Michael Corcoran, whose book, All Over the Map: True Heroes of Texas Music, I criticized in a review, revived his reputation in my mind by taking a deeper look into the two most interesting figures from that book: Arizona Dranes and Washington Phillips. Both have been given a special mini book/CD treatment.
The Washington Phillips set, Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, is constructed with attractive, old-fashioned paper and artwork. Sometimes the art-deco style illustrations tend to overwhelm the content, while inadvertently pointing out the paucity of the information within. The small volume of informative text is augmented by photos of the recording logs of each and every record that Phillips ever made. While it is a nice touch, it doesn’t really tell us anything substantive. If Corcoran wanted to pad the text he would have done well to give us more exposition about the setting and the region in which Phillips lived his life. He does this to some extent but many details he passes over, with the seeming assumption that the readers know about such things already. Another section that helps to pad the text but is more essential are transcriptions of all of the lyrics of Phillips’s recordings.
Another reviewer criticized Corcoran’s writing, comparing it to a sophomore term paper. Unfortunately, I have to concur for the most part. The writing is confused and not clear much of the time although this applies to the style of the writing rather than the substance. Despite any deficiencies in writing, Corcoran deserves the right to tell Washington Phillips’s story because he is the one that beat the pavement to find the story. Nobody else bothered to search out the details of his life and spend time where he lived and talked to people that knew him. So to the diligent reporter goes the spoils, even if he is not the best writer.
Having said all of that, this book gives us a better and more accurate look at Washington Phillips’s life than anything that had been published before. It is also unlikely that much further information will be uncovered since those who knew Phillips are rapidly passing away. We learn more about Phillips’s career as a preacher, which has a fundamental link to his music. Also interesting is what we learn about his standing in the community and what others thought of him.
Corcoran confirms that Phillips constructed his own instrument from a Phonoharp zither and a Celestaphone with the keyboard detached, the combination of which he called a Manzarene. In addition to attaching the instruments together, Phillips also substantially changed the way they were strung in order to extend the melodic register to three octaves instead of two. Since Corcoran does not add more information about the Manzarene than what is already known from the research of others, he directs us to Gregg Miner’s website which has extensive research about Phillips’s instrument, among many others, and includes sound samples of them being played. Unfortunately, Corcoran misspells Miner’s website in his book. The correct address is minermusic.com. The specific page on Washington Phillips is minermusic.com/dolceola/phillips_study.htm.
Be sure to also check out this valuable web page by the late Garry Harrison: pickaway.press/fz/wp.html
If you have any interest in the music of Washington Phillips then I heartily recommend Michael Corcoran’s book and CD package: Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams. If you are not yet familiar with his music then the following sample will give you some idea of what you have been missing.