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March 5th, 2008

Washington Phillips, Leadbelly and the Dolceola


My interest in the Dolceola was piqued this past weekend when I discovered an 1870 Zither while rummaging through a flea market. Opening the worn hand painted box I had no idea what was under the torn frays of hand written music sheets with dates ranging from 1870 to 1911. After uncovering the oblong shaped Zither, I decided I had to have it and assumed that I could always pick up how to play it later on. While researching it online I came across the controversy and mystery of Washington Phillips Dolceola blues playing from the 1930’s. The Dolceola is the piano sibling of the Zither and only 25 are known to exist. Unlike the Zither which is either plucked or played with a bow, the Dolceola is played like a piano. Its sound is somewhat like a harpsichord although with more of a bluesy string resonation. For years the sole historical example (and source of much controversy) of the Dolceola was the mysterious and intriguing blues songs played by Washington Phillips from 1927 to 1939. In 2004 a photo surfaced with Phillips holding 2 Celestaphones, only fueling the fire of whether or not he played any Dolceola on his groundbreaking yet relatively unknown recordings. Regardless of whether or not one side of the argument is right- Washington Phillips incredible music is what should be the focus. When listening to his music you can’t help but be drawn into where the sound came from. The Dolceola perfectly captures the sound of the celestial sky being gazed upon by a minor leaving the mine after a grueling day. It was uncovered that Leadbelly was also known to use the Dolceola in several of his songs, these have all been collected into a single MP3 linked below:

[full album]Washington Phillips – I Am Born To Preach the Gospel

Lead Belly – Complete Dolceola recordings sample (Also has more information about the Dolceola)


Washington Phillips with his Celestaphones 


  1. Ah Mr. Ledbetter. The dolceola has a really great sound thanks for introducing it to me

    Comment by Kyle Tai — March 5, 2008 @ 10:38 pm
  2. how does one acquire one of these gems? they’re lovely.

    Comment by sasha s — January 3, 2009 @ 9:39 am
  3. My dad found one of these a few years back, and has been working with a friend, and several people to resotore this lovely instrument… He plays it beautifully, although it has taken great practice as it is significantly different playing the left hand (chords), more awareness of this gem would be well done!

    Comment by Alexis — March 31, 2009 @ 9:07 pm
  4. There is a Dolceola on eBay. Do you have any idea what it is worth?

    Comment by Steven Sylce — April 12, 2009 @ 7:58 pm
  5. […] copy of What Are They Doing In Heaven Today? by Washington Phillips (an early gospel performer who “may, or may not have played the Dolceola”). Our relationship has only grown more secure with each album I sample. And I’m not the only […]

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    Comment by Timmy Leynes — October 14, 2011 @ 6:48 pm
  7. Does anyone know if there is sheet music available for the works of Washington Phillips?

    Comment by Jenny Barnes — May 25, 2012 @ 2:16 pm

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