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Blind Willie Johnson chapter cut from new “All Over the Map”

Posted by mcorcoran on July 5, 2017

painting by Olivia Wise

When Jack White of the White Stripes announced at Stubb’s Austin in June 2003, “It’s good to be in Texas, the home of Blind Willie Johnson,” you can be sure that few on hand had ever heard of the gospel blues singer/guitarist from Marlin, who pioneered a ferocity that still lives in modern rock.

The first songs Blind Willie recorded, on a single December day in Dallas in 1927, are more familiar. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was covered by Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton did “Motherless Children,” Bob Dylan turned Johnson’s “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” into “In My Time of Dying” on his 1962 debut LP and “If I Had My Way I’d Tear the Building Down” has been appropriated by everyone from the Grateful Dead to the Staple Singers.

Johnson’s haunting masterpiece “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground),” also recorded in that first session, was chosen by musicologist Alan Lomax for an album placed aboard the Voyager 1 in 1977 on its journey to the ends of the universe. Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know almost as much about Blind Willie Johnson as we do.

Beyond five recording dates from 1927-1930 that yielded 30 tracks- 10 each in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta- the rough-voiced singer has remained something of a biographical question mark. Just finding his death certificate corrected such misinformation as his dates of birth (1897, not 1902) and death (1945, not ’49).

But finding witnesses who knew Johnson was about as easy as interviewing folks who lived through World War I. Most were dead or too old to remember. Or, like Sam Faye Kelly, the only child of Blind Willie that we know of, they were too young to realize what was going on six, seven decades ago. “I remember him singing here in the kitchen and reciting from the Bible,” said Kelly, who was 72 when I interviewed her in 2003. Kelly, whose mother Willie B. Harris sang backup on Blind Willie’s later records, was back in Marlin, living in the falling-down house at 817 Hunter St. where she was most likely conceived. She passed away in 2005, without ever receiving a penny for her father’s songs and arrangements on albums that have sold many million copies. It’s almost as if her father didn’t exist.

Folks started looking for Blind Willie Johnson when his “John the Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?” B. Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. responding, “John the Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew. In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. The mystery gives the music more pull.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie Johnson’s story was one that begged to be unlocked.

He sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of his music, with Johnson a one-man Holy Trinity on the old “lining out” hymn “Dark Was the Night.” His guitar preached and his inner congregation hummed in response.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s version of “Dark,” but lyrics can be found to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the Crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/ On which the Lord was laid/ His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony he prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”

You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions (which also discovered Washington Phillips), might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths. But that experience probably helped Walker 20 years later when he auditioned and signed Hank Williams to his first recording contract.

Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose ‘78s were reissued during the Depression (four records on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Duane Allman. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolflike howl.

And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, Johnson had been known as “the other Blind Willie,” not McTell of “Statesboro Blues” fame. The first to try to expand our knowledge of the gospel blues guitar hero was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow Angeline Johnson.

The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear the Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson and Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one was filled with Johnson’s biography, containing spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.

Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on Sept. 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on ancestry.com around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, a block east of the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation.”

It seemed unlikely that this Willie Johnson, blind, was Blind Willie Johnson, who had always been identified with Dallas and the area between Temple and Waco. But we know draft card Willie is our guy because the 1935 Temple city directory lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man he said was his father in 1918. When Sam Faye was born in 1931, the birth certificate said father Willie was born in Temple. He was actually born at home in Pendleton, just a few miles north of Temple.

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Tex., the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born.

According to Angeline Johnson, Willie became blind at age 7 when his stepmother threw lye in his face to avenge a beating from his father. Willie B. Harris told Dallas blues fan Dan Williams that her former husband lost his sight by looking at an eclipse of the sun through a piece of broken glass. Whatever the reason, Johnson’s blindness left him two options for survival: beggar or musician.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beat to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn and Delta player Sam “Boll Weevil Jackson” Butler. For blues, you can go back to 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver recorded “Guitar Rag” (covered by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys as “Steel Guitar Rag” in 1936) for OKeh. Those guys were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control in a way that’s unsurpassed.

“Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.

Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the blind Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet, Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious/ secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Together, apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Rev. Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the BWJ canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

 

Blind Willie and Wash Phillips

Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Besides Jefferson and Johnson came Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota), as did gospel acts the Soul Stirrers (Trinity), Pilgrim Tavelers (Cleveland), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).

The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go. His mentor Blind (Madkin) Butler of Hearne taught Willie “God Moves On the Water,” according to Mack McCormick, but it was the younger man who took it someplace out of this world.

We know he was wed to a woman named Mary Brown in San Antonio in 1932. A blurb in the Shiner News has Johnson playing the New Jerusalem Baptist Colored Church in Oct. 28, noting that there would be “reserved seats for white people.” He played the Hippodrome in NYC in 1938 according to a review. But there are few other traces left behind after his final recording session in April 1930.

In the 1945 Beaumont city directory, Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at the House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely…,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”

The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But before penicillin became available to the public in the late ‘40s, doctors sometimes treated degenerative syphilis with injections of malaria. The high body temperatures could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria, but the downside was that many- as high as 25%- of those treated died from malarial fever.

This many years later, the cause of death is unimportant. What he did with a guitar and a blessed bellow is all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why Alan Lomax chose “Dark Was the Night” to represent the human spirit on the “Golden Record” aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.

Should that record ever be played, beings billions and billions of miles away will know that the people of Earth are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal. We do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Reviews for “Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams”

Posted by mcorcoran on December 4, 2016

cloafing

New York Review of Books calls Manzarene Dreams “the authoritative new edition of Phillips’s music.”

Creative Loafing (Atlanta): This was the cover story by Chad Radford.“When Phillips died, a secret history of pre-war gospel blues was born; a mystery shrouded in speculation and mistaken identity. But through the legwork and dedication of semi-retired Texas music journalist Michael Corcoran and Atlanta’s Dust-to-Digital archival record label, nearly 90 years after his final recordings were made, Phillips’ story can be told.

CNN’s religion editor Daniel Burke on “Gospel Music’s Greatest Disappearing Act.”   “He was a Main Street mystic, one of those ageless figures who haunt small-town America like real-life Boo Radleys…  In the few photos of Phillips, he looks stern and a little sad, as if disappointed by our downward drift into sin. The people of Simsboro thought he would never die.”

TEXAS MONTHLY REVIEW

Texas Monthly review by Michael Hall

Michael Hoinski of Texas Monthly previewed the booksigning event in Teague on Jan. 28. He also included Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson in the Holy Trinity of 1920’s Texas gospel pioneers I’ve been researching for years.

Roots World’s Bruce Miller: “A stunning set that collects lore, scraps, and stories to paint the most complete picture we’re likely to get of the man responsible for music as striking as it is welcoming.”

Spectrum Culture magazine : “Through firsthand research and interviews, Corcoran presents for the first time a fully realized picture of one of pre-war music’s more mysterious figures. Featuring interviews with those who knew Phillips, along copies of an evidentiary paper trail that helped disprove a number of the previously held inaccuracies surrounding his life and work and a wealth of new information, Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams stands as the definitive statement on the man and his music.”

Radio New Zealand interview with Trevor Pagan. “Washington Phillips: Founding Father of American Gospel Music.”

D Magazine gets it. Dallas has an amazing history of recordings. Though I don’t think Blind Lemon Jefferson ever recorded in Dallas.

The Wire magazine:

wire-washington-phillips

 

Pitchfork (8.5 rating): “Best New Reissue.” No other gospel musician has come as close to convincing me that Jesus’ love might not stress me out.

Amanda Petrusich in the New Yorker led the charge.

Wash Phillips circa 1950.

Wash Phillips circa 1950.

Here’s a review from Dusted magazine.

Black Grooves says: “This deep dive into Phillips’ gospel blues has unearthed gems that are sure to make more converts of artists and fans alike.”

Fretboard Journal has a podcast interview with the author and says of “Manzarene” book/CD “We can’t recommend it enough.”

The Jackson (Miss.) Clarion-Ledger raves.

Here’s a second review from The Wire:

wire2

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Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Signed copies of Washington Phillips book/CD $30

Posted by mcorcoran on October 13, 2016

cover

The box of books came today. I’ve been waiting two years for them. Gospel music’s great re-appearing act Washington Phillips taught me patience. His musical prowess on a homemade instrument was the subject of a newspaper article in the home paper in Teague in 1907. But it would be 20 years later until this self-made musical miracle first recorded, in Dallas. What’s two years?

But it did hurt because I knew that this 76-page hardcover book with remastered CD was the best thing I’ve ever put my name to. Most critics are out to discover the next big superstar, but I found a guy who’d died 60 years ago, who everyone is just starting to discover. I’ll never meet him. He’ll never let me down.

I first wrote about Phillips for the Austin American Statesman in 2002. I found out that musicologists had been crediting the wrong Washington Phillips all along. It was one of those stories you dream about, but instead of freeing an innocent man from prison, I was exhuming a forgotten artist. I still remember the moment when I knew for sure that it was a case of mistaken identity. It’s was a Monday night at about nine and I’d finally reached Virgil Keeton inwashphillipsaas Fairfield, TX. He was related to both men named Washington Phillips and he said the one who sang gospel songs at church while  plucking the strings on a harp-like instrument, died in the ‘50s from a fall down the stairs of the welfare office in Teague. The Washington Phillips written about in the liner notes of the Yazoo CD “I Am Born To Preach the Gospel” died on New Year’s Eve 1938 at the State Hospital, where he was admitted in 1930 with delusions and paranoia.

When Dust-To-Digital contacted me in Nov. 2013 and asked if I’d write extensive liner notes, 7,000 words or so, for a new Wash Phillips reissue, I said sure. I bid pretty low and asked to be paid primarily in books. And here they are. Official release date is Nov. 11, but I can sell my books now. They’ll be signed by me to whoever you say. I’ve ditched the Wash Phillips footprint idea after ruining a book, but I am going to stamp each package with the sole of Washington Phillips.

For a personalized copy of Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, send a check for $30 ($40 Canadian) to me at P.O. Box 313 Smithville, TX 78957. Or send $31 to PayPal under my email address michaelcorcoran55@gmail.com. The price includes shipping, so if you’re not from the U.S. add more.

The money I make from the books will fund further research into the lives of Washington Phillips, Arizona Dranes and Blind Willie Johnson. Hopefully, TCU Press will put out Goin’ To See the King, my book about about 1920’s black gospel, in Spring 2018. I’ve done all the primary research on the Holy Trinity of black gospel pioneers in 1920s Texas, now I have to weave their stories together in the context of the times.

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From Dust-to-Digital:

“We are excited to share this story in Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams, a new book by Corcoran accompanied by recordings made by Phillips between 1927-29. To ensure a superior listening experience, we tracked down the most pristine original copies of Phillips’ 78-rpm records, created high resolution transfers and had the audio expertly remastered for the best-sounding Phillips reissue to date. Hear the sublime, hypnotic and ethereal music of Washington Phillips in clarity like never before!”

wppricescan

Posted in Gospel, Texas Music History | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Blind Willie Johnson: Revelations In the Dark

Posted by mcorcoran on January 8, 2016


              by Michael Corcoran

Folks have been looking for Blind Willie Johnson since his “John The Revelator” jumped out of Harry Smith’s monumental Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952 like a Pentecostal preacher. “Well, who’s that writin’?,” Blind Willie called out in a fog-cutter bass, with his amen queen Willie B. Harris responding, “John The Revelator.” The repetition of those dissimilar, tent revival voices created a rhythm of dignified hardship, a struggle redeemed by faith. Thumb-picked guitar lines danced around the rough/smooth tension as the devil slid into the back pew.

blindwilliejohnson2This 1930 gospel recording about the Apostle who wrote the Book of Revelation was as lowdown dirty and hoppin’ as any blues or hillbilly number on Smith’s six-disc collection. Blind Willie didn’t even have to play any bottleneck guitar, which would become his signature on later reissues featuring “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning,” “God Moves On The Water” and others.

Johnson’s initial popularity on Columbia’s 14000-D “race records” series was such that he was one of the only gospel blues artists whose 78s were reissued during the Depression (four sides on Vocalion in 1935). He recorded 18 months before the debut of the more celebrated Delta blues icon Charley Patton and perfected a slide guitar style with open D tuning that influenced everyone from Robert Johnson and Elmore James to Jimmy Page and Jack White. Vocally, you can be sure Patton understudy Chester Burnett took notice of Johnson’s wolf-like howl.

In just three years, Blind Willie Johnson produced a significant body of work that transports the listener from ancient Africa to modern times. And yet by the release of Harry Smith’s gateway drug, almost nothing was known of “the other Blind Willie” (not McTell) except that he recorded for Columbia Records from 1927 through1930. There were 30 tracks total, with ten each recorded in Dallas, New Orleans and Atlanta.

Just as the Book of Revelation was written on a scroll fastened by seven seals, Blind Willie’s story was one that begged to be unlocked. The first to try was 24-year-old Samuel Charters (1929-2015), who set out for Texas in 1953 to see what he could find about two bluesmen named Johnson, who made their first records there. But while the icy trail of Robert Johnson, who recorded in San Antonio in 1936 and Dallas the next year, made even hellhounds call it a day, Charters got lucky with the gospel Johnson. Sam and his wife Ann followed leads from Dallas to Beaumont, where they eventually met Blind Willie’s widow, Angeline Johnson.

The Charters-produced 1957 album Blind Willie Johnson: His Story (Folkways) reissued more of Johnson’s music, including “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear The Building Down,” which the Grateful Dead called “Samson And Delilah” when they recorded it on 1977’s Terrapin Station. Side one concentrated on Johnson’s biography, with spoken remembrances from people who knew Blind Willie, most prominently Angeline.

Rather than detail what was wrong in some of those eyewitness reports, let’s tell you what we now know to be certain about Blind Willie Johnson, who died in Beaumont at age 48 on September 18, 1945. The truth starts with a 1918 WWI draft registration card which popped up on ancestry.com around 2007. The card’s 21-year-old Willie Johnson lived in Houston’s Fourth Ward, in the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation,” which seemed strange for a gospel musician. But my research concludes that this Willie Johnson, blind, was, indeed, the Blind Willie Johnson who would bring a previously unheard intensity to music on six classics of gospel blues recorded on his first day ever in a studio.

We know draft card Willie is our guy because the 1935 Temple City Directory lists a “Willie Johnson, musician” living at the same 308 S. Fifth St. address as four other children of the man listed as his father in 1918. When Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris had a daughter, Sam Faye, in 1931, he said he was born in Temple. His death certificate incorrectly lists his place of birth as Independence, Texas.

marriagelicensedock

Blind Willie’s parents were Dock Johnson and Mary King, married May 2, 1894 in Meridian, Texas, the town closest to the ranch where famed folklorist John A. Lomax grew up. The Johnsons moved about 50 miles south, to Bell County, before Willie Johnson was born in January 1897 in Pendleton. That year, Lomax was living in Austin, where he would graduate from the University of Texas in June. But the Lomax name would be forever connected to Blind Willie Johnson in 1977, when John’s son Alan Lomax selected Willie’s wordless symphony of loneliness, “Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground,” to be placed on the Voyager I flying time capsule that is now 13 billion miles away. The otherworldly music of Blind Willie Johnson is on its way home.

A Haunting Masterpiece

Blind Willie sang in three distinctive voices: the gruff false bass, the soulful natural tenor and through his expressive slide guitar, which often finished verses for him. They were the father, the son and the Holy Ghost of his music. Johnson was a one-man Holy Trinity on “Dark Was The Night,” as his guitar preached and his congregation hummed in response.

“That record just scared the hell out of me,” Memphis record producer Jim Dickinson said in 2003. He first heard “Dark Was The Night” in 1960 as a freshman at Baylor University, with the hums and slurs from the library headphones haunting himwith a sadness and a strength he said he never really got over. More than 55 years later, his son Luther Dickinson is one of the artists on God Don’t Never Change: The Songs of Blind Willie Johnson,an album of covers by such admirers as Tom Waits, Sinead O’Connor, Lucinda Williams and many more. His father had told him about Blind Willie, of course, but Luther truly discovered the slide master when he delved into the roots of nascent North Mississippi bluesman Fred McDowell. “It’s so of the earth, but still sounds modern to my ear,” Luther Dickinson says of Johnson’s gospel blues.

“He’s one of only a handful of musicians who really feel like sacred music to me,” says guitarist Derek Trucks, who performs “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning” with Susan Tedeschi on God Don’t Never Change.

There are no words in Blind Willie’s “Dark Was The Night,” but there are lyrics to the Baptist hymn where it originated. It’s about the Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was arrested and tormented on the night before the crucifixion. “Dark was the night and cold was the ground/On which the Lord was laid/His sweat like drops of blood ran down/In agony He prayed,” wrote Thomas Haweis in 1792.blindwilliedark

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take on December 3, 1927 in Dallas. It’s a one-of-a-kind recording that’s set a mood in several films, first in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 Italian classic The Gospel According To St. Matthew. Basing his soundtrack of Paris, Texas on “Dark,” Ry Cooder called it “the most soulful, transcendent piece in all of American music.”

You have to wonder what Columbia’s Frank B. Walker, who produced the Dallas sessions, might have been thinking when this fully-formed blind artist came in out of nowhere to lay down that pure, primal sound. Even though Walker had signed and produced blues superstar Bessie Smith in 1923, he probably wasn’t ready for Blind Willie’s wails and moans in that voice from the depths.

An overlooked record business giant, Walker also signed great hillbilly acts like Riley Puckett, Charlie Poole and Gid Tanner and organized 1928’s influential “Johnson City Sessions” in Tennessee. His title was A&R president, but he was really in the D&S business, with the discovery and signing of Hank Williams to MGM in 1947 putting Walker’s resume in bold.

The East Coast record men, who made frequent trips to Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta between 1927 and 1930, sometimes set up makeshift studios in hotels.  But because Walker and his engineer (“Freiberg” on label notes) were using the new Viva-Tonal! electrical recording process, those first sessions probably took place in the friendly confines of the Columbia Records complex, which covered three storefronts (2000- 2004) on North Lamar St. in Dallas’ West End.

bwjsigningOther acts who recorded at that first Dallas session, which went from December 2-6, 1927 were Washington Phillips (“Denomination Blues”), Lillian Glinn, backed by Willie Tyson on piano, mandolinist Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band, blues singers William McCoy, Hattie Hudson and Gertrude Perkins, plus Billiken Johnson, whose popular Deep Ellum act consisted of train impersonations (“Interurban Blues”) and other sound effects. Walker told Mike Seeger in 1962 that the acts auditioned in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon and recorded in the evening.

Johnson was not the first gospel singer to play slide guitar on record. He was beaten to the studio by a year and a half by Pittsburgh preacher Edward W. Clayborn. For blues, you can go back to November 1923, when Louisville’s Sylvester Weaver was the first to record with slide guitar for OKeh. Those guys  were crafty and talented, but when Blind Willie started playing slide it’s like he invented the dunk. He paired gifts for improvisation and control, the melody and the rhythm, in a way that’s unsurpassed. “Anybody who’s ever played the bottleneck guitar with some degree of accomplishment is quoting Blind Willie to this day,” said Austin slide guitarist Steve James.

Johnson grew up one county over from Blind Lemon Jefferson and they often played on opposite street corners in Hearne, according to Adam Booker, the Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. Yet Blind Willie sounds little like the first national star of country blues. They played in the same general genre, with religious vs. secular lyrics being the core difference, but had their own styles. Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Together and apart, these two black, blind icons from Central Texas led the way in the country blues guitar field (religion optional). They taught, through example, Reverend Gary B. Davis and Mance Lipscomb, who each brought songs from the Blind Willie Johnson canon to the ‘60s folk revival.

Johnson & Johnson, Gospel And Blues

Jefferson and Johnson also inspired Robert Johnson, who laid out the blueprint for Chicago blues and its offspring in November 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. Johnson’s debut session, on the 23rd, produced eight tracks for Vocalion Records, including “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Ramblin’ On My Mind,” “Come On In My Kitchen” and “Terraplane Blues.” There’s your Big Bang.

Though not as influential, you can put the artistic results of Blind Willie Johnson’s December 3, 1927 session in the same league of Best Studio Days Ever – and it was nine years earlier! Blind Willie Johnson’s six tracks included “Jesus Make Up My Dying Bed” (covered by Bob Dylan as “In My Time Of Dying” in his 1962 debut LP), “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” (Led Zeppelin), “Mother’s Children Have A Hard Time” (Eric Clapton) and “If I Had My Way” (Peter, Paul & Mary’s debut LP).

 

Even though his playing, always on a Stella guitar, inspired a host of Delta blues men, Blind Willie refused to sing the blues, that style of music preferred by collectors and historians. Unlike the “songsters” who mixed blues and gospel, Johnson sang only religious songs, which explains a big part of his relative obscurity. His raspy evangelical bark and dramatic guitar were designed to draw in milling, mulling masses on street corners, not to charm casual roots rock fans decades later.

But he had his time. When Willie Johnson was booked for the December 1928 sessions for Columbia, he had already sold an average of 15,000 copies of his first three 78s (at 75 cents each) and so he was treated with an earner’s respect. He had a car and driver and the label put him and Willie B. up at the Delmonico Hotel at 302 N. Central Avenue in Deep Ellum.

The couple proved to be vocal soulmates on four tracks recorded on December 5, 1928, including “Jesus Is Coming Soon” (about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic) and “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed And Burning.” The Columbia recording logs also list two tracks, unnamed and unreleased, as being by “Blind Texas Marlin” and the speculation was that Blind Texas Marlin was Blind Willie Johnson, singing some blues on the side. We’ll never know. The notes and papers of Frank Buckley Walker disappeared, he said in the interview with Seeger. A big chunk of music history gone. Columbia lost or threw away the Blind Willie Johnson masters long ago and all his CD reissues were made by digitizing 78 RPM records loaned by collectors.

The search goes on, but what we still don’t know about Blind Willie Johnson could sink the Titanic. The mystery has made him more spirit than mortal, a folk hero.

The most legendary story about Blind Willie, which Angeline told to Charters in 1955, was that he was blinded by a stepmother who “throwed lye water in Willie’s face and put his eyes out.” Angeline said Willie’s mother had died when he was a boy and his father remarried.

Dock Johnson, indeed, took a new wife, Catherine Garrett, in June 1908. But in the 1911 Temple Directory, Dock Johnson was living with a wife named Mary, before going back to Catherine two years later.

That may have something to do with the blinding of Willie Johnson. The years match with the draft card if Willie became blind at age 13 (instead of 13 years earlier–there’s some ambiguity). That would be 1910, the census year Willie Johnson was not living in Temple with father Dock, Catherine and his brothers and sisters Wallace, Carl, Robert and Mary (who they called Jettie.) Did he stay with a relative? Did Dock break up with Catherine and go back to Willie’s mother because of the blinding, or the infidelity and the beating that, according to Angeline, led to it?

By 1915, everything seemed patched up, as Willie Johnson was listed as living with Dock and Catherine at 316 W. Avenue D in Temple, just 100 yards from the train depot. He wouldn’t stay long.

He was 18 and ready to make some money on the streets of Texas with a pocket knife, a tin cup and beat-up old guitar.pendletonrr

“Where the Cotton South Meets the Cattle West”

Temple is named after Bernard Temple, who was chief engineer of the Gulf, Colorado & Santa Fe Railway when the town was formed in 1881 out of 200 acres of farmland the railroad had purchased. It became even more of a railroad town when the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railway (“the Katy”) laid tracks through Temple in 1882. The Santa Fe had 55 miles of track in Bell County and went up to Fort Worth and down to Galveston, while the Katy was the main route between Dallas and San Antonio. Ragtime king Scott Joplin, from Texarkana, lived circa 1895 in Temple, where he wrote and published his first sheet music pieces on a commission from the MK&T. The railroads made Temple an urban hub between Waco and Austin.

The town was also in cotton country, on the western border of the Black Waxy Prairie, so-nicknamed because of the dark and sticky soil. The crop was so identified with Bell County that the semi-pro baseball team of 1905-1907 was called the Temple Boll Weevils, after the infestation of the 1890s.

Mississippi has its Delta and in Texas the blues cradle was the basin lands between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers, east of Dallas and north of Houston. Henry “Ragtime Texas” Thomas (Big Sandy), Blind Lemon Jefferson (Wortham), Texas Alexander (Jewett), Lillian Glinn (Hillsboro), Lightnin’ Hopkins (Centerville), Frankie Lee Sims (Marshall) and Mance Lipscomb (Navasota) all came from that area, as did gospel acts The Soul Stirrers (Trinity), F.W. McGee (Hillsboro) and Wash Phillips (Simsboro).

The busy season for corner singers was when the cotton came in and the streets were full of folks ready to party. Such money-making opportunities took Johnson to Hearne, Marlin, Brenham and Navasota, as well as the big cities. Because he was blind, he rode the train at reduced fare, if he had to pay at all. “Play us that ‘Titanic’ song!” was probably enough to carry Blind Willie wherever he wanted to go.

Blind Willie’s first marriage took him to Houston in 1917, if later census numbers are correct. According to the 1930 census, the musician said he was married at age 20 and divorced. That’s approximately when the draft card said he was living in Houston, where there was plenty of work for a musician in the “anything goes” district where Johnson lived. Usually it was playing in whorehouses or medicine shows, but after the 1915 Panama Pacific Expo in San Francisco, Hawaiian steel guitar was all the rage, with the Victor label releasing 140 Hawaiian records in 1916 alone. It’s quite possible Blind Willie made money for a spell with his guitar in his lap, but his slide playing on record is more percussive, attacking, than the Island style.

Songster Mance Lipscomb (1895- 1976), who enjoyed a late-life discovery by the hippie/folk crowd thanks to music historian Mack McCormick and Arhoolie Records, recalled seeing Johnson play in front of Tex’s Radio Shop in Navasota, 90 miles northwest of Houston, as early as 1916. “He just had people from here to the highway. Jes’ hunnuds a people standing right on the streets,” Lipscomb said in his oral autobiography I Say Me For a Parable. “White and black. Old colored folks and young ones as well. Listenin’ at his voice.”  Lipscomb said Johnson walked with a stick and traveled with a darker-skinned blind man. That was most likely Madkin Butler.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
– The Book of Genesis

The dominant Texas preacher of the era was John L. “Sin Killer” Griffin, who toured all over the state and possessed, according to a Houston newspaper in 1911, a voice with the power of “thunder’s sullen roar.” But Blind Willie had a more direct model for his pulpit-shaking bellow in the singing preacher they called Blind Butler (1873- 1936). Madkin Butler showed the kid, 24 years his junior, how to make his voice heard above a crowd by flipping it inside out with authority. Butler was most likely the writer of “God Moves On The Water,” one of Blind Willie’s greatest recordings, which Waco folklorist Dorothy Scarborough published in 1919’s From A  Southern Porch folklore collection. Lipscomb recalled a night in Houston when he sang “Titanic,” as he called “God Moves,” with Ophelia Butler, who he was told by McCormick, was the widow of the man who wrote it.

A singer and fiddle player who was never recorded that we know of, Madkin Butler was also probably the “blind singer from Hearne” who taught John A. Lomax “Boll Weevil” in 1909. Willie B. Harris, who grew up in Franklin, next to Hearne, said Blind Butler was the most highly regarded singer in Robertson County.

Harris talked about the Butler/Johnson mentorship when she was interviewed in the ‘70s by Dallas artist and blues collector Dan Williams. “She told me they played music on the train together,” Williams recalled.

As many have done before and since, Williams trekked to Marlin to find out whatever he could about that mysterious, intense, Blind Willie Johnson. “I approached a group of elderly black people near the town square and one of them said he was related to Blind Willie’s ex-wife, the one who sang on his records, and I thought I was going to meet Angeline Johnson,” Williams recalled in 2003. “Nobody knew anything about a Willie B. Harris.”

After hearing Harris sing along to Blind Willie’s recording of “Church I’m Fully Saved Today,” from their final session in Atlanta on April 20, 1930, Williams was sure Harris was the duet partner. “She talked about meeting Blind Willie McTell in Atlanta and I did some research and found out that, sure enough, McTell recorded at the same sessions,” said Williams.

Charters inaccurately credited Angeline Johnson as the female background singer in his chapter on Blind Willie in 1959’s seminal The Country Blues, but made the correction, crediting Harris, in the liner notes for a 1993 CD reissue for Sony Legacy. Still, it’s possible that the more flamboyant Angeline was Willie’s unidentified backup singer at the sessions in New Orleans in December 1929 that produced the enduring “Let Your Light Shine On Me,” the first song Johnson recorded in standard guitar tuning. Columbia’s Walker set up a session in Dallas a week earlier, but Blind Willie chose to record in New Orleans, so he was probably living in the closer city of Beaumont as early as 1929, which is what Angeline had been saying.

bwjsanantonoWhen you add up all the dates and testimony, it’s very possible that Johnson was “married” to both Angeline in Beaumont and Willie B. in Marlin at the same time. There is no official record of those marriages, aside from newborn daughter Sam Faye listed as legitimate in Marlin in 1931, but couples “jumping the broom” together was a common matrimonial procedure for poor folks back then. Because of a December 2, 1932 entry in the San Antonio Register black newspaper, we do know Willie was married to a Mary Brown for a spell. Then, the 1937 Corpus Christi City Directory has Willie Johnson, musician, living there with wife Annie (as Angeline was known by some). That makes sense because of what McCormick said in 2003: “(Blind Willie) left memories in Corpus Christi during WWII when there was a fear about Nazi submarines prowling the Gulf of Mexico. Someone must have told him submarines often listened to radio stations to triangulate their position. He went on the air with new verses to one of his songs, probably ‘God Moves On The Water’ about the Titanic, offering grace to his audience, then followed with a dire warning to the crew of any listening U-boat with ‘Can’t Nobody Hide From God.’”

Blind Willie and Angeline moved to Beaumont for good in the early ‘40s, when the gospel singer found a fan in a circus band leader with a famous trumpet-playing son. “Harry James’ father Everett spoke very highly of Blind Willie Johnson,” said McCormick, who began his musicology career as a jazz fanatic. It’s not known if Johnson ever sat in with the Mighty Haag Circus Band led by Everett James, but the possibility is mind-blowing.

In the 1945 Beaumont City Directory Johnson is listed as a Reverend living at The House of Prayer at 1440 Forest. According to his death certificate later that year, Johnson died from malarial fever, with syphilis and blindness as contributing factors.

But Angeline Johnson painted an even bleaker picture of Willie Johnson’s final days. She told Charters that her husband died from pneumonia after sleeping on wet newspapers the night after a fire. His life could’ve been saved, she said, except he was refused service at the hospital because he was black and blind. But such a scenario was “highly unlikely…,” said McCormick, who had worked in a Houston emergency room in the Jim Crow era of legalized discrimination. “He would not have been turned away.”

The 1440 Forest Avenue house stood until 1970, when it was torn down to make room for I-10.

The “malarial fever” cause of death seemed strange for East Texas and led many to believe Angeline Johnson’s pneumonia story. But while spending 2010 researching the life of Blind Willie Johnson, recent University of Texas graduate Shane Ford came upon an interesting bit of medical information. In 1917, it was discovered that injecting malaria into patients with degenerative syphilis “could halt the progression of general paresis.” The fever could sometimes kill the syphilis bacteria. This practice was used in the ‘30s and ‘40s, until penicillin was mass-produced in the late ‘40s. The downside was that about 20% of those treated died from malarial fever.

Marlin And Marriages

Between his years in Temple and Beaumont, there was Marlin, perhaps the town most connected to Blind Willie this many years later. Wood Street brought the street corner gospel singer to the town 37 miles east of Temple. With its wooden sidewalks, prostitutes hanging out of windows and music coming out of every doorway, Wood Street of the ‘20s and ‘30s featured the most happening street scene in black Central Texas. Marlin’s a nothing town today, but during the first half of the 20th Century, after hot mineral water with reputed healing powers was discovered and bathhouses built, it was a destination with a booming economy. The New York Giants held spring training in Marlin from 1908 through 1918 and Conrad Hilton built the nine-story Falls Hotel there in 1929. There were plenty of jobs for black folks and on Saturday night, Wood Street was hopping.

Musicians played all up and down the street, according to a 94-year-old James Truesdale in 2010. “He could make that guitar talk to you,” the Lott native said of Blind Willie, describing a scene of people “falling out and hollerin’” to Johnson’s gospel music. Two blocks from the sin of Wood Street was the Falls Country Baptist Association, where Truesdale said Johnson and Butler often played in a makeshift venue called the Soul Station.

When she met her future husband, Willie B. Harris worked as a bathhouse attendant and belonged to the Power House Church of God In Christ. She told Williams that she and Blind Willie began performing together at the Pentecostal church. No doubt she’d dragged him with her with her, because Blind Willie has mainly been associated with the Baptist Church.

Church in Shiner, TX where BWJ performed.

Church in Shiner, TX where BWJ performed.

The last known venue of a Blind Willie Johnson concert still standing is the New Jerusalem Missionary Baptist Church in Shiner, Texas. Johnson came to Shiner from San Antonio in October 1933 to play the 100-capacity church for 10 cents a ticket. “Reserved seating for white people” it said in the newspaper. It’s conceivable Blind Willie had hundreds of shows like this after making his final recordings in April 1930. Playing music live was the only way he had to make a living since his recordings were “non-royalty,” according to Columbia session cards.

Also recently found is a clipping that describes the crowd at New York City’s Hippodrome becoming “deathlike” quiet while Blind Willie Johnson sang “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” circa 1938. In a 1940 interview with John A. Lomax, Blind Willie McTell said he and the other Blind Willie had been touring “from Maine to Mobile.” McTell paid homage to his old friend when he cut “Motherless Children” for Atlantic in 1949. That’s how long it took for word of Johnson’s death to reach many of those who knew him, one reason earlier biographies had him dying in ’49, not ’45.

There’s been only one photo found of Willie Johnson, wearing a suit and sitting at a piano with his guitar. His left pinkie appears to be straightened by a glass or steel cylinder, which is how Angeline’s brother, Brenham-raised blues guitarist L.C. Robinson, said Johnson played slide. “He used to come stay with us, two, three nights, and he’d sit there and play that guitar, religious songs,” Robinson told Living Blues in 1975 about his brother-in-law. “I was watching him with that bottle on there and started playing that way, too.”

But bluesman Thomas Shaw (1908-1977) told the magazine in 1972 that Blind Willie slid a pocketknife over the strings to play slide. “Willie lived in Temple and we’d go down there to play for the country dances and school openings and all and I’d stay with him,” said Shaw. “I learned that ‘Just Can’t Keep From Cryin’ from him but I learned to pick it ’cause I didn’t like the knife on it.”

Listening to Johnson fretting strings and playing rhythm along with his slide, it seems unlikely he played with a knife in the studio, but it could’ve been a cool street corner trick.

The Sounds Of Earth In Outer Spacebwjad1

Blind Willie’s songs were about the love of Jesus and the hope of salvation, with a touch of Old Testament vengeance. With his soul-tortured delivery, there’s a depth to the material not often heard in the records Brunswick, Columbia, Paramount and Victor put out in the “race records” decade ushered in by Mamie Smith’s sensational 1920 hit “Crazy Blues.”

But how many of those songs did he write? How many were adapted from public domain sources such as religious hymns and old “Negro spirituals”? It’s certainly a question to be determined once an estate for Blind Willie Johnson is finally established.

Precedents for “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” “Motherless Children,” “Soul Of A Man” and the topical songs “Jesus Is Coming” and “When The War Is On” haven’t been found, so they can be classified as original compositions. But the majority of Johnson’s 29 recorded songs (he cut “You’ll Need Somebody On Your Bond” twice) came from other sources.  According to Max Haymes’ “Roots of Blind Willie Johnson” research, the singer took three songs from the 1923 recordings of the Wiseman Sextette and covered T.E. Weems on “If I Had My Way,” Arizona Dranes on “Bye And Bye, I’m Going To See the King” and Blind Joe Taggart’s “Take Your Burden To The Lord.” But entertainment attorney William Krasilovsky said in 2003 that a Blind Willie estate could earn money by copyrighting his arrangements. “Does the work have distinctive fingerprints of originality that qualify for a new derivative copyright of public domain material?” he asked, reading from a copyright law book.

“Distinctive fingerprints” could be the title of a Blind Willie Johnson biography. In most cases, however, Johnson’s fingers left the slightest forensic evidence behind, which makes what they did with a guitar, under that powerful voice, all that matters. The music’s so supercharged with self-expression that the truth is right there for all to hear.

That’s why “Dark Was The Night” was chosen for the Golden Record aboard Voyager 1, which continues its journey to the galaxy’s back yard. The interstellar space probe left the solar system in 2012 and continues its mission to find intelligent life in other planetary systems.

Should aliens happen upon the spacecraft and, with the record player provided, listen to that eerie, moaning, steel-sliding memorial to the Crucifixion, they will know that we are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

THANKS: To all the searchers, especially Sam and Ann Charters, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Gaskill, Michael Hall, D.N. Blakey, Mack McCormick, Shane Ford and Anna Obek, whose hours saved me days.

Posted in Gospel, Texas Music History | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

JFS: The Bay City Holy Rollers

Posted by mcorcoran on September 15, 2014

BishopJones

****

September 2005: Hurricane Rita is threatening to postpone the fourth annual Austin City Limits Music Festival. At the last minute, the 180 mph winds uprooting trees near the Gulf Coast take a turn before Central Texas, and, instead of a storm, Austin gets a heat wave, with temps reaching 108 degrees. Just past noon in Zilker Park that Friday, I seek refuge from the burning sun at the only stage with a roof that extends over the public.

The program tells me that a group from Bay City called the Jones Family Singers have just come onstage. An older gentleman with a James Brown step to his drawl introduces the group as his five daughters, two sons, and a grandson. Twelve-year-old Ian Wade then kicks it off with a fierce snare; the sisters in matching lime green shirts and jean skirts start to sway as if moved by a spiritual wind. For the next hour, I’m transfixed.

A live volcano in a forest of soul, Alexis Jones rears back and erupts with all the passion a voice can hold. In an era when popular religious music often sounds like reworked Mariah Carey, this family band packs the power of vintage black church music. Here was a supernatural talent daring you, “Tell me there’s not a God.”

Alexis, Trelle and Mice belt it out at the Continental Club Monday.

Alexis, Trelle and Mice belt it out at the Continental Club Monday.

As a lifelong rock & roll fan, I’d started waking up to find the Soul Stirrers, not the Rolling Stones, the Staple Singers, not AC/DC, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, not Prince, in my CD player after a night of partying. You know, those times when you want to keep adding power and energy in that hour before the heap? The unbridled jubilation of black gospel was becoming my night-melter of choice.

I thought my chance of ever experiencing that music live had passed me by. All the greats were dead or dying. And the best new music reinforced the idea that what happens in church, stays in church. The Jones Family had been singing and playing gospel music on the Church of God in Christ circuit for over 20 years before they torched the groove fields of ACL like it was gospel night at the Apollo.

That was eight years ago, and I’ve seen the Jones Family Singers dozens of times since. In church and in nightclubs, at South by Southwest and ACL, at festivals in front of thousands and in big, empty rooms. These women who work fixing hair or in child-care jobs became my Pentecostal Phish. I’d drive hours to see them because they had something I needed.

Some shows were better than others. Sometimes the crowd gets into it and sometimes they don’t know what to make of all that preaching. Either way, not once did the Family look like they’d rather be somewhere else. Neither was there a time when I didn’t walk away feeling a little more alive.

Gospel is freedom music, evolved from songs the original African-Americans sang in the fields of the antebellum South to soothe their souls. While they couldn’t sing openly about their desire to be free, slaves could rejoice in the story of Exodus, when the children of Israel yearned to be liberated from bondage. When slaves sang, “Go down Moses, way down in Egypt land/Tell old Pharaoh to let my people go,” they did so with the vigor of deep personal connection.

Group patriarch Fred Jones Sr. is a bishop in the Church of God in Christ.

The “hard gospel” style of the Jones Family can be traced to the beginning of the 20th century, when “shout songs” became synonymous with the Holy Ghost possessing a soul. After the Pentecostal movement, headed by the Church of God in Christ, was born on Azusa Street in Los Angeles in 1906, churchgoers spoke in tongues, rolled in the aisles, waved their arms wildly, shouted “Hallelujah,” banged on instruments, and clapped their hands in sanctified percussion.

A+L_JonesParty_-85The Jones Family Singers come out of the COGIC music tradition of Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and the Edwin Hawkins Singers of “Oh Happy Day,” though Bishop Fred Jones Sr. was raised a Baptist in Lake Charles, La. For nearly 30 years, he’s presided over the Mount Zion COGIC in Markham, just outside Bay City, where the Family live and work day jobs. Weekend soul-saving performances give sweet release.

Beginning in the Eighties as the teenaged Sensational Zionaires, the JFS played churches in and around Houston and recorded an album with original lead singer Cynthia Fray. When she moved back to Florida with guitarist-husband Eddie Fray, the band, wanting to separate itself from all the other Zionaires in the gospel field, became the Jones Family Singers. Earlier this year, they congregated at Jim Eno’s Public Hi-Fi studio and, with producers John Croslin and Eric Friend, recorded The Spirit Speaks, which comes out Tuesday.

Austin filmmaker Alan Berg (Outside Industry: The Story of SXSW), decided that his documentary on the Jones Family needed newer, higher-quality recordings than the band had made previously, hence The Spirit Speaks. Most of the CDs the JFS sell at gigs were recorded live in church.

Producer and Reivers frontman John Croslin had seen the JFS wreck a church at SXSW a few years earlier, but he didn’t know the power of this church family until he and Friend, the former Spoon keyboardist who does a lot of musical supervision work on Mike Judge projects, went to Bay City in late 2012 to listen to the band perform at a rehearsal at Mount Zion. I sat in the back row and proudly watched the Jones Family destroy the two producers for almost two hours. Croslin had no idea they were that good and, frankly, neither did I.

It was decided to concentrate on the talents of the singers and musicians instead of trying to re-create the explosion that is the JFS live. The band can be wonderfully all over the place in concert, with Alexis and Jones Sr. both slowing down songs to make observations and the group sometimes leaping from song to song like it’s an hourlong medley. Yet The Spirit Speaks contains 10 songs that each have a distinctive personality you’ll want to spend time with. This is the album this group’s been waiting three decades to make.

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Rock legend Leon Russell is a JFS fan as of 3/16/15.

While the disc was being mastered in New York, the Jones Family volunteered its services for a Fourth of July festival in Brazoria, some 30 miles outside of Bay City. With the temperature at 103 and no shade for fans, the JFS played to a “crowd” of seven. This from an 8-foot-high stage in a field that could hold 10,000. The group put on a show as if there were people as far as the eye could see.

They sang, they danced, they vamped, and they even pulled out their encore number “(You Make Me Want to) Shout,” usually reserved for when the crowd just won’t leave until they hear one more. The smiles onstage were as broad as I recalled eight years earlier at ACL and although I can’t speak for the other six in the audience, I can testify that, once again, they brought out chills in the triple digit heat. That’s why the Jones Family remain one of the best live groups in gospel/soul music. They play for the people, yes. More importantly, they play as a family and for their Creator.

In this purity of purpose comes a simple truth: They can’t be tamed, those voices reaching out to heaven’s gate. The spirit can’t be contained.

Both gospel and blues came from “Negro spirituals” sung in the fields to keep the misery at bay. The Jones Family and other gospel musicians point out the huge difference in the genres. The blues singer is alone in this world – nobody knows the trouble he’s seen. The gospel voices are a family of faith anyone can join. You just have to believe there’s a force out there greater than you. Sometimes music is all the proof you need.

JonesFamilyGroup

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Arizona Dranes Project

Posted by mcorcoran on August 26, 2012

Book signing and discussion Wednesday Sept. 26 at Waterloo Records. 5 p.m.
“Essential… A magnificent and important set”
– Roots and Rhythm
“He Is My Story is essential reading for gospel fans, pre-war jazz and blues enthusiasts, church historians, and may well be the best historic gospel music compilation this year.”
 Five of Five Stars
– Bob Marovich, The Black Gospel Blog
“Excellent…the strongest biography yet written of this extraordinary woman.”
“When Tompkins Square sent us He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizone Dranes I had no clue what to expect. After reading the booklet it became the utmost important task to move all other assignments to the side and immerse myself into the gospel piano style of Arizona Dranes.”
– Sound Colour Vibration
“He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes” contains 50-pages of liner notes and an expertly remastered CD containing all 16 tracks Dranes recorded in Chicago from 1926- 1928.
Born blind in Sherman, Texas, Arizona Dranes learned to play piano at the Institute For Deaf, Dumb & Blind Colored Youths in Austin, which she attended from 1896- 1912. She was 37 year old, not 20 or 21 as previously reported, when she made six recording on one day in Chicago that mixed the secular and the spiritual in ways that had never been done before. A member of the Pentecostal Church of God In Christ, Dranes was the first to bring “hot” piano- ragtime, barrelhouse, boogie boogie- to songs of praise. Among those who’ve acknowledged Dranes as an influence was Thomas A. Dorsey, the Father of Gospel Music.
Listen to long interview with Michael Corcoran on WLUW- Chicago’s “Gospel Memories”

Posted in Gospel, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

The holy trinity of 1920s Texas gospel pioneers

Posted by mcorcoran on July 28, 2012

In July 2001, I received this CD in the mail at my job at the Austin American Statesman. It’s an unauthorized British compilation of 1920s American gospel music that would would end up playing a big part in my slow transformation from cynical/ abrasive music critic to deep-digging historian. A knockoff that would knock me out. “Amazing Gospel” was the first time I would hear the music of Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson- three gospel music pioneers whose biographical blanks I would spend a few hundred hours over the next ten years trying to fill. I was driven by the supreme talents of this threesome, driven to reverse the injustice of their obscurity. In all three cases, just finding the death certificate would triple the previously known biographical information. I found out so much stuff about my three obsessions because no one had seriously researched their lives- and not just their music- before.

Washington Phillips was the first of these subjects I delved into. His “Amazing Gospel” track, “A Mother’s Last Words To Her Daughter,” was recorded by Dranes and Johnson as “Bye and Bye, I’m Gone To See the King,” but Phillips’ version is my favorite by far. I played it over and over again and wondered how an East Texas dirt farmer in a makeshift studio in Dallas could create such a mesmerizing record. I’d never heard anything like it.  Some misinformation on liner notes had Phillips dying in Austin in 1938, which gave me the local angle to satisfy my editors at the Austin American Statesman. I went rogue on this one, not telling anyone where I was, with the story or physically, until I’d finished the first draft. One day I was in my car chasing a hot tip to Freestone County- about 155 miles northeast of Austin- when an editor called to tell me that Clifford Antone had just been released from

Washington Phillips with his mules circa 1950.

prison (on marijuana charges) and I needed to write a story. “I’m out of town on that Wash Phillips story,” I said. “I can’t do it.” The editor said I needed to come back. “No way,” I said. I was about to crack a case of mistaken identity.

Editors don’t care about writers and they have the upper hand. Priority #1 is covering their asses: that’s Journalism 99. One night in 1996 I was out in a field near Paleface Park, waiting to see James Brown for the first time, when an editor called and said that Tupac Shakur had just died. I had to come back and write the obit, even though I had already written a five-inch topper after Tupac was shot a week earlier. The night editor didn’t want the responsibility of putting what I had written at the top of the AP  obit- she somehow thought that was underhanded though it was the way the Dallas Morning News taught me to get an A1 byline- so I had to drive back to the office, minutes before “the Godfther of Soul” took the festival stage. Never again, I told myself.

“We need you back in town,” the editor insisted in 2002. He had the address of Antone’s halfway house and wanted me to try and get a couple quotes. “Get someone else to do it,” I answered. I was just passing Round Rock when I got the call, but said I was two hours out of town. Here’s my original story on Washington Phillips.

After that piece was reprinted in the Dallas Observer, I received a note from a guy up there named Dan Williams, who said I should consider also writing a story about Blind Willie Johnson, the great bottleneck player from Marlin, who recorded 30 tracks from 1927- 1930 then fell into my wheelhouse, off the face of the earth.  In the 1970s, Williams visited Marlin looking for anyone who knew Blind Willie and ended up finding his ex-wife Willie B. Harris. Up until that time, it was believed that Johnson’s second wife Angeline sang on his records. That’s what she told blues historian Sam

Only known photo of Blind Willie Johnson circa 1929.

Charters in the late 1950’s. But after hearing Harris sing, Williams correctly determined that she was the one who had nursed Johnson’s coarse, raw bass vocals in call and response style.

Williams passed on an interesting bit of information: Blind Willie Johnson’s daughter Sam Faye Kelly was back living in Marlin. This was huge. Maybe she had a photo of her father (who died in 1945) or church programs on which he played. I drove up and met her a few times, found that she had nothing but unspecific memories. and ended up writing this story for the Statesman.

(In 2016, I wrote these extensive liner notes for Alligator’s BWJ tribute.) Both my Wash Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson stories were selected for the Da Capo “Best Music Writing” of the year anthologies. That left just one.

Arizona Dranes in 1951 at age 62.

I first heard about Arizona Dranes, who introduced such secular piano styles as ragtime and barrelhouse to gospel music in 1926, when I was researching a story on Fort Worth gospel phenom Kirk Franklin and the group God’s Property in 1997. I bought a history of gospel called How Sweet the Sound by musician/ historian Horace Boyer, who credited Dranes with inventing “the gospel beat.” That’s pretty huge.

But until the arrival of “Amazing Gospel” I had not heard a note of Dranes’ music. I was excited to discover she was to the piano what Blind Willie was to the slide guitar. If these two had played the more collectable and revered blues, instead of gospel, they’d be more sufficiently acknowleged as true pioneers of their instruments. Blind Willie recorded NINE years before Robert Johnson, and Arizona’s “Christian barrelhouse” came six years before Thomas A. Dorsey switched devotions from blues to gospel music.

Soon after I retired from the Statesman, in part  to devote myself to more primary research, I was asked to write extensive liner notes for a book/ CD on Dranes by the reissue label Tompkins Square. I worked on it every day for three months and traveled to Chicago, Memphis, Oakland and Dallas-Fort Worth at my own expense to find out whatever I could about this mysterious Pentecostal pounder.

In late 2011, S.F.-based label Tompkins Square asked if I wanted to write about 10,000 words on Dranes for a book to accompany a CD reissue. This was a few months after I took the buyout from the Statesman, so I was still receiving full pay, but now I could spend fulltime on Ms. AZ Dranes! The book/CD He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes came out in August 2012 and was nominated for a Grammy as Best Historical Album.

The book/CD for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams came out in Nov. 2016 and has generated a lot of new recognition for an artist who emerged fully formed against all odds. The New Yorker, Pitchfork and CNN delivered raves, plus Washington Phillips landed on the cover of Creative Loafing of Atlanta. This humble singing preacher from Freestone County, who last recorded in 1929, is having a great year.

A writer wants to leave a mark and mine won’t be the three years I terrorized local celebrities with my “Don’t You Start Me Talking” column in the Austin Chronicle (1985-88). It’ll be my research of three Texas musicians who made a blip in the 1920s and then disappeared. I found them in death certificates and city directories and school enrollment records and told their stories. sometimes assisted by folks who knew them.

When I started writing for the Austin Chronicle, I was 29 and going to live forever or die tomorrow. Didn’t matter. But now I want at least some of my work to remain long after I’m gone. And even if this is the last thing I ever write, I know I’ve reached that goal. Fifty years from now, someone is going to hear true musical visionaries Wash Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes for the first time- perhaps in the same hour as I did in 2001- and Google their names. And they’ll read what I wrote. This seems more fulfilling than reviewing the band playing at the Continental tonight, though I’m very grateful for the time I did that, too.

 

Posted in Gospel, Music, Texas Music History | Leave a Comment »

Praising Arizona: the playing hands of a sanctified spitfire

Posted by mcorcoran on February 2, 2012

(Originally published in 2007)

Arizona Dranes spoke at the 1953 Holy Convocation of Church of God In Christ. She was 64 and head of COGIC's handicapped section.

by Michael Corcoran

New evidence shows that Arizona Dranes, the blind Pentecostal piano player who inspired everyone from Mahalia Jackson to Jerry Lee Lewis, attended the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youths in Northwest Austin from 1896- 1912. Let that sink in for a sec: The first person to ever play piano on a gospel record, the musician Sister Rosetta Tharpe credited with influencing her raucous, syncopated style, learned how to play in Austin. Dranes remains virtually unknown today, with only a single blurry photo ever found, but she’s celebrated by prewar gospel and blues enthusiasts.

“Arizona Dranes is the most important performer for introducing ‘hot’ piano style to African American gospel music,” says Grammy-winning music historian David Evans. The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ, a Memphis-based Pentecostal sect that pioneered foot-stomping music, Dranes and her lost-in-the-spirit outbursts laid the blueprint for rock ‘n’ roll.

Her first music teacher in Austin was a Miss B.M. Boyd. Her last here was Lizzie B. Wells. Also teaching Drane (the “s” would be tacked on later) in other subjects at the institute was Mattie B. White, a noted educator and painter, who had earlier founded the first private school for African American girls in Austin in 1892. Until recently, the only known evidence that put Dranes in the Austin school was a 1910 census, which listed her age as 19. (She was actually 21, but maybe fudged a little to stay in school longer.)

The enrollment records disprove previously-accepted biographical information that Dranes was a mere 21 when she invented “the gospel beat” with recordings for Okeh Records in 1926. A minimum age of 7 for the school, puts Dranes’ birth year at 1889, as does the 1900 Federal Census.

The new information came in early 2007 when Kristi Sprinkle, a Web administrator for the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired, found the official enrollment record for the 1896-1897 school year, which lists “Arizona Drane” of Sherman as a student. Not much is known of Dranes’ whereabouts from her graduation in 1910 until the early 1920s, though at some point she fell in with Hillsboro-raised singing preacher Ford Washington “F.W.” McGee.

After becoming a COGIC minister in Oklahoma, McGee presided over a pair of revival tents in Chicago in the mid-1920s. McGee and his Jubilee Singers backed up Dranes on her Nov. 1926 followup session.Then Dranes played piano on McGee’s record “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” the next year. You didn’t need liner notes to know who was thumping those keys.

Dranes had been splitting time between Dallas, where she sang for E.M. Page’s COGIC church in the Freedmantown neighborhood (now known as State-Thomas), and Fort Worth, where her divorced parents Cora and Milton lived. Dranes was also a regular at Rev. Samuel Crouch’s Trezevant Hill Church of God In Christ on West Rosedale Avenue.   It was Crouch, the great uncle of gospel star Andrae Crouch, who recommended Dranes to a traveling Okeh talent scout in early 1926.

At the time, most gospel performances were vocal only or accompanied by guitar, but Dranes stood out with her Holy Ghost-fueled piano. All six sides recorded on June 16, 1926, were released, including a sanctified ragtime instrumental called “Crucifixion,” which has greatly influenced generations of gospel keyboardists.

Arizona Dranes was the full package, with a voice that quivered with emotion. She became Okeh’s biggest gospel star almost overnight, but wasn’t always paid in a timely manner, according to correspondence between Dranes and record execs made available in 1970 to writer Malcolm Shaw. “I’ve only received 50 dollars from you,” she wrote Okeh’s owner Elmer Fearn in February, 1928, while stricken with an unspecified illness in Memphis. Her deal called for her to be paid $25 per song. “Of coarse I dident know anything about record making or prices on them and I dident even consult our white friends down here,” reads the letter. “I’m asking that you consider me as I am disable to work now and have to be confined to my room for awhile.” Fearn replie that he had lost track of Dranes (who also lived in Galveston, Oklahoma City and Memphis in the late ’20s) and wired her the $60 she asked for.

Arizona Dranes at the piano. Bishop Riley F. Williams at the podium. Atlanta City Auditorium Aug. 1943.

By the end of 1928, Dranes’ recording career was over. The Great Depression killed demand for gritty music, But Dranes remained a star on the COGIC circuit, where she often performed before church founder Bishop Charles Mason. Although Dranes established such tunes as “I Shall Wear a Crown,” “My Soul’s a Witness for the Lord” and “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean” as COGIC standards, there is no mention of her in the official church biography.  The name Arizona Dranes brings only puzzled looks from staffers at the Mason Temple in Memphis, where A.J. Dranes wrecked the house 75 years ago.

Dranes died of a stroke on July 27, 1963 at age 74. She had been living at 5219 McKinley Ave. in Los Angeles and attending Crouch Temple, named after her Fort Worth mentor.  Dranes’ death certificate, listing her occupation as missionary, says she was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. But no one knows exactly where Dranes’ body is today.

Investigators discovered in 1995 that the cemetery had reached capacity 10 years earlier, so the owners were digging up bodies in the older sections and reselling plots. The undertakers would also stack bodies in the same plot, often crushing caskets to fit more in. According to the 1963 burial record, Dranes was laid to rest in section 183, block 4 and lot F-3. According to Warren Clark, a researcher for Find a Grave Inc., that was one of the recycled plots. Dranes’ remains were most likely moved to the mass grave, which was seven feet high and 50 feet wide.

Ghastly to think that one of Texas’ most influential gospel musicians would end up in such a discarded state.

EARLIER: ARIZONA DRANES CHAPTER OF MY 2005 BOOK “ALL OVER THE MAP: TRUE HEROES OF TEXAS MUSIC (UT PRESS)

An Atlanta audience awaits Arizona Dranes at the City Auditorium , August 1943

Arizona Juanita Dranes went to Chicago from Texas in June 1926 accompanied by a note that read as if it had been pinned to her sweater. “Since she is Deprived Of Her Natural Sight, the Lord Has Given Her A Spiritual Sight that all Churches Enjoy,” read the introduction from Dallas church elder E.M. Page to Elmer Fearn, owner of Chicago’s Okeh Phonograph Company. “She Loyal and Obedient, Our Prayers Assend for her.”

Blind, sickly and poor, this “holy roller” must’ve seemed quite lost at the big city recording studio. But when she sat at the piano and started thumping out a sinful rhythm while wailing about the glories of salvation, Dranes made musical history; the kind not always written about in books but passed on and modified by a succession of great players. The sanctified Church of God in Christ song leader infused her gospel songs with barrelhouse fire and ragtime flair and unleashed a sharp vocal that quivered like an arrow on impact. The template Dranes created with six tracks in one day came to be called “the gospel beat”; it’s still played against a polyrhythm of hand claps in black church services today.

It’s not known if the style was an invention of Dranes or something she nicked from the “fast Texas” boogie-woogie pianists who played in Dallas’ Deep Ellum, not far from Dranes’ State-Thomas neighborhood. No sacred-singing, female piano player had ever been recorded before Dranes, and “father of gospel” Thomas Dorsey didn’t record his first “Christian blues” until 1928. Among those who forever changed her approach to church music after hearing Dranes was Roberta Martin, the Arkansas native who would become the most respected pianist and group leader of gospel’s golden age (1940s to 1960s). But where 50,000 mourners turned up for Martin’s memorial service in Chicago in 1969, Dranes died in obscurity six years earlier in Los Angeles. There were no newspaper obituaries, no tributes to this most influential of all female Texas musicians, whose stylist offspring include such rock ‘n’ rollers as Jerry Lee Lewis and Fats Domino. Even the writer of the liner notes for Document’s 1993 collection of Dranes’ complete recorded works (22 tracks from 1926-1929) had no idea what had become of his subject. “For all we know,” musicologist Ken Romanowski concludes in the album notes, “Dranes may still be in a storefront church somewhere, fanning the flames of a sanctified fire.”

Actually, the music pioneer had died of cerebral arteriosclerosis 30 years before the Document CD was released. According to the death certificate, Dranes was born April 4, 1894, to Cora Jones and a father listed as “Unknown Dranes.” Bios universally have Arizona born in 1905 or 1906 and marvel that she was barely 20 when she made those groundbreaking recordings. She was actually in her mid-’30s when she stepped inside a studio for the first time. Dranes’ recording career was over by 1929, when the Depression dried up demand for down-home Southern gospel, and she confined her playing to Church of God in Christ services. She’s believed to have lived in the early 1930s in Memphis, where the denomination, co-founded in 1897 by Charles H. Mason, is headquartered. She is believed to have later lived in Oklahoma City, where 90-year-old Helen Davis recalls Dranes playing conventions for the church. “She’d play before Bishop Mason spoke,” recalls Davis, a Lott native who now lives in Los Angeles. “She’d get the whole place shouting. She was a blind lady, see, and she’d let the spirit overtake her. She’d jump up from that piano bench when it hit her.” Dranes’ last known public concert was in 1947 in Cleveland. The next year she moved to Los Angeles, where she spent the last 15 years of her life. L.A. was where her mentor, the Rev. Samuel Crouch, had moved from Fort Worth. The great-uncle of singer/pastor Andrae Crouch founded the Emmanuel Church of God in Christ in South Central L.A. in the ’30s. “She wasn’t a member of Emmanuel,” recalls a longtime parishioner, 87-year-old Willie Bell Lewis. “But Sister Dranes would play there whenever she visited. She was a big star in gospel music.” Lewis says she had no idea Dranes had been living in L.A. at the time of her death.

Having to rely on faded memories, incomplete county records (especially concerning African Americans) and artifacts that were long ago unloaded at garage sales, musical archaeologists are left with the bones from a magnificent feast of soul and innovation. But the biographical blanks only make Dranes’ music less cluttered with trivial concerns. She remains more spirit than human and when she sings, “He is my story, He is my song,” that’s all you need to know about the singer. Like the best gospel performers, she was an otherworldly vessel fueled by faith; a pet of the force that distributes talent discriminately. They can’t be contained, the voices that are unified, sanctified and possessed by a fiery spirit and so they burst out — reaching for heaven’s gate.

The roots of a sanctified style

1707 English preacher Isaac Watts publishes ‘Hymns and Spiritual Songs,’ initially met with resistance because hymns were not literal re-creations of David’s Psalms, as was the norm, but infused with personal feelings.

1740s The Great Awakening, first major U.S. evangelical movement, merges African belief systems such as magical rituals with Anglo-Protestant traditions to convert hundreds of thousands, including slaves, to Christianity.

1780s-1930s The Great Revival Movement with its integrated ‘camp meetings’ in rural regions of the country popularizes repetitive choruses and call-and-response techniques. During this ‘Second Great Awakening,’ religion becomes only institutional area in which slaves were allowed freedom of expression.

1889 Arizona Juanita Dranes born in Texas.

1906 The ‘hard gospel’ style is solidified at Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, where churchgoers were urged to speak in tongues and lose control when the Holy Ghost was received. Led by black preacher William J. Seymour, the foot-stomping, sanctified, hand-clapping, tambourine-crashing, hallelujah-wailing event ushers in Pentecostal movement.

1907 Azusa Street participant Charles Mason, in a disagreement over the speaking in tongues baptism, breaks with his Church of God in Christ co-founder Charles Jones. The Mason-led COGIC would grow into largest black Pentecostal church in the United States. Arizona Dranes would be church’s first singing star, soon followed by Marlin’s Blind Willie Johnson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Ernestine Washington.

1926 Dranes records six original compositions on June 17, including the influential instrumental ‘Crucifixion.’ It is the first time a female piano-playing gospel singer is recorded.

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Hungry For More God: Roots of the Pentecostal Movement

Posted by mcorcoran on February 1, 2012

On the morning of April 18, 1906, a headline on the front page of the Los Angeles Daily News screamed of “Weird Babel of Tongues” heard from a “New Sect of Fanatics Breaking Loose” at a former livery stable at 312 Azusa St. in downtown Los Angeles.

The reporter described a racially mixed congregation, which in itself was news at the time, howling and swaying for hours and “breathing strange utterances and mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.” The tone of the sensational account was one of utter disbelief. But the growing city of 228,000 woke up that morning to a more literal form of shock. At just after 5 a.m., the earth quaked with a seismic revolt that destroyed much of San Francisco and killed hundreds.

The violent tremors could be felt as far south as Los Angeles. As the shouts of “Repent!” fell on more receptive ears, the reverberations from the ridiculed Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission, whose services would be known as the Azusa Street Revival, eventually were felt around the world. Tagged “the American Jerusalem” for the thousands of seekers who descended on the City of Angels from 1906-1909, the Azusa Street Revival is acknowleged as the birthplace of the Pentecostal movement, whose doctrine of speaking in tongues as the only true evidence of being baptized in the Holy Spirit is practiced today by an estimated 500 million churchgoers worldwide.

William J. Seymour, Azusa Street leader

The Azusa revival was led by a black, one-eyed preacher from Houston named William J. Seymour, who ended up marrying a woman from Austin. He first heard the Pentecostal message sitting in the hallway outside a segregated classroom in 1905.

Founders of both the Church Of God In Christ and the Assemblies of God, which grew into the largest black and white Pentecostal denominations, respectively, attended the Azusa Street Revival. And yet Seymour, the relatively soft-spoken preacher who often focused on prayer during the hopped-up proceedings by putting his head inside a milk crate atop a makeshift pulpit, is virtually unknown today. That the impoverished and uneducated Seymour, described as “an old colored exhorter” in the newspaper account, would inspire such a profoundly wide-reaching spiritual movement is remarkable. That he did it as a black man during the Jim Crow era of segregation and racism, is nothing short of miraculous.

In 1972, Yale University church historian Sidney Ahlstrom called Seymour “the most influential black leader in American religious history” and yet only recently have the churches he inspired started acknowledging his role in the ignition of Pentecostalism. That the message he preached is embraced more strongly today than ever is as much of a monument as the humble Houstonite could’ve hoped for. But his dreams of congregations that mirror the racial makeup in heaven did not go much further than the Azusa Street Revival’s glory period.

Promiseland in Austin is one of the few racially diverse Pentecostal churches around. Bishop Kenneth Phillips  peppers his sermons with Hebraic-sounding “glossolalia,” then sets his hands on parishioners, causing them to also speak in tongues. “The apex of an experience with God is when he tames the tongue, the body’s most unruly member, and allows it to speak in a language that he can understand,” Phillips said.

The history of Pentecostalism, Phillips says, is the most spectacular movie not yet made. “‘The Passion of the Christ’ was the first part of the story, but the sequel’s better,” he says. “Mel Gibson made the same mistake so many mainline churches do. They stop at Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, but the greatest story comes later, in the Book of Acts.”

COGICmemphisPentecost (known as Shavuot in Judaism) was the annual festival of the harvest that came 50 days after Passover. On the first Pentecost after the Crucifixion, the 11 apostles, Jesus Christ’s mother Mary, and more than 100 disciples from all over the world gathered in Jerusalem, promising they would carry on Christ’s work. The New Testament describes a strong wind coming from heaven and filling the house in which they all were sitting. “And then appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire . . .,” it is written in Acts 2:1-4. “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit granted them utterance.”

Charles Fox Parham, a white preacher who opened the Bethel Bible School in Topeka, Kan., in 1900, seized on that passage and became the first to teach that speaking in tongues was the only true evidence of a baptism in the Holy Ghost. During the same period, Seymour, who was born in Centerville, La., in 1870 to former slaves, had developed a fascination with special revelations and faith healing. Drifting north for work and more racial tolerance, Seymour joined a Holiness church in Cincinnati. The Holiness doctrine taught that besides conversion to Christianity, a second act of grace, a conscious physical experience of “sanctification,” was required for entry into heaven.

“Holiness or hell” was the motto that made Baptist and Methodist mainliners bristle. Meanwhile, “the holy rollers,” who experienced sanctification by shouting, stomping and rolling around on the ground, were becoming a national joke. Blacks keen on assimilation in the years following slavery were embarassed by such savage displays.

The Pentecostal movement, a spinoff of the Holiness church, was similarly scoffed at in the beginning. Seymour moved to Houston in search of relatives in 1903 and began attending a Holiness church, later serving as temporary pastor. As fate would have it, Parham relocated to Houston in 1905, where he opened a new Bible school at 503 Rusk St. Seymour was forbidden to attend the classes because he was black, but Parham cracked the door so he could listen outside. In a short time, Seymour became Parham’s messenger to the black community, spreading the word of the new Pentecost, a doctrine that allowed churchgoers to experience the Holy Spirit in the same way the apostles did.

By most accounts, Seymour, who lost an eye to smallpox, was not a fire-and-brimstone preacher, but a meek man of Scriptural fluency who won over churchgoers with his devout demeanor. According to “The Holiness-Pentecostal Movement in the United States” by Vinson Synan, Seymour’s sojourn west came about after a visitor from Los Angeles named Neely Terry caught one of Seymour’s sermons. When Terry returned to the West Coast and found that she and several other churchgoers had been expelled from the Second Baptist Church because of their Holiness views, she suggested they send for Seymour to preach for their fledgling group. When he arrived in February 1906, Seymour addressed a small congregation that wasn’t ready to hear about the third act of grace, the speaking in tongues baptism. When Seymour admitted that he had not yet experienced “glossolalia” himself, he was dismissed.

With no money and no place to go, Seymour was taken in by sympathetic church members Richard and Ruth Asbery, who would hold gospel concerts in front of their house at 214 Bonnie Brae St. and then invite those interested inside for prayer meetings. On April 9, 1906, with Seymour using Acts 2:1-4 as the text of his sermon, several of the group began speaking in tongues for the first time. Some were in trances for hours and neighbor Jennie Evans Moore, who had just moved to Los Angeles from her native Austin, sat at the piano and started playing a song even though she’d never played before. (The piano is still in the Asbery home, maintained as a museum by the Church of God In Christ.)

Word of the event quickly spread through both the black and white religious communities and the house on Bonnie Brae Street was soon hosting packed services nightly. After three days, Seymour spoke in tongues for the first time. So many people showed up that night that the porch collapsed. Needing a bigger building, the group rented a 40-foot-by-60-foot wood-frame structure at 312 Azusa St. without indoor plumbing, for $8 a month.

The building originally held an African Methodist Episcopal church, but in recent years it had been used as a stable and to store construction supplies. Seymour moved into a room upstairs. From the start, Seymour established that the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission would be integrated. “No instrument that God can use is rejected on account of color or dress or lack of education,” Seymour wrote in the monthly newsletter, The Apostolic Faith. Wealthy orange growers lay prostrate on the ground beside fieldhands, government officials held their arms aloft next to drifters weeping under the spell. The religious world had never seen anything like what was happening at Azusa Street. Crowds grew to the 750 capacity, with hundreds more outside. Dramatic conversions occurred around the clock. Some whites, although intrigued by what they were hearing, were reticent to worship with blacks.

One such preacher was A.G. Osterberg, according to “The Life and Ministry of William J. Seymour” biography by Larry Martin. Osterberg was won over when he saw tears rolling down the eyes of parishioners “slain in the spirit.” The theme of the meeting, Osterberg wrote, was “we are hungry for more God.” Unsatisfied with the stodgy services of mainstream religion, he had felt the same way and soon became one of the Azusa leaders, lending his construction crew to fix up the old building.

In October 1906, Seymour was proud to host Parham, the father of the Pentecostal doctrine, but the mentor, an avid segregationist, was aghast at the intermingling of races, as well as the feverish proceedings, which often found churchgoers banging on tambourines and running up and down the aisles. “God is sick to his stomach,” he told his former student. Parham opened a rival mission in Los Angeles, but it failed to attract followers and he returned to Texas. A year later, Parham was arrested in San Antonio and charged with sodomy with young males. Although Parham vigorously denied the charges and the case was dropped, the scandal ruined him with the religious community and he quickly became distanced from the religion he founded.

Eventually, the Azusa Street Revival, born of unity, developed a split along the lines of doctrine, race and even romance. In May 1908, Seymour married Moore, which reportedly angered one heartsick female administrator so much that she left with the mission’s

mailing list and established her own church in Portland, Ore. In 1911, a white preacher named William Durham contested some of Seymour’s views, while filling in at Azusa Street when Seymour was away. When Seymour returned and confronted Durham, the white preacher left and took an estimated 600 white members with him to his new church. By the time of Seymour’s death from a heart attack in 1922, the congregation of the Apostolic Faith Gospel Mission was almost entirely black.

His wife kept the historic mission going through tough times until 1931, when the city declared the building a fire hazard and tore it down. She died in 1936. The two-block-long Azusa Street is now just a parking lot in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo neighborhood.

The business of saving souls is filled with those who know every word of the Bible, forward, back and sideways, without studying much about the people who galvanized the message. The once-dismissed doctrine William J. Seymour preached from a former livery stable, the manger of the Pentecostal movement, has endured and is indeed gaining more acceptance a hundred years after Seymour first learned of the Holy Ghost baptism of speaking in tongues. As a man of God, that’s everything Seymour could’ve hoped for. But as a black man who brought the races together in a time of segregation, it’s regrettable that he didn’t leave a social legacy as well.

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Steel is Real: A History of Slide

Posted by mcorcoran on August 1, 2011

The Campbell Brothers, pioneers of sacred steel, thanks to late, great Jimmy Day.

The audience stretched as far back from the Zilker Park stage as the eye could see on the last night of the first Austin City Limits Music Festival. When Robert Randolph and the Family Band hit the stage that September night and played an old church song, the audience dug in. But then, without warning, the four-piece cut loose on a torrid slide number — the 1969 Allman Brothers times five — and the crowd practically levitated. They wouldn’t touch down for the next hour or so.

What was unique about this case of pandemonium was that it was caused by a man sitting behind a pedal steel guitar, an instrument more closely associated with luaus and country dancehalls. Randolph doesn’t merely play the instrument, he pilots it. In his hands and under his feet, it soars, it swoops, it blasts into the stratosphere, looking for Jimi and Jesus at the same time. When he’s overcome by the spirit, Randolph kicks back his stool like Jerry Lee Lewis and does a wild dance he calls “The March.” You’ve never seen or heard anything like it. Much as the once-derided accordion became cool when the likes of Clifton Chenier and Flaco Jimenez snatched it from “The Lawrence Welk Show,” the steel guitar has taken off with the “Sacred Steel” phenomenon, a new way to rock that comes from a 65-year-old tradition. The Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent, Sonny Treadway, Calvin Cooke, Maurice “Ted” Beard and many more gospel steel players have taken their talents from the House of God, a black Pentecostal church with 200 congregations in the United States, to concert stages all over the world in the past few years. But the biggest star is Randolph, who sports cornrows and hip-hop clothes to match a swaggering stage presence. When Warner Brothers picked up his “Live At the Wetlands” CD last year, the 24-year-old from Orange, N.J., became the first steel guitar-playing frontman ever signed to a major label. “I can’t see myself as some kind of star because of the church experience,” Randolph says in a phone interview. “We were taught that everyone has got some kind of special gift from God. If your gift is playing music, it’s no better than someone who might have a gift as a plumber.” But nobody gets lost in their emotions when their sink is fixed. Growing up, Randolph played drums at church, but he thought his special talent was basketball and he put up good numbers on his high school’s freshman team. After his parents divorced during his sophomore year, though Randolph starting cutting classes and hanging out with the wrong crowd. He also stopped going to church. Then, when he was 16, he got hooked. He started playing a lap steel given to him by one of the Campbell Brothers, a sacred steel group that often sat in at the House of God Church in Orange. Soon he moved on to the more challenging 13-string pedal steel model.

“It was all I did all day long,” Randolph says. “Just when I thought I had it figured out, I’d find another new twist, another new tuning.” He’d also discovered the music of Stevie Ray Vaughan, who inspired him to take the steel guitar to uncharted altitudes. His mother, a House of God minister, was overjoyed when Robert started going back to church, where his rapturous pedal steel flights floored churchgoers, often quite literally. Besides leading off the songs and providing sermon sound effects — a train whistle, say, when the preacher talked about traveling — Randolph’s chief duty was driving the congregation to heightened levels of spiritual possession. “Services can last anywhere from an hour and a half to five or six hours,” Randolph says. “It all depends on the music. When you’ve got a hot steel player, the people will jump and shout and dance all day.”

Robert Randolph destroyed the maiden ACL Fest, but the Campbell Brothers led the way on pedal steel gospel music.

An instrument of fervor

Founded in 1903 during the advent of the Pentecostal/Holiness movement and headquartered in Nashville, the House of God (originally called The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy) features services where churchgoers speak in tongues, do holy “shout” dances, clap their hands in sanctified percussion and “fall out” in emotional exhaustion. What sets this sect apart from the other so-called “holy rollers” is the use of lap steel and pedal steel to lead the music. Psalms 150:4 says, “Praise him with stringed instruments” and the H. of G. has made a sacrament out of the strings that can weep and moan and sing. “A lot of the House of God churches couldn’t afford an organ,” Randolph explains. “A steel guitar is a lot cheaper and has the same sort of sustaining sound as the organ. Plus, it sounds more like a singing voice, which is why we sorta duet with the singers. When they slur, you slide. When they go way up, you go higher.”

A Hawaiian invention, the lap steel was introduced to the House of God in the late ’30s by Troman and Willie Eason, a pair of brothers from Philadelphia. Troman had taken lessons from a Hawaiian steel player living in Philly and showed his

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