Born to Sing the Gospel

Washington-phillipsMax Nelson at The New York Review of Books:

In 2003, the Atlanta-based record label Dust to Digital released a six-CD anthology of prewar American gospel music called Goodbye, Babylon. The territory of that music was dauntingly varied and wide. Hellfire sermons, choral “sacred harp” songs, energetic group sing-alongs, solo performances of great fragility, swaggering performances by singers who flitted between spirituals and the blues: these were for the most part commercial recordings, often arranged by talent scouts like Columbia’s Frank B. Walker and released in pairs on 78 rpm records designated for specific markets (in the case of the set’s many recordings by black musicians from the South, “race records”). Some were exultant songs of praise. But many others were dark and doubt-haunted. They spoke of devils and temptations, of communities in decline, of pleas for divine salvation that might not be answered or heard.

Of the range of musicians included on Goodbye, Babylon—Baptist and Pentecostal, urban and rural, black and white—the Texas singer and preacher Washington Phillips was both one of the best-known among gospel enthusiasts and one of the most mysterious. The sixteen songs he recorded for Walker in five Dallas sessions over three consecutive Decembers—1927, 1928, and 1929—had been available together since 1979, and some began circulating on compilations well before then. (Another pair of songs, now lost, was recorded but never released.) In his own time, Phillips had been a brief commercial success. His first 78 sold more than eight thousand copies, and one wonders how many other songs he’d have had the chance to record if the Depression hadn’t forestalled his three-year-long career.

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