Today in 1880 was likely the birthday of Washington Phillips, a singular musical talent, and one we don’t know a whole lot about, though people have been trying for decades.

Here’s what we know for sure: Phillips lived in Texas, and became what was called a “jackleg” preacher.

He wasn’t part of an organized church, but traveled from place to place delivering sermons.

He also sang gospel music, recording eighteen songs in the late 1920s.

His first session took place in the same hotel room on the same weekend that another Texas gospel great, Blind Willie Johnson, recorded the landmark song “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground.”

Phillips’ first few records sold pretty well, though the Great Depression cut into sales for the rest.

There are notes that suggest he recorded at least one more song, though if he did, there’s no known copy of it.

We know very little about his life after his recording career ended.

For a long time it was thought his life had been cut short, because there’d been another Washington Phillips who lived around the same time in the same places as the musician.

Nonetheless, the music stuck around.

People who heard Washington Phillips described his music as beautiful, heavenly, even haunting.

And they wanted to know more.

In particular, they wanted to figure out just what instrument Phillips was playing on those sessions.

It wasn’t a piano or an organ, but it also didn’t sound quite like a guitar or a banjo.

A photo shows Phillips holding two instruments that looked like zithers; one theory suggested that he played both at the same time.

A newspaper article from Phillips’ time says he invented his own instrument, a harp or zither-like device he called a manzarene on which he plucked violin strings he’d strung on a wooden box that was two foot wide by three feet long.

It was truly a one of a kind instrument for a one of a kind musician


If the winter weather has you planning your next vacation, don’t forget to book the services of a pizza butler.

This is now an actual thing a resort company is offering to customers who pay for the top-level service, including their own butler.

It means the butler will bring them a made-to-order slice of pizza wherever they are and whenever they’re hungry.

Your move, AskJeeves.

Exhuming the Legend of Washington Phillips (

Some Of Us Are Haunted By Washington Phillips (The New Yorker)

Sandals Resorts Now Have a ‘Pizza Butler’ to Make Your Vacation Memorable and Delicious (Travel + Leisure)

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Photo via Wikicommons