George Washington Phillips, gospel musician, was born on January 11, 1880, to Tim and Nancy (Cooper) Phillips. Most likely, he was born in Freestone County, Texas. Phillips is known for unique gospel songs that influenced a generation of African-American singers. He is believed to have been a farmer and itinerant preacher before Columbia Records recorded him. His career lasted only from 1927 to 1929, but he managed to become one of the best-selling soloists in that short period. His first 78-rpm record, "Take Your Burden to the Lord," sold more than 8,000 copies in 1928.
Phillips's style comprises his solo tenor and the sounds of a harp-like instrument. Through the years, musicologists have opined that the accompaniment was a dolceola, an instrument invented about 1902 that is essentially a zither with a keyboard. However, neighbors and relations recalled a homemade boxlike instrument that Phillips had fashioned from the insides of a piano. Other musicologists have studied a 1928 photograph showing Phillips holding two instruments that have been judged to be a celestaphone and a Phonoharp zither. In any case, the unique sound led to a music described as "gentle" and "ethereal." Phillips's songs were usually on moral themes. For example, in "The Church Needs Good Deacons" he criticizes philandering deacons, and in "I Am Born to Preach the Gospel" and "Denomination Blues" he bemoans the state of bickering and competing Christian denominations.
Phillips recorded eighteen songs for Columbia Records in Dallas between December 1927 and December 1929. The onset of the Great Depression in the latter year brought about a drastic decline in field recorders in search of talent. After the 1920s Phillips returned to his Freestone County farm and lived with his mother in Simsboro. He produced and sold cane syrup, and traveled the area and preached. He continued to play his gospel songs for family and friends.
Phillips died in Freestone County on September 20, 1954, and was buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in western Freestone County. In 1992 Yazoo Records released I Am Born to Preach the Gospel, a CD of his songs. Washington Phillips has often been confused with another man by the same name who was confined to the Austin State Hospital and died there on December 31, 1938. Yazoo Records released remastered versions of his songs on The Key to the Kingdom in 2005.
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Austin American–Statesman, December 29, 2002. Fretless Zithers.com, "Washington Phillips" (http://www.fretlesszithers.com/wp.html), accessed November 4, 2008. Alan Young, Woke Me Up This Morning: Black Gospel Singers and the Gospel Life (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1997).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Phillips, George Washington,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed August 09, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
December 5, 2006
Most Recent Revision Date:
July 4, 2017
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: