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Texas Gospel’s Holy Trinity

Arizona Dranes at the piano, Bishop Riley Williams at the podium, Atlanta 1943.

 

Goin’ To See the King: Blind Willie Johnson, Arizona Dranes and Washington Phillips  

by Michael Corcoran

They were from 1920’s Black Church, Texas and created soulful sacred music that was the link between Negro spirituals and Gospel’s Golden Age. Listen to their versions of “Bye and Bye, I’m Goin’ To See the King,” the only song all three recorded, and you’ll hear that Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson each had their own sound. But together, they brought a new intensity and introspection to records, influencing not only church, but popular music. They were there when the “sorrow songs” of the Antebellum South were set free by the beat of the blues and the elation of gospel.

Dranes put secular piano styles to wild, congregrational rhythm to set the template for rock n’ roll. Phillips was a farmer who built an ethereal sound on scraps and morals, and had one of his songs covered by Linda Ronstadt during her prime. Blind Willie Johnson wrote the rules for bottleneck guitar and false bass vocals. The rocker, the singer-songwriter, the guitar hero all sprung from this holy trinity, who recorded before any of the more celebrated Mississippi Delta deities. And yet, because they played gospel, not the more collectable and researchable blues, Dranes, Phillips and Johnson had been woefully bypassed by musicologists and historians until recently. The liner notes of their early reissues read like elaborate riddles- and most of the clues were wrong.

Blind Willie Johnson (left) and Washington Phillips

History never gets old

Over the past decade and a half, I came to spend months at a time with each of their histories, but I discovered all three on the same day. Dranes, Phillips and Johnson were knock-outs on a British knock-off compilation called Amazing Gospel, which I received in a clump of packages at the Austin American-Statesman in 2001. Leadoff track, “My Soul Is a Witness” by Dranes, Phillips’ parobolic “A Mother’s Last Words To Her Daughter” (his version of ‘Bye and Bye’) and Blind Willie’s “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” are the cuts that stayed with me from the first listen. I was mesmerized by the uniqueness and self-sufficiency of each artist to the point of obsession and when I found they were all from Texas, the state where I’ve been a music journalist for over 30 years, I started searching deeper, which didn’t take much. Just finding the correct death certificates tripled the previously known biographical information. I tackled them one at a time, first Wash Phillips, then Blind Willie, then Ms. Dranes, then Blind Willie again.

In the beginning of a pop music critic career, you’re chasing the “next big thing,” with the fantasy to be like Jon Landau, discovering “the future of rock n’ roll” in some nightclub. But as you get older, you realize that you can also discover someone who’s been dead 60 years. Someone whose music influenced those who influenced Bruce Springsteen.

This is the story of the children of former slaves, who found the God-given grace within themselves to make music that was as much about liberation as it was faith. They’re of the earth and formed from the injustice of the time. And yet there’s a spiritual purity in their music that comes from a place we dream about.

 A Race To Sell Records

 Thomas A. Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, but the production of “entertainment records” didn’t start until 1888. The Columbia Phonograph Company was founded the next year. The first popular African-American recording artists in 1901 were Bert Williams and George Walker, a former minstrel act billed as “The Two Real Coons” because they didn’t need to wear blackface (though they did for heightened comedic effect). Most of their records on the Victor Talking Machine label were bought by whites.

It wasn’t until Mamie Smith sold half a million copies of “Crazy Blues” in 1920, to a largely black audience that had migrated to the cities for jobs during WWI, that the record companies were convinced that African-Americans would buy records in quantity. They bought them, in fact, at a larger rate than whites, which nascent record men Ralph Peer (who supervised the “Crazy Blues” session for OKeh), Frank B. Walker of Columbia and Art Satherley of Paramount were quick to capitalize on.

With Walker discovery Bessie Smith coming along in 1923, plus Ethel Waters, Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox and more on the “race records” charts, blues recordings were predominantly sung by females at first. A 1924 poster for Papa Charlie Jackson’s “Salty Dog Blues” boasted “this man can sing and play the blues even better than a woman!”

When Blind Lemon Jefferson emerged from the Deep Ellum scene in Dallas to deliver a raw guitar/vocal sound on Paramount Records in the mid-’20s, he knocked the piano-accompanied blues mamas out of fashion. Guitar-picked “country blues” was the new thing! Jefferson recorded nearly 100 sides, including the standards “Match Box Blues,” “Long Lonesome Blues,” “Black Snake Moan” and “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” before dying in a Chicago snowbank in Dec. 1929.

The record business was dying at around the same time. The Stock Market Crash of October 1929 put the country in a Depression; who had 75 cents for a record? Commercial radio, which debuted in Pittsburgh in 1920, came of age during the bleak decade, serving upbeat, escapist fare, so the labels had no market for authentic Southern poor-people-music. Sales of 78RPM records in 1932 was just 6% of the total sold just five years earlier.

Dranes didn’t put out another record after 1928, while Phillips’ final session was in ’29. The most popular of the trio, Johnson last recorded in April 1930 in Atlanta.

art by Tim Kerr

You Don’t Shake Hands with the Devil

 Before Arizona Dranes, no one had ever made a gospel record that featured piano. And no label had yet released the raucous, sanctified sounds of the Pentecostal church to the new “race records” market. Arizona Dranes would be the first of her kind in June 1926.

She played “hot” piano and sang with her soul on fire at Roberts Temple Church of God In Christ on 40th St. in Chicago during her first recording visit from Texas. The Pentecostal “saints” were encouraged to let loose with their emotions, to become possessed by the Holy Ghost, but nobody’d ever seen anything quite like “Sister Arazoni.” She came up from Texas with something to prove.

In the congregration was a streetcorner mandolinist named Katie Bell Nubin and her 11-year-old daughter Rosetta, who was already getting good on the guitar. Sister Rosetta Tharpe went on to become the Memphis Minnie of gospel music, but was almost stripped of her “Sister” rank by shocked churchgoers in the early ’40s when she sang religious songs with an 11-piece jazz band.

Dranes rarely played outside the church and never in a club, but when gospel music became more of a business, religious acts had to sometimes play for the public to pay the bills. Clara Ward and the Ward Singers traded their choir robes for sequined gowns and took their act to Las Vegas in the ‘60s and never heard the end of it. When Aretha Franklin sang at her idol Ward’s funeral in Philadelphia in 1973 someone murmured, “What’s that blues singer doing up there?” In the gospel field, you didn’t cross over, you defected.

Though they meet an hour before dawn, Saturday night and Sunday morning are polar opposites in the minds of many purists. But what is the gospel music of syncopated handclaps, thumping pianos and wailing vocalists if not, simply, spiritualized secular music? Music is the language of the soul, that

invisible entitity preachers are always trying to save, so there was a confluence of genres. St. Louis church singer Willie Mae Ford Smith used to call her gritty, downhome style “Christian blues” and gospel’s greatest songwriter Thomas A. Dorsey began his career as a juke joint piano player.

Just as sinful businesses often reside next to storefront churches in predominantly black neighborhoods, gospel and blues have co-existed in tight quarters since they both grew out of “Negro spirituals.” Some stations in the ’40s and ’50s, including 50,000- watt WLAC in Nashville, aired them side by side. Many of the same independent labels that trafficked in R&B or “race” records – including Aladdin, Peacock, Savoy, Vee-Jay, Specialty and Excello – signed gospel acts as well. Disregard the lyrics and gospel is just an annointed step from rhythm and blues. But you can’t diminish the importance of the words in these sermons set to music. The power, the rhythm, the incitement of great gospel music springs from lyrics of praise. The blues singer is all alone in this world, but the gospel singer is part of a family of faith. Even playing solo, Blind Willie Johnson mimicked the response from churchgoers with his slide guitar, while Wash Phillips’ mysterious sounds came from heaven above.

Resistance to innovations in religious music goes back to the early 1700’s when a British pastor named Dr. Isaac Watts realized that the stodgy hymns of the day, taken straight from scripture and delivered at a plodding pace by a monotonous congregation, did not do justice to the Creator. To Watts, religious songs were a personal offering of praise and therefore should feature a more glorious presentation and heartfelt sentiment.

Updated ancient Protestant hymns- from “Amazing Grace” (by England’s John Newton, though it’s often credited to Dr. Watts) to “Oh Happy Day,” a 1969 pop hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers, make up much of the contemporary gospel songbook, but there’s no way to overstate the influence of African American compositions of the 1800s. Slaves would hear stories of the Bible, but being unable to read, they would remember them by making work songs that we now call spirituals. While they couldn’t sing openly about their own desire to be free, the original African-Americans 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 a vigor that suggests deep personal connection. Heavenly salvation and earthly freedom became intertwined. In the time of the Second Great Awakening (around 1790-1840) many slaves were converted to Christianity with the promise that great rewards awaited believers who endured great tribulations. They sang in the fields and dreamed of better days.

My Soul Looks Back and Wonders

On an unseasonably breezy August afternoon in 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. ready to give the speech of his life. But first there would be songs, untamed by social order, from a dignified African American queen who contorted her face, jerked her body and chomped on lyrics as if a legacy of suffering flowed through her. Mahalia Jackson. Could any name better fit the physical and spiritual embodiment of Mother Church? Ma- HAIL- Yeah. There’s a song in those syllables.

“How I got over,” she began, softly. “Well, my soul looks back and wonders how I got over.” Like most gospel performances, the song grew in intensity with each verse and the crowd’s response built from murmur to “Amen!” shouts. It took several minutes for the energized crowd of 250,000 to settle down, then Dr. King stepped up to the podium. “I have a dream,” the Civil Rights leader intoned, “that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit together at the table of brotherhood.”

It was appropriate that the freedom movement adopt as its soundtrack a style of music rooted in the African American struggle against oppression. “We Shall Overcome,” an adaptation of Philadelphia reverend Charles A. Tindley’s 1900 hymn “I’ll Overcome, Some Day,” was the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Such gospel acts as the Staple Singers and Dorothy Love Coates were there with Dr. King in Birmingham in 1963, providing the soundtrack to the victorious campaign that forced the desegregation of Alabama’s largest city and  paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “We are marching down Freedom Highway,” Mavis Staples sang over her father’s Delta blues guitar licks. “I’ve Got a Right to the Tree of Life” and “I Shall Not Be Moved” were other songs that resonated in those historic, but difficult, and sometimes tragic times.

The ‘60s were a turning point in race relations in America, but the “long time coming’” of the 1964 Sam Cooke song “A Change Is Gonna Come” could refer not only to the passage of years it took for African-Americans to finally have the equal status guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but for the rumbling rage of “slave songs” to finally be expressed in public without a Biblical veil.

Spirituals find a highbrow champion

In the years directly following the Union victory in the Civil War, many newly free blacks discarded the spirituals as reminders of a time they wanted to forget. They were called “sorrow songs,” these folk tunes that spoke of a weary people held captive and beat down because of their race.

An unlikely intellectual patron of Negro spirituals was internationally known Czech composer Antonin Dvořák, who was hired in 1892 as director of the National Conservatory of Music in New York City. Philanthropist Jeannette Thurber paid Dvořák $15,000 a year, an enormous sum back then, with the express purpose that he would guide the creation of a new, European-inspired school of American music.

One day, in the hall of the school on E. 17th St., Dvořák heard a man with a deep baritone singing a spiritual. It was 26-year-old African-American student Harry T. Burleigh who was on scholarship at the school and did janitorial work to pay for room and board. Enchanted, Dvořák asked Burleigh to sing more songs from the fields of old, and the student did for more than an hour.

A few months later, the Czech composer wrote the article “The Real Value of Negro Melodies,” in the New York Herald, which contended that “African Americans and Native Americans should be the foundation for the growth of American music. In the Negro melodies I discovered all that is needed for a great and noble school of music,” he wrote. The upper crusties brought the famous classical composer to teach Americans to be more like Brahms and Wagner and he saw the future in music from slavery times!

The uproar was immediate. “A truly American music based on the music of socially and politically marginal groups is ridiculous,” wrote one of the top critics. But then came jazz and blues and funk and rock n’ roll and hip-hop.

Less to do with the controversy than a financial depression that depleted the Thurber fortune and cut his pay to $8,000 a year, Dvořák went back to Bohemia after three years in New York. Burleigh became the most prominent arranger of spirituals, including “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” whose melody Dvořák incorporated into his famous “Symphony #9 in E Minor.”

The “coon songs” of minstrelsy, which portrayed African-Americans as either slow-witted or conniving, had been popular in the 1890’s and long before that, but Dvořák and Burleigh elevated spirituals from vaudeville spoofs to the concert stage. Post-slavery singing groups like Nashville’s Fisk Jubilee Singers trained their voices to sing the cultured songs of European composers, but it was always “Down By the Riverside,” “Ezekial Saw the Wheel” and the rest of the slave songs segment that brought audiences to their feet.

Blues music also sprung from the spirituals, with such desolate numbers as “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See” and “Travelin’ Shoes” laying the foundation for the lyrical realism that would be the domain of Southern bluesmen. But there’s also great release in the growling rhythms. Just as the slaves sang “The Lord Delivered Daniel (Why Not Me)” to hoist their spirits, blues singers shout about no-good liars and cheats as a way to get over them.

Though generally acknowledged as 1945- 1960, the glory years of gospel can be traced to the 1920’s, when a new crop of blues-based religious songs grew in popularity so quickly that the Baptist Church had to begrudgingly endorse them or lose parishioners to the more fervent Pentecostal services. After you heard Arizona Dranes on the piano or Blind Willie Johnson on the guitar, it was hard to get in the mood for “Bringin’ In the Sheaves.” The people wanted the new fervency – jubilation, not assimilation – and eventually the bluesy gospel songs gained respectability and crossed denominational lines to become the preferred church music of most black Christians.

 

Black Waxy: The Texas Delta

The basin area between the Brazos and Trinity Rivers- 52 counties south of the Red River, north of San Antonio- were as fertile a spawning grounds for blues pioneers as the Mississippi Delta, with Lemon Jefferson and his protégés Leadbelly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and T-Bone Walker, all hailing from that region. Juke joint singers Bessie Tucker, Lillian Glinn and Texas Alexander, plus bluesmen Frankie Lee Sims, Little Hat Jones, J.T. “Funny Paper” Smith and Smokey Hogg also grew up in the “Black Waxy Prairie” towns. Let’s not forget the Soul Stirrers, from Trinity, who revolutionized gospel quartet singing long before Sam Cooke joined the group in 1950.

Dranes from Sherman, Phillips from Teague and Temple’s Johnson all grew up in and around this blackland cradle of the blues, where music and work went hand in hand. It was cotton country, yielding about two million bales a year (one-sixth of the entire U.S. production) at its peak in the early 1900s.

You had to eat and so the fields were full of pickers. But the back-breaking work also provided an incentive to become another kind of picker. The goal was to play music so well that folks would give you money to hear it. If you were blind, you couldn’t work in the fields, so your choices were musician or beggar. But what sometimes starts as a way to make a living becomes a way of life.

 

Washington Phillips

 Exhuming the Legend

Wash Phillips circa 1950.

The mystery of Washington Phillips begins the first time you hear his sweetly-sung Christian blues, bathed in a celestial haze of notes from an instrument that sounds like a child’s music box. His music is a simple prayer, with the blessing in the asking, the singing, the playing. But his ethereal sound is also highly developed to the point of being almost psychedelic. From what background did this starkly original artist emerge fully formed?

His grandfather, also named Washington Phillips, was a slave, born in Kentucky in 1801 and most likely ”sold down the river” to a Texas landowner in the 1850s, along with his wife Ann and teenaged sons Austin, Houston and Tim. Not long after they were emancipated on “Juneteenth,” June 19, 1865, the Phillips men started buying farmland in the freedmen’s community of Simsboro, about 80 miles southeast of Dallas.

Both Tim and Houston Phillips had sons they named after their father, who lived to be 81. The oldest grandson, Tim’s boy “Little Wash,” was born in 1880 and went on to record for Columbia Records from 1927-29.

Houston’s son Washington Phillips, born in 1891, was a farmer who went crazy, was committed to the Texas State Hospital in Austin in 1930 and died there eight years later.

When the haunting spirituals of Washington Phillips were first made available on CD in 1991 with I Am Born To Preach the Gospel (Yazoo), the liner notes incorrectly based biographical information on the death certificate of the cousin who died in the state asylum at age 47. The Washington Phillips who recorded such distinctive gospel tunes as “Denomination Blues,” What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Paul and Silas In Jail” lived until 1954, when he died at age 74 after a fall down the stairs at the city hall in Teague, the nearest town to Simsboro.

I stumbled upon this case of mistaken identity in 2002 when I was a music critic for the Austin American Statesman and used the Austin death of the “wrong” Washington Phillips as a local connection that would justify a lengthy profile of an intriguing gospel obscurity.

Another bit of misinformation passed on was that Phillips backed himself on a dolceola, a rare “portable grand piano” produced only from 1903-1908 in Toledo, OH. What a weird tale this was, a preacher with a head full of voices playing heavenly tunes on a doomed miniature keyboard!

But the dolceola theory was also shot down, once and for all, by an article I recently discovered which ran in the Teague Chronicle in November 1907. Under the headline “A Unique Instrument,” the brief detailed “a negro in town, named George Washington Phillips,” who played music from “a box about 2 X 3 feet, 6 inches deep, and which he has strung violin strings, something on the order of an autoharp…He uses both hands and plays all sorts of airs.” The 27-year-old Phillips called his homemade instrument a “Manzarene,” the article said. East Texas had never seen or heard anything like Washington Phillips, who dropped the “George” as his grandfather and cousin did. Sixty years after his death, the world still hasn’t heard anything like those tracks Phillips recorded in Dallas with one mike in a makeshift studio.

“I want to tell you the natural fact”

Wash Phillips was a product of post-slavery black America, when blues and gospel music were next door to each other- like a liquor store and a church on many a ghetto street- and yet spiritually were an ocean apart. Not only were blacks separate from whites, they were divided amongst each other as sinners and saints. Then once again in church, split between the mainstream Baptist and Methodist denominations and the screaming, pounding “holy rollers” of the Pentecostal sect. But Phillips, an unordained “jackleg” preacher, wasn’t made for those categorical times. “He was just so different from everyone else,” said Doris Foreman Nealy, who grew up in Simsboro next to the Phillips farm. As a younger man, Wash Phillips would roam Freestone County on Sundays to sing and testify at Pentecostal and African Methodist Episcopal services, but later in his life he settled into his role as Rev. Wash Phillips at the the Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church, just down the road from his farm. “He was an enlightened person,” his second cousin Earl Phillips said in 2002, recalling that the singing farmer/preacher smelled of linament oil and made herbal remedies that he sold from his mule cart, along with plums and ribbon cane syrup.

He sang and played hymns and originals on his customized zithers until the very end, his former Simsboro neighbors recall, but none of the half-dozen I interviewed in 2002 knew he ever made records.

Washington Phillips might’ve been almost completely forgotten if his career didn’t receive a posthumous jolt of revival in the 1970s, with Ry Cooder covering “Denomination Blues” on 1972’s Into the Purple Valley and then reworking “You Can’t Stop a Tattler” on ‘74’s Paradise and Lunch. Renamed “Tattler,” with Phillips sharing writing credits with Cooder and producer Russ Titelman, that’s the arrangement Linda Ronstadt used on her platinum-selling Hasten Down the Wind LP. Royalties never rolled his way, because no one knew anything about this Washington Phillips, who could’ve come from anywhere.

When the Teague Chronicle ran an article about Phillips’ death on Sept. 20, 1954, there was mention of the mule cart, but not the musical career. They didn’t even get his name or age right, calling him Wash Williams, 77.

When I first started visiting Freestone County in 2002 and asked questions about the gospel pioneer, who used to entertain the children by eating a fish like a sandwich, then spitting the bones out of the side of his mouth, the general reaction was disbelief that anyone cared about the Bible-reciting old man. “He knew he had talent, but he was just ol’ Wash Phillips,” said his second cousin Virgil Keeton. “Don’t nobody get famous from Teague.”

“I Had a Good Father and Mother”

 Washington Phillips, the singer and zitherist, was born Jan. 11, 1880, the sixth child of Tim Phillips (b. Kentucky 1843) and Nancy Cooper Phillips (b. Tennessee 1848), who were married in 1867. The family lived on a farm in Simsboro next to patriarch Washington’s spread, land whose ownership can be traced to Dr. James Wills, the great grand-uncle of Western swing king Bob Wills (born in nearby Kosse). According to deed documents kept at the Freestone County clerk’s office in Fairfield, James Wills sold “Abstract 217” in 1854 to H.M. Ewing, who sold it to James McMillan just before the Civil War.

In 1870, Tim and Houston went in together on 320 acres, purchased for $240 from neighbor McMillan, head of one of the last few white families in Simsboro. Their older brother Austin (b. 1838) and wife Drucilla bought their first parcel in 1867 and accumulated 203 acres over the next two decades. Land was freedom to the ex-slaves.

After Tim Phillips died of pneumonia in 1911 at age 68, his 87 acre spread was split equally between his youngest sons Wash, Dock and Tim, according to property tax records. Their mother Nancy and Wash’s first wife Anna, whom he married in 1915, were also listed as owners when the Phillips family signed an oil, gas and mineral rights lease in 1919 that granted them 1/8 commission on any natural resources found on the property. The deal must not have yielded much money because Wash’s younger brothers soon cut out on their own, with Tim Jr. listed in the 1927 Mexia city directory as working for a brick company and married to a woman named Jeffie. Dock headed up to Canada, according to Earl Phillips, where there was plentiful work building railroads.

It’s not known if the 1922 Kirvin race riots, following the murder and mutilation of a 17-year-old white girl, also played a role in the younger Phillips brothers’ exit from Simsboro. As detailed in the Monty Akers book Flames After Midnight, black field hand Snapp Curry, whose ex-wife said she saw him with blood on his clothes,  allegedly confessed and implicated two other black men in the murder of the teenager. All three were doused with gasoline and burned to death, while a fourth man was lynched. Amid fears of an uprising of blacks, a white militia from Kirvin, nine miles up the road, rode into Simsboro and tried to take into custody Allie and Leroy Gibson for unspecified charges. When the brothers resisted, they were shot to death, which enflamed racial tensions so bad that the Texas Rangers were called in to diffuse the situation. The threat of an uprising made national news, with one wire story describing “blacks in open revolt against the whites.” The acrimony lasted for years, said Doris Foreman Nealy, whose mother was a Gibson. But it also brought Simsboro’s black community closer together.

Prejudice has long been the soot of Freestone County, where slaves surpassed the number of whites, about 3,600 to 3,200, in 1860. From 1850 to 1860, the slave population of Texas grew from 58,161 to 182,556, as white planters fled south and west to keep their slaves from deserting and joining the Union Army.

 Up from slavery

 The family took the Phillips name from the plantation they worked on, according to an 85-year-old Earl Phillips, the grandson of Austin and Drucilla. Earl served as the family historian in 2002 when I interviewed him by phone from Denver, but like so many elderly witnesses from 12 years ago, he’s passed on since. But he wrote down the family history as it was told to him, and his second cousin Wardell Phillips has a copy. Earl Phillips’ document says his great-grandfather Washington Phillips was owned by the men named Karner and Phillips, who founded Mexia’s Karner-Phillips department store. But I originally dismissed that info because Karner-Phillips wasn’t established until 1878. There were a few bits of Earl’s family history disputed by public records, so everything had to be independently verified.

The 1860 Slave Schedules for Freestone County, however, shows that a John Karner owned slaves whose ages (names weren’t listed) roughly matched the elder Washington Phillips (60), his wife Ann (45), sons Houston (20) and Tim (17) and daughters Katy (12) and Susan (6). Patriarch Phillips was actually 59 and Houston 19, but it wasn’t uncommon for census takers of the time to round up ages, especially for African-Americans, who often didn’t know their own birthdays.

The 1880 census shows the family was from Kentucky, known for “stocking and raising” slaves  for sale to the southern states after the transatlantic slave trade was discontinued in 1808. This may or may not have had something to do with the Appalachian touches of the Wash Phillips instrumentation. Religious “camp meetings” were especially popular among both blacks and whites in Kentucky and Tennessee during the time the gospel singer’s grandparents were coming of age in the early 1800’s. But any link is pure conjecture, which is sometimes all we have this many years later.

A native of Bavaria, Karner stowed away to the land of opportunity as a teenager and fought with Sam Houston at the Battle of San Jacinto, which brought Texas independence in 1836. Later, known as “Dutch John,” the Indian fighter, Karner was given land for his deeds and bought up parcels around his grant- 65 properties in all- in the 1850s. Some of his dealings were with a man named Frank A. Phillips, who may have owned the plantation Earl Phillips told me about, but I was unable to find any other information to back that up.  An 1860 county agricultural report said there were seven plantations of over 500 acres in Freestone County, where cotton was king and corn was queen, but didn’t name any of them.

When the Civil War broke out and Freestone County voted 585-3 to secede from the Union, Karner joined the Confederate Army. He came home to empty slave quarters. On June 19, 1865 in Galveston, Union Army General Gordon Granger read the order that proclaimed slaves were free men and women.

“Juneteenth was always a big day for Wash Phillips,” says Nealy, a retired nursing school instructor, who has the second-known photo of Phillips, fronting his mules in his Sunday’s best, up on the wall in her home in Teague. “He’d dig a pit and slaughter a hog and cook it all day.”

The Juneteenth celebration was held in the grassy picnic area common to all three black churches in Simsboro. They were Hogie Primitive Baptist, Wesley Tabernacle A.M.E. and Pleasant Hill Missionary Baptist Church- and Phillips was acquainted with the pulpits at all three. He also loved to stir up the congregation at the “sanctified” St. Paul Church of God In Christ in Teague, according to May Nella Palmore, who was 82 in 2002. “His singing really fit with that crowd,” she said of the denomination that believed in soul possession as the only true evidence of baptism. “He had such a strong, powerful voice.”

His occupation was listed as “holiness minister” in the 1930 census, when he was living in Dallas, but Wash Phillips may have been devoted to that view of entire sanctification, or “Christian perfection,” in the early 1900s. Naming his instrument a “Manzarene” could have been inspired by the Pentecostal Church of the Nazarene, a Los Angeles offshoot of Methodism, which formed in 1895 and moved its headquarters to Texas soon after. Church newspaper the Nazarene Messenger was published in Grayson County, where Wash’s older brothers Felix and Fletcher and sister Mattie had moved by 1900. It was in the nearby town of Pilot Point in 1908 that the Independent Holiness Church merged with the Pentecostal Nazarene group to form The Church of the Nazarene, now based in Kansas City, with more than two million followers worldwide.

The Houston & Texas Central Railway, which had a station in Mexia and a terminus in the Grayson County seat of Sherman (also the home of piano great Arizona Dranes), made travel between the two places easy, so it’s quite possible that Phillips spent a lot of time in Sherman with his older siblings around 1900. If so, he’d certainly heard the name “Nazarene” around the time he was making his box of angelic strings.

“The absolute height of rural originality”

Washington Phillips recorded 18 sides for Columbia in five sessions in Dallas, from Dec. 1927 to Dec. 1929. His first three ‘78s- all released in 1928- registered his best sales, topping off with 8,725 copies of the debut “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” b/w “Lift Him Up That’s All.” The followup single “Denomination Blues” was released on July 30, 1928 and sold about 6,625 copies, according to Columbia order records. Third ’78 “Paul and Silas in Jail” b/w “A Mother’s Last Word To Her Son,” released Nov. 20, 1928, sold about 5,600 copies.

But after the Depression hit, record sales tanked. Phillips’ seventh and final ’78, “The Church Needs Good Deacons” b/w “I Had a Good Father and Mother,” released in December 1930, sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Forty-seven when he made his first recordings, Phillips was washed-up by 50. By the time Sister Rosetta Tharpe changed “Denomination Blues” to “That’s All” and had a secular hit with it backed by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra in the early ‘40s (the first record on which she played electric guitar), Phillips had completely recessed into the rural life.

But there’s too much talent and originality in Phillips’ music for it not to eventually find an audience and what Cooder revived continues to grow slowly. A swell in interest in the zither-playing preacher came when his song “Mother’s Last Word To Her Son” wove a spiritual thread through We Need To Talk About Kevin, the 2011 Tilda Swinton film about a school massacre. Covers of Phillips songs by the likes of Vince Gill, Mogwai, Phish, Ralph Stanley, Gillian Welch, Rodney Crowell and Mavis Staples continue to bring attention, while many more musicians are content to listen and be inspired by the true artist who created against all odds.

“I’ve just become fascinated with the bizarre world he invented for himself,” says Chicago lo-fi musician Owen Ashworth, who recorded an EP of Phillips covers as Advance Base. “The way his voice blends with the music is so hypnotic and kinda lonely and openhearted. There’s such an effort to connect.”

This is where Wash Phillips’ cabin used to sit.

Calling the music of Washington Phillips “the absolute height of rural originality,” Gary Harrison wrote in his fretlesszithers.com blog in 2005 that, “It would have been unusual enough if he had merely acquired and learned to play a fretless zither, an instrument with virtually no known performance tradition. But it appears that what (Phillips) did was to re-configure two fretless zithers, to expand the range of both the melody and accompaniment sections… and then to become a highly skilled player on his creation, producing other-worldly tones unlike those made by any other instrument.” While playing two zithers simultaneously, one hand for the chords and one hand for the melody, this self-made virtuoso also sang in a vulnerable, penetrating voice of faith.

Wash Phillips created sacred porch songs that point to a higher power, for how could man alone create music for the angels?

The man from New York

 It’s safe to say that if Columbia Records talent scout/ producer Frank B. Walker and his engineer (“Freiberg” on session notes) didn’t make yearly recording trips to Dallas from ’27-‘29, the musicial gifts of Washington Phillips might’ve never escaped the rich farmland of East Texas. Unlike Blind Willie Johnson, who performed all over Texas and up the Eastern Seaboard, Phillips didn’t rely on music for his livelihood, so he rarely drifted far from Freestone County. Even after his records were released, there’s no evidence he ever played a concert.

Talent scouts from the North usually ran ads in African-American newspapers telling when and where regional auditions would take place, but they also consulted locals in the know. These label reps were coming all the way from New York or Chicago to hear the very best.

Though Phillips’ parents were illiterate, he had a fourth grade education and could read. But copies of the Dallas Express and Houston Informer didn’t make it to Simsboro, isolated from post-Reconstruction society by design. Wash Phillips most likely came to the attention of Columbia through his association with blues guitarist Blind Lemon Jefferson, who had become a national star for Paramount Records a year earlier with “Long Lonesome Blues.” Jefferson (b. 1894) also grew up on a farm in Freestone County, and played fish fries and house parties with Wash and the younger Phillips brothers Dock and Tim. That information came from a 1998 interview with 106-year-old Charlie Hurd, a former Jefferson running buddy, in the book Deep Ellum: The Other Side of Dallas by Alan Govenar and Jay Brakefield. Jefferson had beat Phillips to the studio by two years with the spiritual single “I Want to Be Like Jesus In My Heart” b/w “All I Want is That Pure Religion,” recorded under the pseudonym Deacon L.J. Bates.

Though Wash Phillips sang secular songs about fishing, boll weevils and such on his porch and wagon, according to neighbor Dixon, he recorded only gospel songs, though his moralistic lyrics often bit like the blues. Genre didn’t matter to Walker, whose search for the most soulful  musicians found blues superstar Bessie Smith in Alabama and blind guitarist Riley Puckett (the first country yodeler on record) and fiddler Gid Tanner in Georgia. Columbia forged the “hillbilly music” market with the 15000-D series (“Familiar Tunes- Old and New”), which had a big hit with “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers in 1925. It would be almost two years until Ralph Peer would discover Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in Bristol, TN.

Walker left Columbia in 1932, soon before it was sold to American Recording Company for a mere $70,000, to became head of RCA Victor. During 11 years with RCA, Walker supervised landmark jazz and Big Band recordings, including “Body and Soul” by Coleman Hawkins and “In the Mood” by the Glenn Miller Orchestra in 1939, and “Take the ‘A’ Train” by Duke Ellington in ’41. Financially set after 25 years as a record exec, Walker retired in 1944, but was coaxed back two years later to help launch MGM Records, where he signed and mentored a new country singer named Hank Williams. Although his name is not well-known, Walker’s been called “The Dean of the American Record Industry,” and yet he might’ve gone back to banking if not for a chance encounter on a Manhattan streetcorner in 1919.

In a 1962 interview with Mike Seeger, Walker recalled that he was 30-years-old, just back from WWI, when he ran into his former Navy commander Francis S. Whited. When Walker said he was looking for a job, Whited offered him one as his assistant at Columbia. “But I don’t know anything about the phonograph business,” Walker said. “Neither do I,” said Whited, whose family, the Du Ponts, were heavy investors in the Columbia Phonograph and Dictaphone Company at the time. Walker learned all the intricacies of making records at the label’s plant in Bridgeport, CT and eventually worked his way up as an artists & repertoire executive.

For the first week of three Decembers in a row, starting in 1927, Walker and Freiberg set up a studio in Dallas, and recorded dozens of acts at each session. Phillips most likely came to the city on the Trinity and Brazos Valley Railway, 16 stops from Teague to Dallas. “These people would show up, sometimes from eight or nine hundred miles away. How they got there I’ll never know,” Walker told Seeger. “They never asked you for money…They had just made a phonograph record and to them that was the next best thing to being the President of the United States.”

What he remembered most about Washington Phillips 33 years later was his “novelty accompaniment,” as his instrument was described on the label credits. “It was something he made himself,” Walker said in 1962. “Nobody on earth could use it but him.”

When Columbia came to Texas looking for talent, it was 20 years after Phillips had been featured in the article in the Teague Chronicle that marveled at his instrumental prowess. When his name was called in Dallas, Ol’ Wash and his Manzarene were ready.

Dallas in December: the sessions

 Phillips recorded four titles on Friday Dec. 2, 1927- two originals and the two covers. Philadelphia hymn writer Charles A. Tindley’s “Take Your Burden To the Lord and Leave It There” was recorded a year earlier by Blind Joe Taggart for Vocalion, but Phillips probably first heard it in church years earlier. “Lift Him Up,” another hymnal mainstay, is sometimes wrongly credited to prolific Protestant songwriter Johnson Oatman Jr., but only the title is in common with Phillips’ version.

On Saturday, Blind Willie Johnson came up from Marlin to nail six tracks, including the future classics “If I Had My Way,” “Motherless Children,” “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and “In My Time of Dyin’,” which Johnson called “Jesus Make Up My Dyin’ Bed.” Oh, yeah, he also laid down that crucifixion moan and wail on “Dark Was the Night (Cold Was the Ground).” Dec. 3, 1927 was one of the most remarkable days in Texas recording history.

Phillips was called back on Monday and recorded his most famous song “Denomination Blues” in two parts. With Wash’s magical musical contraption and Blind Willie taking slide guitar where it had never been before, Walker must’ve thought Texas was the most brilliantly weird and musically adventurous place on earth. It’s a good thing he had been immunized by Bessie Smith and Riley Puckett or they might’ve had to pick Walker up off the floor.

Other acts who recorded at that first Dallas session, which went from Dec. 2-6, 1927 were Lillian Ginn, backed by Willie Tyson on piano, mandolinist Coley Jones and the Dallas String Band, blues singers William McCoy, Hattie Hudson (perhaps Burleson) and Gertrude Perkins, plus Billiken Johnson, whose popular Deep Ellum act consisted of train impersonations (“Interurban Blues”) and other sound effects. Walker told Seeger that the acts auditioned in the morning, rehearsed in the afternoon and recorded in the evening. They didn’t quibble over payment because they just wanted to leave a mark. The essence of an artist.

It’s not known, for fact, where these historic Dec. 1927 recordings took place. The East Coast record men, who made frequent trips to Dallas, Memphis, New Orleans and Atlanta from ’27- ‘30, sometimes set up their makeshift studios in hotels. But because Walker and Freiberg were using the new “Viva-Tonal!” recording process, licensed from Western Electric, those first sessions probably took place in the Columbia Records complex, which covered three storefronts (2000- 2004) on North Lamar St. in Dallas’ West End. The building was torn down long ago.

When Phillips’ debut of “Burden”/ “Lift” hit stores in Jan. 1928, Columbia ran an ad in black newspapers trumpeting “A new type of gospel recording- a great singer and songs full of longing and accompanied by an instrument never before seen.” The ad in the Jan. 14 Louisiana Weekly included a photo of Washington Phillips holding two restrung zithers that appeared to be attached to each other.

On Walker’s next swing through Dallas, the first week of December 1928, Phillips recorded four songs with spoken intros, perhaps at the urging of Walker, who had a big hit in 1926 with “Death’s Black Train Is Coming” by Atlanta Rev. J.M. Gates. Or it could be that, after returning to Freestone County as a moderately successful recording artist in early 1928, the preacher had become more in demand and therefore more confident in his sermonizing. On Dec. 4, 1928, he laid down “I Am Born To Preach the Gospel” and “Train Your Child,” the latter with a long instrumental passage that says as much about discipline as the words. The next day Phillips followed Blind Willie (who used his nom du blues Blind Texas Marlin on the secular recording, never released), into the studio with Tindley’s “What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?” and “Jesus Is My Friend,” a reworking of 1860’s standard “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”

For his final recording session, Dec. 2, 1929 in Dallas, Phillips did away with the preacher poetry and recorded eight all-musical tracks- only four of which were released: “Mother’s Last Word To Her Daughter,” (a cover of Dranes’ 1926 recording “Bye and Bye, We’re Going To See the King”) b/w “I’ve Got the Key To the Kingdom,” which Phillips most likely learned from the Blind Willie Davis version a year earlier. Also recorded that day were the Phillips originals “The Church Needs New Deacons” b/w “I Had a Good Father and Mother.”

Of the four other tracks recorded at the session and not released by Columbia, the masters to “You Can’t Stop a Tattler,” parts one and two, were eventually found and first issued in a 1968 gospel blues compilation entitled This Old World’s In a Hell of a Fix (Biograph). Since “Tattler, Part 1” is not really a gospel song, but more of a moralistic marriage ditty, it was probably not originally released because gospel singers didn’t put out secular music back then. Another two-part Phillips song “The World Is In a Bad Fix Everywhere,” has not only never been released, but cannot be located in the Sony vaults. The label has index cards from the session that show “Bad Fix” was recorded Dec. 2, 1929 in two takes.

A career stalls, a cousin crashes

 After his recording debut, a recently-divorced Phillips moved to Dallas for a spell, perhaps to be closer to the music business. In the 1930 census, he’s shown living at 1305 Lotus Street in Oak Cliff, with his occupation listed as “holiness minister.” A fellow boarder in the house was 42-year-old Susie Miles, a native of Mississippi, who would become the second Mrs. Washington Phillips four years later, in a ceremony at Pleasant Hill  Trinity Baptist. Wash Phillips’ dreams of being a successful recording artist seemed over by that time and he and Susie settled back into the farm life in Simsboro.

His cousin, Houston’s son Wash Phillips, was no longer around when the singer returned. According to confidential medical records, which a Texas State Hospital official read to me over the phone under the condition his name not be used, the Washington Phillips who was 11 years younger and died 16 years earlier, was a prosperous farmer and a good husband and father to wife Elector and 8 children until 1929 when he started suffering from delusions of paranoia. Following a land dispute with his brothers, this Wash Phillips built a fence around his house, lived in a crawlspace and heard voices from God telling him not to work. As his family was forced to survive on parched corn and other scraps, a judge had this Phillips committed to the Austin sanitarium. The Washington Phillips who was originally credited as the gospel pioneer died there of tuberculosis on New Year’s Eve 1938.

Though the musician Wash Phillips was married three times that we know of, there’s no record that he had children, but former neighbor Loycie Mims says a man claiming to be the son of Wash Phillips and first wife Anna Harrison, showed up at the funeral in 1954. “But then he was gone as quick as he came and we never saw him again.” The Phillips farm went to his last wife Aurelia, but she sold it to Wash’s first cousin and best friend Eldon Phillips. Eldon’s son Wardell Phillips currently owns the land, which he uses to raise cattle and hogs.

Besides his time in Dallas circa 1930, U.S. census records show that Washington Phillips moved away from Simsboro one other time. In 1900, the Phillips parents were separated and mother Nancy moved to Mexia, about 12 miles away, and worked as a washerwoman. The middle child of 11, Wash Phillips, 20, was now the man of the household, and he worked as a hotel waiter. Younger brothers and sisters also living in Mexia in 1900 were Nancy (16), Liley (13), Isaphena (12), Dock (11) and Tim Jr. (5).

Older siblings Austin, Felix, Fletcher, Mattie and Ophelia had all moved away by 1900, with Felix and Fletcher Phillips working as barbers in Sherman, north of Dallas in Grayson County. That bit of information is noteworthy later when we ponder why Wash may have called his homemade stringed instrument a Manzarene.

Debunking the dolceola

 The label on Washington Phillips’ first ‘78s credited a “novelty accomp.” for the flowing instrumentation. Later, British music historian Paul Oliver, who was compiling a companion album to his book Screening the Blues, found Columbia notes that described the instrument this strange and gentle holy man played as a “dulceola,” which may have been a variation on dulcimer. When Dutch label Agram put out the first full album of 1920s Phillips recordings in 1979, the instrument pictured on the cover was a hammered dulcimer.

Musicologists Roger Misiewicz from Canada and Pat Conte of New York independently discovered the dolceola in 1983 and when they studied the sound of this keyboard-activated board zither, they believed they had solved the mystery of how Phillips got that ethereal sound. Agram proudly announced, in the notes of a 1984 compilation that Phillips had played a dolceola on his recordings and that rather arbitrary determination became fact to most Washington Phillips enthusiasts.

It’s not the first time a legend was built on a myth. But even after New Orleans researcher Lynn Abbott found, in 1984, the Jan. 1928 ad in Louisiana Weekly that showed Phillips sitting behind two zithers, many clung to the Dutch theory, especially after Wash champion Ry Cooder used a dolceola on the 1986 Crossroads soundtrack to approximate the Phillips sound. “The only reason anybody even cares about the dolceola today is because of Washington Phillips,” Memphis musician Andy Cohen, one of fewer than 40 dolceola owners in the world, said in 2002.

But when I talked to townspeople who actually saw Phillips play, they all described a plucking motion, not pressing down keys. “It was a boxlike instrument he made from the insides of a piano,” said Durden Dixon, who was born in 1940 and therefore was 14 when the old man died. Mr. Wash was “kind of a hermit” who shooed the neighborhood boys away from his dewberry bushes, Dixon recalled. But sometimes he’d call ‘em up to the porch and play them some songs on his strange harp-like instrument.

Virgil Keeton demonstrated the playing style as a dance of the thumb and forefinger on strings. It’s obvious from the photo following the first recording session that Phillips played Phonoharp zithers, not homemade ones. But the 1907 article, as well as several witnesses I talked to describe a “box-like” instrument. Perhaps Phillips kept his zithers in a wooden box for resonating and carrying purposes, but then took them out for the posed photo?

The dolceola debate even carried over to academia. At the 1991 International Conference of African American Music and Literature in Belgium, Dutch musicologist Guido van Rijn (who put out the Agram records) ended a lecture on Phillips with an argument for the keyboard zither theory. “It’s just crazy.” said Yazoo honcho Richard Nevins. “My ears are telling me that he’s plucking the strings. It sounds like a zither to me. Then, lo and behold, along comes that picture of him holding the zithers in the studio and some people are still saying he played a dolceola.”

Gregg Miner is one dolceola owner who had to admit that he was naïve to ignore the 1928 photo. After the 2002 Austin American Statesman article revealed the mistaken identity and dispelled the dolceola theory, Miner and fellow musicologists Kelly Williams and Gary Harrison did extensive research into the instrumentation of Washington Phillips. All three came away 100% sure that he didn’t play a dolceola, but a common zither, albeit one with self-invented stringing and a unique tuning pattern. “It is impossible to duplicate or approach the sounds Phillips makes on a dolceola,” Miner wrote on his www.minermusic.com web site in 2003. “Happily for the legend, it is also all-but-impossible for any of us to duplicate his self-styled virtuoso techniques on a Phonoharp-type zither!”

Amid the various theories, stringed instrumentalists all agree that Wash Phillips was a badass player!

Fretless zithers and celestaphones, the two stringed instruments Phillips is believed to be holding in the 1928 photo, are normally played with a melody section of two octaves of C. Phillips’ songs are in the key of F and span a melody range of three octaves. Musicologists marvel at Phillips’ inventive instrumentation, but let’s not forget that he had at least 20 years to tinker with his Manzarene before the men from New York came down with their record-making machines. Time and solitude and a night sky full of stars. His log cabin in the middle of nowhere provided a perfect rehearsal space and no doubt inspired the expansive tendencies of the Phillips sound.

I Am Born to Preach the Gospel and I Sure Do Love My Job

That Phillips was well-versed in the varying beliefs and customs of different churches is evident in “Denomination Blues,” the song which built his bond with the counterculture crowd in the ‘late ‘60s/ early ‘70s. Coyly denouncing hypocrisy in organized religion, Phillips mocks six different black denominations before launching into the verse: “You can go to college, you can go to school/ But if you ain’t got Jesus, you a educated fool.” On the second part of “Denomination,” Phillips hits harder, singing of preachers who “think they’re doing well” and that “all they want is your money and you can go to hell.”

That theme of religious insincerity carried over to another Phillips original, “The Church Needs Good Deacons,” with its lines about church leaders running around on their wives. The lyrical bitterness was perhaps born from too many Sundays waiting to be called to the pulpit while less-pious men with degrees spewed their pretentious babble.

And yet the acrimony didn’t seem to carry over to a musical career that stalled while lesser talents sold millions. He never talked about his music career, said Loycie Mims and her brother Darnell Nelms, who still attend Pleasant Hill every Sunday.

He was a good church man,” recalled Nelms. “But he was so peculiar. Miss Susie was such a nice, soft-spoken gal, and they seemed like an odd couple.” Mr. Wash was the gregarious preacher-peddler, plucking a Jews harp down the dirt road and practicing his sermons when he didn’t know anyone was listening. He’d coat his black skin with oil, Nealy recalled, so he was working on all senses. And then he had that contraption that he’d set on the table at church and strum as he sang.

By the late ‘40s, when Pleasant Hill bestowed the “Reverend” title on Phillips, his jackleg days were over and he became a one-church preacher. Pleasant Hill still has some of the old Sunday school journals, going back almost 70 years. His third wife, Sister Aurelia (Simpson), whom he married in 1950, two years after Susie died of a stroke at 70, was the Sunday school teacher. One entry from 1952 notes that “the house was called to order by singing ‘There Is a Fountain Filled With Blood.” Led by Rev. Wash Phillips.” A preacher to the end.

The music sometimes spooked the kids, Nealy said, because they couldn’t understand what it was they were feeling. “We thought he was the boogey-man!” laughed Nealy’s sister Mary Foreman.

But that old man was magical. “Even though he was up there in age, it shocked us all when Wash Phillips died,” said Nealy, who was away at college at the time. “He seemed like the kind of person that was going to live forever.”

A mighty spirit left the Simsboro community in September 1954.

“Leave it there, oh leave it there,” he sang in that sweet tenor of the truth. “Take your burden to the lord and leave it there.” Sometimes it can be as simple as that, knowing when and where to let go. Sometimes 16 tracks is the whole shot.

Who was Washington Phillips, a musician so obscure they initially gave all the credit to his cousin? Having burnt a week in 2002 tracking down information on the Washington Phillips who died in Austin in 1938, I became skeptical of any new details. Which Washington Phillips were they talking about? For instance, I found Annie Mae Flewellen, related to both grandsons named Washington Phillips, in California, and when she recounted an episode where Wash Phillips, the gospel singer, gave her a pinch of snuff when she was small (“I just went to the floor,” she said. “Passed out cold”), I tried to correct her. That must’ve been your first cousin, married to Elector, I said. “Uh, uh,” Flewellen said, firmly. “It was the Wash Phillips from Simsboro.” That didn’t sound like the Bible-thumper who preached good parenting in “Train Your Child.”

When Durden Dixon took me to Wash Phillips’ land that first time, I was looking around where the house used to sit and amid all these old pieces of tin and rusted buckets, there was a little brown bottle, half-buried. When I picked it up, emptied the dirt and showed Dixon, he laughed. “That’s his snuff bottle, man.” The next day an appraiser at Rue’s Antiques in Austin confirmed that the bottle once held Garrett’s snuff circa the early ’50s. What do you know, Annie Mae Flewellen’s 74-year-old memory was on the mark.

If there’s anything this story has told me, it’s that sometimes what’s true and what’s false comes from where you least expect it. Also, the search is the destination.

The three men named George Washington Phillips- the grandfather from Kentucky and his grandsons from Freestone County- are buried in the Cotton Gin Cemetery in the countryside six miles west of Teague. But several searches of the “colored” side could locate only two tombstones. That the Washington Phillips who was gospel’s great disappearing act would take his eternal rest in an unmarked grave seems about par for this course in music history.

The great musician didn’t die in the state asylum. And his instrument was not a dolceola. It never really mattered what he played- it doesn’t change the music he left behind. But it’s comforting to know, that the singer who has affected so few people so profoundly, didn’t live out his last few years in mental torment, but surrounded by the people who knew and respected him for who he was.

 

 

ARIZONA DRANES

 Taught by man, untamed by the Holy Ghost

 

 When Arizona Dranes, blind and broke and a little wary, took a train from Fort Worth in June 1926 to record for OKeh Records, there was no assurance that anything would come out of the trip. “Please understand that we are bringing you to Chicago to make test records first,” a rep for OKeh wrote when he sent travel arrangements. “We do not guarantee to release them for sale.”

Whatever trepidation OKeh might’ve had evaporated on June 17, 1926 when Dranes sat at the piano and, with six songs recorded that day, created a spirit/ flesh communion that would later be known as “the gospel beat.” Her locomotive hands drove each other, with the percussive left- the rhythm section- dancing on and around the beat like a jazz bassist, while her right improvised octaves and flashed riffs. This drawling church lady from Texas was playing ragtime and barrelhouse! But her piercing, otherwordly voice and lyrics of deep praise were so filled with the Holy Spirit that the music was undeniably Christian.

A singer sits at the piano and loses all inhibitions while being in complete control of the instrument: Little Richard, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc. Arizona Dranes started all that in 1926 with six “test records” that have stood the test of time.

Arizona Dranes in 1951 at age 62.

The first musical star of the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), the Pentecostal denomination that brought instruments, dancing and polyrhythmic handclaps to the black church, Dranes is strangely unknown today except to small baskets of admiring musicians and prewar record collectors. Perhaps that’s because she always listed her occupation as missionary or evangelist – not musician- and devoted her time accordingly.

Dranes didn’t make a record after her scorching 1930 duet with F.W. McGee on “Fifty Miles of Elbow Room” and rarely played public concerts, drifting into an obscurity which suggests that what happens in church stays in church.

During the 1930s, Dranes was valuable to COGIC as a “planter,” drawing crowds and setting an ecstatic tone at new churches. She worked closely with Bishop Riley F. Williams, who opened dozens of Pentecostal sanctuaries in Alabama, Georgia and Ohio like he owned the Holy Ghost franchise. Dranes lived in Cleveland for a spell in the ‘40s, when she once played at a massive baptism on the shores of Lake Erie, with Bishop Charles H. Mason, from a yacht on the lake.

The Church of God In Christ came out of the Azusa Street Revival in Los Angeles, which was tagged “the American Jerusalem” for the thousands of seekers who descended on the City of Angels from 1906-1909.  COGIC founder Mason attended the around-the-clock services, led by a black, one-eyed preacher from Houston named William J. Seymour. Mason returned to his Holiness church in Jackson, Miss. with the new Pentecostal message: speaking in tongues is the only true evidence of being baptized. 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. But when the congregation was split over Mason’s third act, he started his own church.

Among the Mississippi parishioners who followed Mason to Memphis was Emmet Morey (E.M.) Page, who would figure heavily in Dranes’ rise as a COGIC musician. Page was COGIC’s Overseer for Texas and Oklahoma when Dranes became known, and he sent her all over the state. In the mid-‘20s, Dranes spent a lot of time on the Interurban train between Dallas, where she sang for Page’s COGIC church in the Freedmantown neighborhood (now known as State-Thomas), and Fort Worth, where she wrecked praise 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.   Dranes was on the ground floor of Pentecostalism’s rise, but when she died from a stroke in 1963 at age 74 there was no obituary that can be found, not even in church publications. Nothing in the papers about the pioneer who could claim as a legacy the rich tradition of female pianists on gospel records. While most great keyboardists of R&B and jazz were and are male, the gospel field counts Roberta Martin, Clara Ward, Evelyn Starks and Mahalia Jackson’s pianist Mildred Falls as all-time greats.

Among those whose ears perked up in August 1926 when OKeh released the first two 78s by “the Blind Race Evangelist,” was Thomas A. Dorsey, who would go on to be called “the Father of Gospel” after penning such standards as “Peace In the Valley,” “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” and “If You See My Savior.”

In a 1961 interview, Dorsey gave Dranes some credit with opening his mind to laying secular styles under religious themes. Although he was a Baptist, Dorsey liked to step inside the heat of sanctified services for inspiration, as did his protégé Mahalia Jackson.  “If I can put some of what she does and mix it with the blues,” Dorsey said, recalling his first exposure to Dranes, “I’ll be able to come up with a gospel style.”

Dorsey’s genius was that his songwriting and arrangements were so sophisticated that churchgoers didn’t initially realize his music was based in blues, “the devil’s music.” During the Depression, folks didn’t want to hear reality, they wanted to escape it, and Dorsey gave sacred music a touch of Gershwin and Berlin.

Meanwhile, Dranes’ style of raw, sanctified music was sent back from the studio to the Holiness/ Pentecostal churches that popped up all over urban neighborhoods after World War I. In an interview with Gayle Wald for the Rosetta Tharpe biography Shout, Sister, Shout, churchgoer Camille Roberts recalled a Dranes performance at Roberts Temple in the 1930s. “Along comes a woman, I can’t remember her name, but she was blind and she was from Texas, and she could just make the piano talk,” Wald quoted Roberts. “She’d get so good she’d just hit it with her elbows.”

Although their playing was as different as fire and glass, Dranes and Dorsey together formed the foundation of gospel piano accompaniment, according to a 2009 doctorate dissertation by Idella Johnson with the weighty title “Development of African American Gospel Piano Style (1926- 1960): A Socio-Musical Analysis of Arizona Dranes and Thomas Dorsey.”

A church music director and pianist herself, Johnson wrote that the gospel piano style “acquired its motivic and rhythmic impetus from Dranes and its blues quality and coloring from Dorsey.”

The goods before the God

There’s no way to overstate how much Dranes’ music was driven by her affiliation to the Church of God In Christ, the first black-founded Christian denomination in the U.S. The “saints,” as the COGIC faithful call each other, become “slain in the spirit,” falling out, running down the aisles, banging on tambourines  and uttering the Hebraic-sounding “glossolalia.” When Sister Dranes flowed all that emotion through her piano and voice, spiritual possession had a key witness.

While the dominant Baptist and Methodist churches of the time were looking to distance themselves from the dark days of captivity and servitude, COGIC founder Charles H. Mason, the son of slaves, believed in embracing the past all the way to West Africa. Pentecostal dancing was called “shouting” because it was based on the Ring Shout of slave services.

Because it was that rare area in which the original African-Americans could express themselves freely, music was a highlight of their conversion to Christianity (an indoctrination for which some masters felt responsible). Slaves were especially fond of the hymns of British pastor Isaac Watts, whose early 1700s songs contained more personal offerings of praise than the stodgy church music of the day.

Dranes and her piano told a story; HIS story. But her own biography has been a gap-filled guessing game, for the most part. Much has been written and analyzed about how Dorsey’s background from preacher’s son to in-demand blues player called “Georgia Tom” informed his gospel direction after spiritual rebirth. But there has been very little known about how Dranes brought the barrelhouse” to the altar. She’s been sketched as a creation of sanctified storefronts, learning to pound away the demons on a tattered upright, while the sounds of sin seeped through the wall from the juke joint next door.

In most previously published accounts, Dranes was a raw 20 or 21-year-old when she first stepped inside a Chicago recording studio. That her middle name was “Juanita” was all the evidence some needed to report she was half-Mexican.

This information traveled from the first Dranes reissue, “Barrel House Piano With Sanctified Singing” on Herewin in 1976, to the Document “Complete Recorded Works” set in 1993.

The truth is that Dranes was classically trained, in both voice and piano, from ages 7- 23, which explains why her singing was so impeccably punctuated, her playing so fluid and instinctive.

After graduating from the Institute for Blind Colored Youths in Austin in 1910, Dranes returned to her hometown of Sherman, Tex., near the Oklahoma border, and no doubt plied her most marketable trade. She certainly didn’t learn to play ragtime, barrelhouse and stride piano at the blind school.

No young primitive spitfire, Dranes was 35 years old when she made those first landmark recordings. She had been playing piano since age 7, but evidence, as best we can expect this many years later, shows she was a relatively recent convert to Pentecostalism when she first recorded in 1926. Man had created the skilled musician before the Holy Ghost made her play with such fire.

“A school and not an asylum”

Arizona Dranes was the youngest of three children born to Milton and Cora Drane, who divorced when Arizona was young. Milton Jr. was the oldest, followed a year later by Millie. Father Milton Drain, as his surname was spelled (even on his death certificate after he was hit by a train in 1935), remarried and lived in Sherman, a block away from his first family. Arizona added the “s” to her surname after she left school.

Considering her tough landing in life, being born blind could’ve been a blessing for “Arazoni,” as she was called (even on enrollment records in 1910). She certainly received the best free education a black person in Texas could at the time. Founded and funded by the Texas Legislature in 1887, the blind institute was “a school and not an asylum” (though the students were sometimes termed “inmates.”)

The age limits to attend the school, on 108 acres four miles north of the state capitol, were 7-21, but Dranes, whose birth year changed from 1889 (1900 Census) to 1891 (1910 Census), stayed until she was 23, perhaps fudging her birth year to delay the dire conditions that awaited in Sherman or Greenville, Tex. where her family lived for a few years. Because she needed to at least look seven years old in 1896, we know Dranes’ death certificate, putting her birth year at 1894, was wrong.

Her schooling at the institute focused heavily on music, which was seen as a way, along with various handicrafts, that a blind person could make a living. Dranes was studying octaves and vocal tone production as an eight year old. By age 10 she was tinkering with sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin, as well as modern compositions by Liszt and Rubinstein. To build her voice and breath control, she was taught the Italian vocal method and was singing arias by her third year at the school.

It’s unlikely her parents, both laborers, were aware that such a school, 260 miles to the south, was available to  their sightless daughter. Arizona was almost certainly sponsored by Sherman teacher J.W. McKinney, who taught at the Frederick Douglass School, where Dranes would’ve attended if she wasn’t blind. McKinney, who was also the head of the black Mason Lodge of Texas, spoke at the blind school’s 1902 commencement (when Dranes was 11), urging students to make full use of whatever gifts God had given. He ended his speech with a downplay of the era’s racism.

“The fact that you are here, my friends, surrounded by all the comforts and facilities at public expense, these spacious buildings and beautiful grounds furnished for you, gives lie to (the belief that) whites have no regard for the rights of blacks,” he said.

Two years after Dranes graduated, COGIC focused on expanding its territory in Texas when Bishop Mason sent E.M. Page to Dallas. The efforts to spread the Pentecostal message of spirit possession by Page’s predecessor had been met with derision and even a tent-torching. Pentecostal “holy rollers” were becoming a “savage” embarrassment to mainline black churchgoers. But Page, a progressive thinker who stressed social uplift through education and community involvement, gained respect in Dallas’ black Christian community. When he arrived in Texas in January 1914, there were only about eight missions in the state and not a single proper church. By 1919, there were 35 COGIC churches in Texas.

Page would become a key figure in Dranes’ rise as a COGIC songleader, but that wouldn’t be for several years after he arrived. He first started hearing about this dynamic performer in 1923, when Dranes followed pastor J. Austin Love down from Wichita Falls to Fort Worth. What a godsend Dranes must’ve been for preachers who could reinforce their sermons by introducing the musical embodiment of what they’d been talking about. Her mix of technique and hysteria no doubt got the spirit to manifest itself in a hurry.

“Jesus knew what I needed most/ Filled my soul with the Holy Ghost”

It is 1922 in Wichita Falls, “the City Built On Faith,” and Arizona Dranes has come to live with a woman, most likely a cousin, named Elve Doran. (Arizona’s parents couldn’t read or write, so when the family name was written down it was as it sounded. In the black southern dialect of the time, Doran would be pronounced “Drane.”) The pair remained roommates for years, moving together to Chicago in 1930.

Wichita Falls had a growing COGIC presence thanks to charismatic preacher Love, who started with four believers in a living room in 1918, but had a packed First Church of God In Christ at 413 Humphries Street by the time Dranes arrived. This was almost certainly the church where the first Pentecostal music star was converted.

Researching personal history on an obscure, black, 1920s gospel musician is an often fruitless task. You never find that box of photos and letters you daydream about on long drives to small towns, but get what you can from census records and city directories and common sense. And sometimes you get lucky.

The 1921 Sherman city directory shows Arizona Dranes living at 534 Brockett Street and working as an actress. An actress? That info proves that Dranes was not yet a member of the Pentecostal church at age 32, said COGIC historian Glenda Goodson of Dallas.

“The church would have never allowed that,” said Goodson. “We couldn’t even go to theaters.” Being a saint meant completely rejecting popular culture, even the radio. Wearing boxlike white or black dresses, with white cotton stockings, Pentecostal women followed the motto, “Christ all in all; no more I, but Christ.”

Could it have been a misprint in the directory? Actress seems an odd job for a blind, black woman in a midsized Texas town circa 1921. But a piece to the puzzle could be found in an Oct. 1920 community theater column in Billboard magazine. It reports that a new theater troupe, the Sherman Players, took over the Liberty Airdome theater on E. Pecan Street, five blocks from where Dranes lived. Well-rounded by her schooling and freelance piano work, Dranes probably played ragtime, blues and barrelhouse during downtimes at the theater and maybe also got on stage as the token black female character. Actress was a more respectable occupation to report to the city directory than musician.

Within two years, however, Dranes was a fulltime singing missionary for the Church of God In Christ. The Wichita Falls directory of 1923 shows no trace of Dranes, Doran or Rev. Love, because they were down in Fort Worth, where Elder Page had sent Love to oversee construction of the White Street Holiness Church. (Although there’s one main difference in doctrines- the speaking of tongues- Pentecostal and Holiness are often used interchangeably. The White Street church is now called Greater Love Church of God In Christ.)

That must’ve been some grand church re-opening with Dranes displaying the saucy new language of gospel music. Just as a preacher has stock phrases that he’d interject into otherwise improvised sermons, Dranes had an array of musical tricks she’d throw in to get the congregations going, including her favorite 1-6-5-1 octave bass line for propulsion.  Since most sanctified churches could afford only one instrument, the piano was its orchestra. Under Dranes’ playing hands the black and white keys became a symphony of harmony, rhythm, melody and tone, but mostly rhythm. Her left hand ostinato- contantly repeating a melodic fragment- was hypnotic.

She also picked up a middle name during those early years, perhaps in homage to White Street church mother Juanita Harris. COGIC church leaders usually went with two initials and a surname and Dranes was born with only a first name.

Sharing a Pentecostal protégé with the world

The word came down to Texas that OKeh Records in Chicago was looking for talent in the church music field and Rev. Crouch recommended Dranes to the label’s race records supervisor Richard M. Jones (who wrote blues classic “Trouble In Mind”) in May 1926. Page followed by sending the label a letter of endorsement which read: “Since she is Deprived Of Her Natural Sight, the Lord Has Given Her A Spiritual Sight that all Churches Enjoy. She Loyal and Obedient, Our Prayers Ascend for her.”

Although it’s been reported that Jones heard Dranes in Fort Worth on a talent scout tour, the first time he’d ever heard her perform was when he produced her in the studio on June 17, 1926. Jones had his hands full up in Chicago that year preparing a group he’d organized called the Louis Armstrong Hot Five.

The first band under Armstrong’s name, and featuring the great Kid Ory on trombone, the Hot Five recorded three tracks in the same studio, with the same producer, the day before Dranes made her recording debut.

Two days in one room in Chicago and neither jazz nor gospel would ever be the same again.

Dranes was constantly on the road in the mid-‘20s, playing in churches all over Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Alabama and Tennessee. When advising her of plans to record a second Chicago session in Nov. 1926, OKeh’s George Bradford ended by saying, “I am sending a copy of this letter to the three different addresses that you gave us so as to be sure to reach you.”

Dranes was in Dallas when OKeh contacted her a month after her first session to tell her some good news.“My dear Miss Dranes,” Bradford wrote. “The samples of your records just came in today and they are truly wonderful.”

The correspondence between artist and label, which writer Malcolm Shaw obtained access to for a 1970 article in Storyville magazine, wasn’t always so warm and encouraging. Dranes had to almost beg for money sometimes and detailed various ailments that kept her from playing.  On September 6, 1926, a month after her first two 78s (“John Said He Saw a Number”/ “My Soul Is a Witness For the Lord” and “It’s All Right Now”/ “Sweet Heaven Is My Home”) were released to promising sales, Dranes sent a letter to Bradford asking for a $50 advance. “This is very necessary and I hope you can do this for me,” she wrote. Bradford declined, writing that an advance “is against one of our most strict rules and policies.”

In November 1926, Columbia Records bought OKeh (named after the initials of founder Otto K.E. Heinemann and pronounced “okay”) in part because of its pioneering black music department. OKeh remained independent for several years, but there came personnel changes that immediately affected Dranes’ recording output. Her producer Richard Jones was out as recording director, replaced by Tommy Rockwell, who would start managing Satchmo in 1929.

In sickness and debt

In Feb. 1928, a frustrated Dranes, who was owed money, wrote to OKeh’s Bradford: “Of coarse I didn’t know anything about record making or prices on them and I didn’t even consult our white friends down here,” she typed (or dictated) from Memphis. “I took what you said about everything and was confidence that you would treat me fair. Now I’m asking that you please consider me as I am disable to work and have to be confined to my room.”

But Bradford was no longer with the label. Elmer Fearn, who owned Consolidated Talking Machine Company (which ran OKeh) replied that he would send Rockwell, who was in Memphis recording Mississippi John Hurt, with the money she was owed. Rockwell visited Dranes, but she was still broke after he left. “He offered to let me have money, providing I record,” Dranes wrote back, “but I am not able to record.”

Fearn immediately sent Dranes $60. Her records had sold well and he wanted her back in the studio when she felt up to it.

As COGIC overseer for Oklahoma, as well as Texas, Page sent Dranes in 1928 to Oklahoma City, where she lived on East Second Street, the R&B/ jazz haven known as “Deep Deuce.” She may have heard a young guitar player on the street named Charlie Christian, who also came from Texas, or blues shouter Jimmy Rushing.

More likely, they heard her. In a 2003 interview, Helen Davis, then 90, recalled seeing A.J. Dranes at Page’s church in Oklahoma City in the 1920s. “She’d get the whole place shouting,” Davis recalled. “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.” Such displays masked the formal musical training that gave Dranes such command.

Dranes recorded 16 tracks in just three sessions- June 17 and November 15, 1926 and July 3, 1928-  for OKeh. Each time in the studio, she used a different backing configuration, but the piano and her voice were always dominant.

Dranes also recorded two instrumentals on the first session, including “Crucifixion,” which would become her signature song through inclusion on various compilations in recent years. On four tracks that June day she was loosely backed by producer Jones and noted blues singer Sara Martin, who had a 1922 hit with Fats Waller’s “T’ain’t Nobody’s Bizness If I Do.”

When OKeh sent her back to Chicago for round two, Dranes brought along F.W. McGee, a COGIC minister she probably met in Oklahoma. Dranes, McGee and the Jubilee Singers recorded four tunes in the quintessential call and response vein used in Pentecostal congregational singing. “Lamb’s Blood Has Washed Me Clean,” in which Dranes declares “Jesus Christ knew what I needed most/ Filled my soul with the Holy Ghost” is awash in a spiritual ecstasy that would be considered almost barbaric for the times.

Raised in Hillsboro, Tex., Ford Washington McGee was a Methodist minister on his 1917 draft registration card, but by the 1920 census he was preaching for the Pentecostal side in Cleveland County, Oklahoma.

McGee was living in Chicago in 1926, preaching from revival tents and building a following which included Katie Bell Nubin. By the time Dranes moved to Chicago in 1929, McGee had built a COGIC temple on Vincennes Avenue on the South Side. Dranes’ South St. Lawrence Avenue apartment was just blocks away, so she surely played there, in addition to Roberts Temple.

Dranes helped McGee get a deal with OKeh and played on the singing preacher’s first single “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” in 1927. But McGee soon moved to the Victor label, becoming one of the country’s most famous preachers. His 1929 recording of “Jonah In the Belly of the Whale” sold over 100,000 copies.

Dranes’ third and last session- credited to “Arizona Dranes and Choir,” though it was really just Dranes, a splendid unidentified mandolinist and a few female voices- showed that she was developing as an artist beyond a Pentecostal pounder. Such cuts as “Just Look” and “I Shall Wear a Crown” are fuller, more melodic than her earlier stomps.

The standout track is “He Is My Story,” a rewriting of “Blessed Assurance” by blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby. Where the Crosby version has a chorus of “This is my story/ This is my song,” Dranes makes it all about God. “He is my story/ He is my song,” she sang with a voice quivering like an arrow at impact.

Par for Dranes’ career, OKeh didn’t release “Story,” her most commercially viable track.

Sanctified blues was a Dallas thing

The relationship between OKeh and Dranes didn’t end particularly well. A month after the final session, a backing musician went to Fearn’s office and asked to be paid what he was owed. Fearn had given Dranes money to pay the session singers and mandolin player (the only other musician besides Dranes).

“The money u gave for them, they got every dime of it,” an upset Dranes wrote Fearn from Oklahoma City, then added. “I promised to give them some of my money because they seem not to be satisfied with what they got.” Dranes added that the women on the session were without complaint. “I didn’t want you to think I would do any crooked work or tell a false about anything. I will be in Chicago on the 20th if nothing happens to me.”

Based on style, Coley Jones of the Dallas String Band is the most widely speculated guest on mandolin. But since Jones did all his playing and recording in Dallas, he probably wouldn’t have remained in Chicago a month after the session.

But Dranes was almost certainly aware of Jones’ playing. Before she was signed to recording ($25 per released side) and publishing (25% royalty) contracts, Dranes’ address was next door to Page’s church at the corner of Thomas and Ellis Avenues in the Freedmantown section of Dallas. The bordering district to the south was the blues hotbed of Deep Ellum, where the Dallas String Band, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Leadbelly, Little Hat Jones and other blues greats played on street corners and in juke joints.

Deep Ellum was a big musical stew that undoubtedly fed Dranes’ appetite for piano styles. As one guided by her ears, she certainly took in the blues, stride, ragtime and barrelhouse coming from doorways when she joined her church on soul-saving missions in the red light district.

The cross-pollination of gospel and blues is exemplified by a remark by electric blues guitar pioneer T-Bone Walker that the first time he heard boogie-boogie piano was at a Pentecostal church in Dallas. He either heard Arizona Dranes or someone she influenced.

Developed in East Texas when train-hopping troubadours aped the rhythm of steam locomotives carrying lumber from the Piney Woods, boogie-woogie became the hot new thing in the early 1920s when Texans George and Hersal Thomas (the older brothers of Sippie Wallace) published sheet music to “The Fives.”  Called “Fast Texas,” the percussive, repetitive style dropped right into Dranes’ bag of tricks.

Thomas siblings: Hersal, Sippie, Hociel, George

Her recordings attest that she was also fond of another form of music with roots in Texas: ragtime. Although Scott Joplin (1867-1917) of Texarkana didn’t invent the genre, which was based on an Afro-Euro mixture of jigs slaves danced to and Souza marches, Joplin’s emphasis on syncopation and cross rhythms refined it as a piano form. The left hand recalled the stomp of dancers, while the right hand played fiddle parts.

The first African-American musical style to be considered popular music, ragtime made a splash at the 1893 Columbian Expo in Chicago and quickly pulled itself out of the brothels and riverboats and into the mainstream. Joplin’s 1899 composition “Maple Leaf Rag” sold more than a million copies of sheet music and created a national sensation that was still going strong in the 1920s.

Black Baptist and Methodist churches of the time wouldn’t think of including ragtime at their services. But early Pentecostals erased the divide between secular and sacred because in their perspective all experience was religious. They could only dance at church, so they snatched the good stuff from the devil, colored in deep devotion and had a Holy Ghost Party every Sunday and Wednesday. The “tongue people” started a musical renaissance that gave birth to soul music and rock and roll.

The roots of Arizona’s soulfire

COGIC started where the blues did, in the Mississippi Delta, when preachers Mason and Charles Price Jones were kicked out of the Baptist church for preaching Holiness and started a new church in Lexington, Mississippi. Based on John Wesley’s doctrine of “Christian perfection,” Holiness was a belief that Original Sin could be erased by an immediate, emotional, experience with God. Conversion to Christianity wasn’t enough to get into heaven. A second act of grace was required.

 In expelling him, the General Missionary Baptist Convention of 1895 in Jackson, Miss. accused Price of “preaching pernicious, heretical doctrines among the most ignorant classes of our people.”

But Pentecostalism would take Holiness even further, calling for the speaking in tongues as a third act required to live a life of entire sanctification. The doctrine, which was unveiled amidst national attention at the Azusa Street Revival in L.A. in 1906, is based on the story of Pentecost in the New Testament’s Book of Acts. Fifty days after Passover, the 11 apostles and Christ’s mother Mary gathered in Jerusalem, where the house in which they were sitting was filled with a strong wind from heaven. “And then appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire . . .,” it’s written in Acts. “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit granted them utterance.”

News reports on the Azusa Street Revival described a racially mixed congregregation (which in itself was a story at the time), “…mouthing a creed which it would seem no sane mortal could understand.”

Mason came to Azusa Street a skeptic in March 1907 and returned to Mississippi a few weeks later a true believer. But Price rejected the speaking in tongues doctrine as a trick of the devil and urged church members to “revoke the right hand of fellowship” from Mason, which they did.

After a drawn-out court case, Mason was awarded the rights to use Church of God In Christ, while Price called his new denomination Church of God (Holiness). One of the Mississippi preachers who went with Price was Rev. Charles Cook, whose son Sam Cooke would be the first gospel star to cross over to pop in 1957.

At Azusa, Mason was one of the only converts whose church was legally incorporated, so he ended up ordaining more than 300 white ministers into his denomination. In its first seven years, COGIC services were racially integrated, with whites sitting in the balcony because of segregation laws.

One of the white members who sat with Bishop Mason was William B. Holt, a lawyer from Germany who served as COGIC’s general secretary and legal representative. When the U.S. joined World War I in 1917, the word got out to the FBI that Mason had a right hand man from Germany and was preaching against U.S. involvement in the war. Claiming that Mason predicted a victory by Germany as payback for how blacks were treated in America, the FBI arrested Mason in 1918 on a Sedition Act violation.

But they couldn’t prove anything and the charges were dropped. Mason knew what was going on: he was being watched closely because of the white churchgoers who looked up to him. In Mississippi and Memphis in those years, that situation was a no-win.

Mason must’ve been a little relieved, then, when the white members left to form the Assemblies of God in 1914. Mason spoke at the conference in Hot Springs, Ark. that announced the formation of the new white Pentecostal denomination. He held up a sweet potato formed in the shape of a turkey as an example of God’s mysterious ways. “Now when a turkey talks, he says ‘took, took, took,’” Mason said. He’d brought the Industrial Saints, a group of singers from Lexington, and when he said “took took took” a second time, they started singing “He Took My Sins Away,” repeating the word “took” three times in four-part harmony.

Long before he’d heard of Arizona Dranes, Mason understood the power that music had in reinforcing the message. His vision and authority was never questioned within the church he founded and led until his 1961 death.

“The Chief Apostle was everything to us,” recalled Emma Clark of the Mattie McGlothen Temple in Richmond, Cal. “He always walked to the pulpit from the back of the church and as he passed each row you’d hear a wave of emotion come over the people. Some were crying.”

One of Mason’s first official decisions as COGIC founder was to dedicate 20 days every year to a big Azusa-like gathering. The National Convocation is held in Memphis every year from Nov. 25- Dec. 14. It’s a harvest festival of sorts, just like Pentecost in Christ’s time.

The convocations are where songleaders from all over the country shared songs they had written or reinterpreted. Until fairly recently, COGIC congregations didn’t use hymn books, so this is how Dranes found most of her material, which she would then adapt to her style and sentiment. The history of gospel music is a history of reinterpretation, as there are dozens of different versions of the same songs floating around without true ownership. Dranes is listed on the Consolidated Music Publishing contracts as the writer of the songs she recorded, but aside from the ones she was known to make up in the heat of services, most of the material really belonged to the COGIC congregations.

Pentecostals have to make their own fun, so a highlight of the convocation was always the nightly musical performances. From midnight until the sun came up, such performers as Dranes, electric guitarist Elder Utah Smith, singers Madame Ernestine Washington and Goldia Haynes, plus the piano shout duo of Elders Curry and Beck would keep the praise songs going strong.

Perusing the annual convocation yearbooks kept at the McGlothen Temple Library, one can see Dranes’ prominence diminish greatly through the years. Even though she was closely associated with three of the five original COGIC Bishops- E.M. Page, R.F. Williams and W.M. Roberts of Chicago- there’s no mention of her in any of the church histories, even those focusing on women in COGIC.

Partly that’s because she was never a member of the almighty COGIC Women’s Department, where names like Mother Lizzie Woods Robinson and Mother Lillian Brooks Coffey are almost as mythical as Bishop Mason. Another carryover from slave tradition, COGIC gave women great responsibility, but reserved ultimate authority for a male leader. Women didn’t “preach,” they would “teach,” from a secondary lectern, never the pulpit.

“Sweet Heaven Is My Home”

 There were Dranes sightings here and there as the years wore on, but, really, if you weren’t a member of a black Pentecostal church in Texas, Oklahoma, Chicago, Cleveland, Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis, Atlanta, Birmingham or Los Angeles, you had almost no chance of ever seeing Arizona Dranes perform.

Although she played behind Madame Ernestine Washington at a Chicago COGIC women’s convention in 1953, Arizona’s last known public appearance was in Cleveland in 1947. She was billed as the “Famous Blind Piano Player From Chicago.”

She spent the last years of her life in Los Angeles, where her old friend Bishop Crouch bought the Lincoln Theater on South Central Avenue in 1961 and turned it into the Crouch Temple.

Dranes was not mentioned again in the convocation yearbook after 1953. Her death certificate noted that she’d suffered from cerebral arteriosclerosis for years, which could’ve caused dementia. She was living in an assisted living facility in Signal Hill, Cal. when she had the stroke that killed her on July 27, 1963. She had never married and her occupation at the time of death was “missionary.”

Arizona Dranes was buried at the Paradise Memorial Park in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., but no one knows exactly where her 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.

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 a mass grave.

Ghastly to think such a pious force of nature would meet such a cruel state of disregard, but Pentecostals, like all Christians, see the body as just a bag for the soul.

She was the Holy Ghost’s favorite singer, an otherworldly vessel fueled by faith. This ragged virtuoso of touch and tone had spent her whole life getting ready for when the time came, whether it was a career as a church-wrecker or a chance to sing for God in heaven.

So that’s how it ended, happily for Arizona Dranes if her beliefs were true. And here’s how it started: a poor, scared, little blind girl from North Texas sat at a piano in Austin in 1896 and knew she’d never be lonely again.

 

 

BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON

 Revelations in the Dark

by Robert Crumb

 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 because of who covered them. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” was resurrected 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.

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. 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 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.

This 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 after later reissues.

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 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 wolflike 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 1927-1930.

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 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 from the red light district nicknamed “The Reservation,” which seemed strange for a gospel musician. But recent findings conclude that this Willie Johnson, blind, was, indeed, Blind Willie Johnson.

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 Willie Johnson and Willie B. Harris had daughter, Sam Faye, in 1931, he said he was from Temple.

His death certificate incorrectly lists his Texas birthplace as the freedmen’s town of Independence, near Brenham. 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 in Jan. 1897 in Pendleton. That year, Lomax was living in

Austin, where he would graduate from the University of Texas in June. There’s no evidence they met, 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 15 billion miles away. The otherworldly music of Blind Willie Johnson is on its way home.

Book II: 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, 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 “Dark,” 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.

It’s a song about the Passion and Blind Willie nailed it on the first take 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 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.”

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, 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 blind Brenham preacher interviewed by Charters in 1955. They played in the same general genre, with religious/ secular lyrics being the core difference, but Jefferson didn’t play the slide. And Johnson didn’t make the people dance like Blind Lemon did.

Book III: Johnson & Johnson, gospel and blues

 Jefferson and Johnson inspired Robert Johnson, who laid out the blueprint for Chicago blues and its offspring in November 1936 at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio. The Mississippi guitarist’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.

Even though his playing, always on a Stella guitar, inspired a host of Delta blues men, Blind Willie 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 he 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 Dec. 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 by “Blind Texas Marlin” and the speculation was that BTM was BWJ, 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.” But Willie B. Harris told fan Dan Williams in the ’70s that her former husband became blind from looking at the sun through a piece of glass during an eclipse. Indeed, a partial eclipse was seen over Texas in August 1905, when BWJ was 7, the year he lost his sight.

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 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.

Book IV: “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, which merged with the Atchison, Topeka & the Santa Fe in 1886, 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 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.

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.

Book V: Blind leading the blind

 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. In 1920, Texas had 16,000 miles of railroad tracks, almost twice as much as any other state, and Blind Willie got around.

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, on 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. 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. The New Orleans session is notable for producing the enduring “Let Your Light Shine On Me,” the first song Johnson recorded in standard guitar tuning, which was a standout on the all-gospel soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ 2004 film The Ladykiller. The Big Easy also makes an appearance in Blind Willie lore because it’s been reported- without any sourcing- that the musician was arrested for inciting a riot by singing “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down” in front of the U.S. Customs building in 1929.

When 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 Dec. 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,’ 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.’”

Could Blind Willie Johnson have had an influence on Beaumont-raised trumpet player Harry James in the late ‘20s, early ‘30s? “I was brought up in Texas with the blues,” the jazz legend told Merv Griffin in 1977. “Down in what they call ‘Barbecue Row’ I used to sit in with the guys that had the broken bottlenecks on their guitars, playing the blues; that’s all we knew.” On hearing Harry James, whose father Everett was bandleader for the Mighty Haag Circus headquartered in Beaumont, Louis Armstrong was surprised he was white.

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 “charred” 1440 Forest Ave. 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 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 of those treated died from malarial fever.

Book VI: 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 northeast 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 became a destination for the rich, with a booming economy. The New York Giants held spring training in Marlin from 1908-1918 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.

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, Tex. Johnson came to Shiner from San Antonio in Oct. 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 streetcorner trick.

Book VII: The sounds of Earth in Outer Space

 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” era.

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,” “John the Revelator,” “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 on earlyblues.com, 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 Gonna 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 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 are a spiritual people, that we hurt and we heal, that we do indeed have souls that live long after we’re buried.

 

 

 

ADDENDUM #1 Slide Guitar before and after Blind Willie

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 took off around 2002 with the “Sacred Steel” phenomenon, a new way to rock that came from a 65-year-old tradition. The Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent, Sonny Treadway, Calvin Cooke, Maurice “Ted” Beard and many more gospel steel players took 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. But the biggest star was Robert Randolph, who sported cornrows and hip-hop clothes to match a swaggering stage presence. His mother, a House of God minister, was overjoyed when Robert started going back to church, where his rapturous pedal steel flights floored churchgoers. Not unlike Arizona Dranes, whom all Pentecostal performers followed, Randolph’s chief duty was driving the congregation to heightened levels of spiritual possession. He took a few licks from Blind Willie Johnson, too, but the Sacred Steel movement grew out of Hawaiian music, not gospel blues.

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 and do holy “shout” dances. 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 explained in 2002. “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 duet with the singers. When they slur, you slide. When they go way up, you go higher.”

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 younger brother a few licks. Rather than follow his brother’s more traditional Polynesian style, Willie played as if his music was the lyric of his soul, developing a flamboyant single string lead style that mimicked the singing voice. Willie Eason was also responsible for spreading sacred steel to the House of God hotbed of Florida (which has nearly 50 congregations). In 1940, he married Ocala, Fla., native Alyce Nelson, whose younger brother Henry Nelson became fascinated with his brother-in-law’s “talking guitar” style. Nelson added a driving strum to the style of gospel steel that would become a House of God trademark, passed down through the generations.

Soon after human beings first stretched strings over wood to make sound, there’s been a natural inclination to slide objects over the strings. In ancient India, musicians played an instrument called a gottuvadyam by gliding a small rod over the strings. But musicologists generally concur that the steel guitar was devised by Hawaiian schoolboy Joseph Kekuku, circa 1885. What makes it a “steel guitar” is that it’s played with a metal bar like the one Kekuku made in his seventh-grade shop class. In the beginning, the guitars were just standard hollow body acoustics, played horizontally, with raised strings and thumb and finger picks. Hawaiian steel guitar became a national rage at 1915’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, which ran for seven months in San Francisco. The Hawaii legislature approved $100,000 ($2 million today) to build a pavilion, which featured a giant aquarium, tropical flowers from floor to ceiling, statues of surfers and the Hawaiian Quartette, featuring steel guitar and ukulele. This group outdrew a John Phillips Sousa concert. American was capitivated by the Island culture.

In 1916, the Victor label alone released 140 recordings of Hawaiian music, many from Tin Pan Alley songwriters with nonsense Hawaiian choruses.

The most influential Hawaiian steel player was Sol Hoopii, the youngest in a family of 21 children on Oahu. “Some of the first Western swing steel players were copying Sol Hoopii note for note,” said musician and ethnomusicologist Bob Brozman, who passed away in 2013. “He had a jazzman’s instincts, and in the late ’20s, early ’30s he took the steel guitar places it had never gone before.” Steel player Jerry Byrd, who left steady Nashville session work for the lounges of Waikiki in 1972, has said that Hoopii possessed the most dextrous picking hand he’d ever heard. Country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers started hiring steel players from Hawaii in 1928 and popularized the “crying” accompaniment with country audiences. Bob Dunn of the Fort Worth-based Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies was among the first to play electric lap steel guitar in a country band, and Leon McAuliffe’s hit 1936 recording of “Steel Guitar Rag” (a cover of Sylvester Weaver’s “Guitar Rag”) secured the instrument in the country music lexicon.

Remington’s ride

Also coming under the spell of Hawaiian music was a 12-year-old kid from South Bend, Ind., named Herb Remington. “There was just this huge Hawaiian craze and the first time I heard that sound of a steel guitar, I thought, boy I gotta play me one of those,” said Remington, one of the living legends of the instrument in 2018. Remington took lessons, at $1.25 each, from the Oahu Publishing Co., which had dispatched teachers and sheet music salesmen from Hawaii to points all over the country. “After you took 30 lessons, they gave you a little wooden guitar and a slide bar.” The day after being discharged from the Army in 1946, Remington auditioned for Bob Wills and became a Texas Playboy on the spot. He remained in the exalted band for four years before leaving to start a Hawaiian band, the Beachcombers, with his wife, Mel. After the Polynesian “exotica” craze died down, the Remingtons opened a shop in Houston to build and sell both pedal and non-pedal steel guitars.

The Gibson guitar company came up with the “biscuit box on legs” design, which we currently identify with the steel guitar, in the late ’30s. A few years later, pedals, knee levers and multiple necks were added for more flexibility. But the complicated pedal steel guitar would not be embraced by Nashville until Bud Isaacs started playing it with Webb Pierce. “It was the big hit ‘Slowly’ in 1954,” Remington recalled. “That’s when the pedal steel guitar became THE thing. Every producer just had to have that pedal steel sound.”

One of the best was Jimmy Day, who started out as a teenager on “the Louisiana Hayride” and backed Hank Williams and Elvis Presley on tour, then came long stints with Ray Price and Willie Nelson. Day was hanging out at the Sho-Bud showroom in Nashville one day in 1969 when a House of God bishop and his son, visiting from Rochester, NY for a church convention, came in to look at the pedal steel guitars. The bishop asked Day to demonstrate one and he used the half-pint whiskey bottle he’d been sipping on for a slide. He played “Amazing Grace” and tears welled up in Chuck Campbell’s eyes. “It was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard,” Campbell recalled in 2007. Campbell watched the pedals, which allowed Day to switch tunings mid-song. Levers controlled by the knees raised and lowered the pitch. Suddenly, a whole new world of options opened up to the 13-year-old frontman of the Campbell Brothers. Switching to a pedal steel and exploring eerie tunings, Chuck forever changed his church’s music.

But it all started with Blind Willie Johnson, who was looking for more colors, more shading, and sliding up and down the strings gave him that. It’s all around the edges of the frets, the darkness of the night, the cold firmness of the ground. That’s where the passion is.

 

ADDENDUM #2- Texas Gospel in the ‘50s: Houston Rivals Chicago at the Mecca

 

Robey with Al “TNT” Braggs and Bobby Blue Bland.

Houston’s Don Deadric Robey — half black, half Jewish, all gangster — beat Berry Gordy by ten years as an African-American record mogul. A gambler and a hustler, he did not get there by playing fair, but Robey put out some of the greatest gospel, R&B and rock and roll records of the 1950s and ’60s from a building in the Fifth Ward of Houston. As Stax would later define Memphis grit, Duke/Peacock was raw, black Texas soul music.

As the label of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Sensational Nightingales, led by the volcanic housewreckers Archie Brownlee and Julius Cheeks, respectively, Peacock was primarily known in the early ‘50s as the home of hard gospel. Add the Dixie Hummingbirds from South Carolina, the Spirit of Memphis Quartet, Pilgrim Jubilee Singers from Chicago, Rev. Cleothus Robinson from Mississippi, Sister Jessie Mae Renfro of Waxahachie, the Christland Singers with R.H. Harris and the Brooklyn All-Stars and Peacock had as heavenly a roster as there was.

Chicago was still the headquarters for black gospel music, but because of Robey’s label and booking agency, Houston was gospel’s Second City.

It all started with Brownlee’s Blind Boys, whose fame has been surpassed by their Alabama counterparts in recent years. But back in the heyday, “The Five Blind Boys” referred to the guys who formed at the Piney Wood School for the Blind near Jackson, Miss. Besides shoutmaster Brownlee, the original group, which was recorded by Alan Lomax in 1937 as the Cotton Blossom Singers, included tenor Lawrence “Shorty” Abrams, baritone Lloyd Woodard and bass singer Joseph Ford (replaced by J.T. Clinkscales in the late ’40s).

After graduation, the group began singing professionally as the Jackson Harmoneers and moved to New Orleans for better opportunities. There, they picked up fifth member Percell Perkins and recorded obscure singles for the Excelsior and Coleman labels. Booked in New Jersey with another blind group, a promoter billed the concert as a battle between the Blind Boys of Mississippi and the Blind Boys of Alabama. After the show sold out, both acts ended up keeping the new names.

On tour in Houston in 1950, the Mississippi Boys met Robey, who decided he could sell some gospel records by adding a drum beat to quartet singing. While the first session with the “Original Five Blind Boys” did not produce a hit, the second session created a monster with “Our Father.” That intensifying of The Lord’s Prayer, over a repetitive bass drum, validated Robey’s vision by being the first black gospel record to hit the jukebox. Before that, almost all quartet records were a cappella. After “Our Father” hit, almost none were.

Robey required all his studio drummers to follow the beat of a red light in the studio that simulated the rhythm of a human heart. Austin gospel group the Bells of Joy had a huge hit following that Robey formula on “Let’s Talk About Jesus.” The lyrics were written by Lavada Durst, the KVET disc jockey who’d just recorded a piano blues single for Peacock as “Dr. Hepcat.” With sales of 700,000 copies, “Let’s Talk About Jesus” won the Cashbox award for best-selling religious single of 1951.

Austin’s Bells of Joy

Peacock got thick in the game in 1952 when Robey signed established gospel stars the Dixie Hummingbirds, who rival the Soul Stirrers and Swan Silvertones as the most consistently great gospel quartet of them all. Led by the inventive, charismatic Ira Tucker, the “Birds” could sing it all, exemplified by 1953 smash “Let’s Go Out To the Programs,” in which the group delivered perfect imitations of the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Bells of Joy and, lastly, the Dixie Hummingbirds.

Peacock’s other big signing in 1952 was the Sensational Nightingales, assembled in North Carolina by former Hummingbird Barney Parks a few years earlier. Besides Cheeks, whom Wilson Pickett acknowledged as a primary influence, the ‘gales added two other lead singers — Ernest James and Jo Jo Wallace — before making their Peacock debut in the summer of ’52 with “A Soldier Not In Uniform” b/w “Will He Welcome Me There.” The Nightingales’ most sensational number came in 1956 with the aptly-named “Burying Ground,” with Cheeks’ seismic vocals burying all contenders at the gospel “battles” that were popular at the time.

Before 1956, when a full studio was built at 2809 Erastus, Robey and musical directors Joe Scott and Dave Clark used Bill Holford’s ACA (Audio Company of America) studio on Westheimer. Peacock artists were in and out of there all the time, as Robey kept signing acts like the Southern Wonders, Christian Travelers, Stars of Hope, Golden Harps and Gospelaires.

If anyone had a problem with Robey’s sketchy concept of renumeration, they weren’t on Peacock for long. Ira Tucker told interviewer Seamus McGarvey years later that he never really had a problem with the entrepreneur whose very name started with R-O-B.

“The only thing that you had to watch was, if you had a deal with Don, you had to keep him with the deal (because) if he could talk you out of it, he would,” he said. “If he could scare you down, he would.”

Roscoe Robinson, who in 1960 replaced Archie Brownlee as lead singer of the Five Blind Boys of Mississippi after the great shouter died of pneumonia at age 35, said Robey paid the group with a new car and performing uniforms, but they never received royalties. Like all Peacock acts, they made their money on the road.

“When our contract was up, we asked Robey for a new car and he said ‘no,’ so we signed with Chess Records up in Chicago,” says Robinson, who was 88 in 2017. But after the Five Blind Boys made a record for Chess subsidiary Checker Records in ’62, Robey had a scheme to defraud Chess by producing a contract with the Blind Boys that he had back-dated.

“He said he would cut us in on a lot of money [Peacock sued Chess for $450,000] if we signed the contract, but me and Shorty refused, so they kicked us out of the group,” says Robinson.

Before it served as headquarters for Peacock Records and the Buffalo Booking Agency, the 2809 Erastus Street address in the Fifth Ward housed Robey’s sophisticated Bronze Peacock Dinner Club from 1945 to ’51. There also was a very active back room for gambling.

After Robey discovery Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown didn’t get much promotion on two singles for L.A.’s Aladdin label in 1949, Robey told “his discreet enabler” Evelyn Johnson they could do a better job putting the records out themselves. “How do you start a record label?” she  asked Robey, to which he reportedly shot back, “Hell if I know! That’s for you to find out.” Johnson called the Library of Congress, who didn’t put out records, but referred Johnson to companies who did. She called them all and got an education in contracts, copyrights, royalties, publishing, and even record-pressing.

Don and Evelyn

A college graduate who had began her career as an X-ray technician, but quit due to radiation fears, Johnson was always hungry for education. It paid off in 1953 when Peacock had it’s first hit R&B smash with Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” predating the sensational Elvis Presley cover by three years. Blues acts were tapping into the intensity of gospel to create the rock n’ roll sensation. Since that’s what was selling, Robey followed.

After he acquired the Duke label in the early ’50s, Robey’s stable of acts expanded to include  Bobby “Blue” Bland, Junior Parker, Johnny Ace, Roscoe Gordon, Memphis Slim, Johnny Otis, Big Walter and the Thunderbirds and O.V. Wright.

Inspired by the Duke/Peacock success, a black couple from Gary, Ind. named Vivian and James Bracken founded Vee-Jay in 1953 to put out “Baby It’s You” by the Spaniels and Jimmy Reed records. The label became prominent in the early ‘60s when they put out No. 1 records by the Beatles and the Four Seasons, but the white acts had lawyers and sued an overwhelmed Vee-Jay, which didn’t have the resources to keep up with the demand, over back royalties. The label folded in 1966.

Robey kept everything in-house and inspired loyalty from his acts (one way or another), so Duke/Peacock was able to survive almost 25 years before selling to ABC/Dunhill. “He might’ve ripped me off,” Gatemouth Brown told me in 2005, “but if it wasn’t for Don Robey, nobody would’ve ever heard of me.”

Such sentiments fueled impressario greed across the board in the music business at the time. Getting paid to do something you love was a novel concept after the Depression and WWII. What was important was that Robey allowed musicians to make records, and the style didn’t matter as long as people were buying them. Robey had five labels in all, including Back Beat (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” in ’65) and Song Bird (“Lord Don’t Move the Mountain” by Inez Andrews in ’73).

In 1953, after he acquired full ownership of Duke, Robey started a gospel series on that label, including two releases by acts with ties to Austin’s first family of gospel, the Franklins. The Paramount Singers, who were co-founded by Ermant M. Franklin, but relocated to Oakland during WWII, and the Chariettes, featuring E.M.’s daughter Evelyn Franklin, recorded singles for Duke.

The Franklins who would have the biggest impact on Duke/Peacock, however, were Ermant Jr. and brother Elmo, whose Mighty Clouds of Joy signed with Robey in 1960 and changed gospel music forever by essentializing the full, funky band sound. The group, who would go on to be known as “The Temptations of Gospel,” recorded the spiritual hit “Ain’t Got Long Here” at their very first Peacock session and had enormous LP sales with Family Circle in ’62 and Live at the Music Hall in ’67. Clouds lead singer Joe Ligon, a native of Troy, Ala., was an acolyte of Brownlee and Cheeks, taking Peacock’s anguished rasp sound full-circle.

By the early ’60s, Peacock had so many gospel artists on the roster that Robey started a new religious music subsidiary Song Bird, which also expanded on Peacock’s focus on male quartets. Some of Robey’s earlier competitors, such the Specialty, Apollo and Gotham labels had become inactive, so he was signing just about anyone he wanted and at one point had 109 acts under contract, according to Ray Funk’s 1990 history of Peacock’s gospel division that ran in Rejoice! magazine (an invaluable source for this bonus chapter).

The gospel side paid unexpected dividends when Tennessee native O.V. Wright, a former member of the Sunset Travelers, had a huge secular hit in 1964 with “That’s How Strong My Love Is” on the Goldwax label. Robey discovered that Wright was still under contract to him, so he claimed the rising R&B star for his Back Beat label and had big hits with “Eight Men, Four Women” and “A Nickel and a Nail.” If there was money to be made, Robey was on it.

By the late ’60s, he was spending more and more time at his ranch near Crosby, where he raised thoroughbreds and sometimes even competed in rodeos on other horses. As a metaphor to his time as a music mogul, Robey’s specialty was calf-roping.

When he hit 70 years old in 1973, Don Robey sold his assets, which included 2,700 song copyrights (several hundred co-“written” by Deadric Malone, his pen name), to ABC/Dunhill for an undisclosed amount. The deal called for Robey to remain a consultant on his catalog, but that gig was short-lived.

Don Robey did have a heart, it turned out, and he died when it stopped beating in 1975. He made a lot of money off the talents of others because that was the game. But his cold-blooded entrepeneurship also was responsible for the creation of a gulf of music that will glisten forever.

 

 DEDICATION

 This book is dedicated to Mack McCormick, the best there ever was at what I’m trying to do.

Mack never finished the book everyone wanted him to, but in a way he did. He just didn’t write it. McCormick, who passed away in November 2015 at age 85, knew more about Robert Johnson than anyone else. He knew more about Fourth Ward piano players and East Texas songsters and the blues divas who sang in whorehouses. He did the research and wrote it down. He knew where the story started and how it ended, in detail that would take years to collect, and yet he couldn’t write the way he needed to, apparently. Collecting Texas music history was one of his two main passions; writing was the other. In his thoughts he was a historian, but when he sat down to write he became more than that. Or maybe less. McCormick thought too much about everything, said those who knew him.

The world of a historian is lonely by design and there’s not a more annoying sound than people talking. Diagnosed with a bipolar personality, McCormick accomplished much amidst his inner mentral distress. He found Mance Lipscomb and Robert Shaw, recording them for the first time as old men. He managed the unmanageable Lightnin’ Hopkins and mentored Chris Strachwitz of the Arhoolie label (named by Mack) in gritty native Texas music. Then came Les Blank, then Ry Cooder. But most of all, McCormick dug deep to find connections. From where did inspiration spring? Who did the greats learn from?

At his Dec. 12, 2015 memorial service in Houston, McCormick was eulogized by some of those who’ve taken up his work. Andrew Brown, who’s written so many great, extensive liner notes for Bear Family boxed sets, called McCormick “the man who cared too much.” He described a high school dropout who became an intellectual, an eternal outsider who got close to the flame.

Another protégé Roger Wood  (Down In Houston), recalled how McCormick loved to solve the puzzle of poetry. His favorites were Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman and Wood quoted each. Dickinson’s “The truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind” spoke of McCormick’s steady thoroughness.

“I am large,” Wood read from a Whitman poem McCormick once quoted to him. “I contain multitudes.”

The time I went to Mack’s house in Houston, he almost turned me away after I mentioned a foreign music historian who, it turned out, Mack had a beef with. This was in 2003 and I was researching Blind Willie Johnson for the first time. Eventually he calmed down and we had good Mexican food and margaritas. His overall knowledge of blues and musicians was stunning.

“I think Blind Willie Johnson is, one day, going to be like Robert Johnson, known more for who he influenced, rather than what he did on his own,” McCormick said, adding that he considered Johnson a blues artist as much as a gospel musician. We also talked about Arizona Dranes, whom I’d also just started writing about. “What makes Pentecostal singers different from, say, Baptist singers?” he asked, apologizing for his lack of study in the religious music field. I can actually say that I schooled Mack McCormick.

I drove back to Austin the next day seeing that big hole as an opportunity to make my own mark as a gospel music historian. If McCormick had researched an area it was like hitting a garage sale at noon.

Forget the flashy and famous, was McCormick’s advice to me. Find the originators and tell their stories.

 

1962 photo by Ed Valdez, Houston Chronicle

 

 

 

 

 
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