Gospel blues

Today it's not about food, but about music! In February of this year, Yazoo released a new collection composed of the sanctified blues singer, songwriter and jackleg preacher Washington Phillips' 78s from the late '20s. Allegedly (ummm, I've not heard it yet!), they've done a superb job digitally cleaning up sound: "His complete output of 16 selections is presented here with brand new remastering that heightens all the irresistible characteristics of his performances." This here MP3 is taken from an earlier digital transfer.

There's been quite a bit of talk in the last few years about this guy, and not just in the ob-com 78 collector set, either. Texas-based Phillips' music's really fucking beautiful and weird and was definitely a highlight of that brilliant Dust to Digital box set. Renewed interest, though, is mostly thanks to an excellent article by Michael Corcoran included in one of those best music writing of the year books a year or two back.

Not only did Corcoran disprove the accepted biographical info. on the dude after lots of digging around (Wash didn't die super young in the nut house as had been previously thought, in fact he lived on as a farmer / itinerant preacher though never recorded again) but Corcoran raised strong doubts that Phillips actually played a dolceola. To the 15 fans of this strange, portable piano-like instrument that Ry Cooder popularized in the early '70s, this was a very big deal. All Music Guide refers to the sound of Phillips' instrument as "a celestial ice cream truck." That's fucking perfect.

Lately I'm just obsessed with Phillips' sermon-songs (they're so gosh darn beautiful and polite somehow) and with the gospel blues in general. In 2003, when that big Scorsese-produced PBS special of films about the blues was on PBS, I was psyched to hear that Wim Wenders had made one about Blind Willie Johnson. There was this scene where Willie goes from playing more typical juke joint tunes to singing spirituals and, in Wenders' film, the audience gasps and freaks out. I contend this is bullshit--that the audience would not have reacted that way, and the attitudes reflected in that scene are mere projections, and that the gospel blues was a new form in the '30s, but its own genre.

I view the gospel blues as more than simply the missing link 'twixt blues and gospel--though of course "Georgia Tom" Dorsey went from third rate double entendre ditties to writing fully a third of the modern gospel canon in the '30s. My half-baked thesis is that the gospel blues can be traced from Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Luther Magby in the '20s / '30s on through Fred McDowell's stunning Amazing Grace LP and the recordings of Sister Wynona Carr, Rev. Utah Smith and Rev. Louis Overstreet in the '50s and '60s; then on into the Rev. Charlie Jackson and Isaiah Thomas recordings of the '80s and '90s. I'm not saying it's the most VITAL musical form out there, but maybe you get my drift? Anyway, it's amazing stuff.