Album Review

Washington Phillips - What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?

Washington Phillips

What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?


Release Date: December 17th, 1929

Words by: Whaley Big Jesus
January 1st, 1962


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Washington Phillips was a Texan gospel singer who recorded the tracks that would go on to make up What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? between 1927-1929, however it was not until 2005 that these tracks were brought together as an album and released by Mississippi Records as such. Since the release of this record Phillips has gone from relative obscurity to something of a deserved cult figure who's work has been covered by Will Oldham (Bonnie Prince Billy), and also used by highly influential Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood as part of his score for the major motion picture, We Need To Talk About Kevin, released in 2011.

Aside from being somewhat of a historical artifact, there's something more to the majority of this material that sees it transcend that massive pile of autopilot gospel drudgery, and that something can be found in Phillips' sense of melodic timing whereby his changes between major and minor chords more often than not occur at ideal moments and as such serve to heighten the emotional weight behind the songs. This conveyance of so called 'emotional weight' and of an introspective and insightful personality is not something easily achieved, especially in early Gospel music where the single aim was arguably to simply shout from the inside about the undying and unwavering love and dedication to God almighty, all the while forsaking the self and ones' earthly sinfulness. Well Washington Phillips got around all of that, perhaps subconsciously, by employing the use of blue-note changes and therein subtly pulling on the heart strings and giving the listener some insight into the man himself, and in turn throwing down his own foundationary slab on top of the development of the blues and soul genres.


Perhaps the best example of Phillips' sense of timing and melodic prowess can be heard on 'Paul And Silas In Jail'. This writer likes to imagine Randy Newman sitting back listening to this amazing track and saying to himself, 'hold on a sec that sounds exactly like "Burn On Big River"..! Fuck me I've been covering this guy and trying to sing like him my whole life and I've only just heard his music'. And in many respects thats' what Washington Phillips is really – a voice from before the flood. A sound that when you hear so much of particularly the more derived or traditional blues, gospel, and soul music from later years, pokes its' head through in the background if often unbeknownst to the artists'.

There are a few take or leave tracks here, namely, "Train Your Child" and 'Lift Him Up, That's All". However the bulk of this album, and particularly standouts like – "Mother's Last Word To Her Son", "I Was Born To Preach The Gospel", and "Paul And Silas In Jail", makes this an important work as it brings us not only a unique and still prevalent talent, but moreover, it brings to light a founding figure in contemporary music history.

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