his work, dismissing it as a bizarre power grab from an artist past his prime. But is he wrong? Is it really that crazy for someone with a work ethic most people would kill for to work to prevent its passive consumption?
Another comment people might bandy about is his view of the internet being “over”. Again, people can laugh him off as quixotic but is he wrong? I’ve read more thinkpieces than I care to mention that make the same basic point: “the internet will kill music”. I don’t agree that the internet will kill music and I don’t really think Prince would either. Because he didn’t fight that stuff to protect himself from us. I think he did it to protect us from ourselves. He labored for it because it had a value that is wholly separate from streaming revenue or record deals or intellectual property. He gave a shit, and he wanted everybody else to give a shit too.
He didn’t have his team of “female black lawyers” take down Vines because he didn’t want people to enjoy his music without giving him money. He did it to try and get people to focus on that ineffable quality that he spent his whole career trying to put out into the world, and the outpouring of grief and remembrances tells me he more than achieved that aim. He recorded under different names and assembled new groups because the market couldn’t support the amount of material he wanted to release. I suppose it’s reasonable to snicker about his idiosyncrasies, but there’s a lesson that is as universal as he was unique: music is not its delivery mechanism and art is supposed to matter enough to people that they devote their lives to it, not consume it in the most convenient way possible or refuse to create unless it’s economically viable. When people say the internet is killing music what they really mean is it’s killing the music industry, an industry Prince spent a career bending to his will through work ethic, determination, and the kind of talent that people usually only get through deals with the devil. I’m certainly in no position to know or guess how music will reach people in ten years, but I’m guessing people will want to listen to Prince on it and I have a feeling that if we can hear his music it’ll be on his terms. RIP.
Put out last year by eilean rec., who also put out Wil Bolton’s latest, Lake Mary’s And the Birds Sing in Chorus First is a treat from start to finish. While his earlier releases blend his guitar work with sustained drones, this release reflects a more stripped-down approach, which could have something to do with the fact that each track was recorded in a different place as the artist traversed the US. Lake Mary is the performing name for Chaz Prymek, who has been releasing music under the Lake Mary moniker since about 2010. The location may have been different, but Prymek’s masterfully contemplative playing remains solid throughout. I’ve been listening to his earlier releases, like There are Always Second Chances in the Mountains and Canopy/Mardotsha which add drone-y experimentation to the mix and they are also excellent. There’s also a live set on his Bandcamp where he performs with the Ranch Family Band, and it’s pretty neat to hear how those sounds are constructed in a live setting. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody who reads this regularly that this ticks a lot of boxes for me, but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
Howdy! I’m writing to let you know about an exciting opportunity to annoy me, Music for Cougars! I’ve been working on an upcoming release. If you would like to have a cassette of said release I can send it to you in the mail. If you hate the music and everything it stands for, all the better reason to purchase. I’ll have to go to the post office myself and mail it myself and it’s gonna be a big hassle so you can be happy that I’ll be annoyed. If you would like a cassette because you are genuinely curious, that would be preferred, but I won’t judge.
“The only way the ancient astronaut theory can be disproven is when the extraterrestrials show up”
You heard the man! Let’s bring ’em on back. First, a little detour to Puma Punku.
Take a journey with me to a place called Puma Punku. It’s a pretty cool place already, but what if it were made by aliens?
According to local legends, the sky gods used a magical flute to move the great rocks of Puma Punku. Venture back in your mental time machine to a time where alien gods killed it so hard on the space flute that it moved mountains.
Interested parties should contact orionsbastard (at) gmail (dot) com or order using the link in the pic. Hear an excerpt here.
Update: You can stream the entire thing for free over at Bandcamp. I’ve since taken down this merch link but if you’re really jonesing for a cassette you can hit me up on Twitter and we can work something out.