By Michael Corcoran
In July 2001, I received this CD in the mail at my job at the Austin American Statesman. It’s an unauthorized British compilation of 1920s American gospel music that would would end up playing a big part in my slow transformation from cynical/ abrasive music critic to deep-digging historian. A knockoff that would knock me out. “Amazing Gospel” was the first time I would hear the music of Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson- three gospel music pioneers whose biographical blanks I would spend a few hundred hours over the next ten years trying to fill. I was driven by the supreme talents of this threesome, driven to reverse the injustice of their obscurity. In all three cases, just finding the death certificate would triple the previously known biographical information. I found out so much stuff about my three obsessions because no one had seriously researched their lives- and not just their music- before.
Washington Phillips was the first of these subjects I delved into. His “Amazing Gospel” track, “A Mother’s Last Words To Her Daughter,” was recorded by Dranes and Johnson as “Bye and Bye, I’m Gone To See the King,” but Phillips’ version is my favorite by far. I played it over and over again and wondered how an East Texas dirt farmer in a makeshift studio in Dallas could create such a mesmerizing record. I’d never heard anything like it. Some misinformation on liner notes had Phillips dying in Austin in 1938, which gave me the local angle to satisfy my editors at the Austin American Statesman. I went rogue on this one, not telling anyone where I was, with the story or physically, until I’d finished the first draft. One day I was in my car chasing a hot tip to Freestone County- about 155 miles northeast of Austin- when an editor called to tell me that Clifford Antone had just been released from
prison (on marijuana charges) and I needed to write a story. “I’m out of town on that Wash Phillips story,” I said. “I can’t do it.” The editor said I needed to come back. “No way,” I said. I was about to crack a case of mistaken identity.
Editors don’t care about writers and they have the upper hand. Priority #1 is covering their asses: that’s Journalism 99. One night in 1996 I was out in a field near Paleface Park, waiting to see James Brown for the first time, when an editor called and said that Tupac Shakur had just died. I had to come back and write the obit, even though I had already written a five-inch topper after Tupac was shot a week earlier. The night editor didn’t want the responsibility of putting what I had written at the top of the AP obit- she somehow thought that was underhanded though it was the way the Dallas Morning News taught me to get an A1 byline- so I had to drive back to the office, minutes before “the Godfther of Soul” took the festival stage. Never again, I told myself.
“We need you back in town,” the editor insisted in 2002. He had the address of Antone’s halfway house and wanted me to try and get a couple quotes. “Get someone else to do it,” I answered. I was just passing Round Rock when I got the call, but said I was two hours out of town. Here’s my original story on Washington Phillips.
After that piece was reprinted in the Dallas Observer, I received a note from a guy up there named Dan Williams, who said I should consider also writing a story about Blind Willie Johnson, the great bottleneck player from Marlin, who recorded 30 tracks from 1927- 1930 then fell into my wheelhouse, off the face of the earth. In the 1970s, Williams visited Marlin looking for anyone who knew Blind Willie and ended up finding his ex-wife Willie B. Harris. Up until that time, it was believed that Johnson’s second wife Angeline sang on his records. That’s what she told blues historian Sam
Charters in the late 1950’s. But after hearing Harris sing, Williams correctly determined that she was the one who had nursed Johnson’s coarse, raw bass vocals in call and response style.
Williams passed on an interesting bit of information: Blind Willie Johnson’s daughter Sam Faye Kelly was back living in Marlin. This was huge. Maybe she had a photo of her father (who died in 1945) or church programs on which he played. I drove up and met her a few times, found that she had nothing but unspecific memories. and ended up writing this story for the Statesman.
(In 2016, I wrote these extensive liner notes for Alligator’s BWJ tribute.) Both my Wash Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson stories were selected for the Da Capo “Best Music Writing” of the year anthologies. That left just one.
I first heard about Arizona Dranes, who introduced such secular piano styles as ragtime and barrelhouse to gospel music in 1926, when I was researching a story on Fort Worth gospel phenom Kirk Franklin and the group God’s Property in 1997. I bought a history of gospel called How Sweet the Sound by musician/ historian Horace Boyer, who credited Dranes with inventing “the gospel beat.” That’s pretty huge.
But until the arrival of “Amazing Gospel” I had not heard a note of Dranes’ music. I was excited to discover she was to the piano what Blind Willie was to the slide guitar. If these two had played the more collectable and revered blues, instead of gospel, they’d be more sufficiently acknowledged as true pioneers of their instruments. Blind Willie recorded NINE years before Robert Johnson, and Arizona’s “Christian barrelhouse” came six years before Thomas A. Dorsey switched devotions from blues to gospel music.
Soon after I retired from the Statesman, in part to devote myself to more primary research, I was asked to write extensive liner notes for a book/ CD on Dranes by the reissue label Tompkins Square. I worked on it every day for three months and traveled to Chicago, Memphis, Oakland and Dallas-Fort Worth at my own expense to find out whatever I could about this mysterious Pentecostal pounder.
In late 2011, S.F.-based label Tompkins Square asked if I wanted to write about 10,000 words on Dranes for a book to accompany a CD reissue. This was a few months after I took the buyout from the Statesman, so I was still receiving full pay, but now I could spend fulltime on Ms. AZ Dranes! The book/CD He Is My Story: the Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes came out in August 2012 and was nominated for a Grammy as Best Historical Album.
The book/CD for Washington Phillips and His Manzarene Dreams came out in Nov. 2016 and has generated a lot of new recognition for an artist who emerged fully formed against all odds. The New Yorker, Pitchfork and CNN delivered raves, plus Washington Phillips landed on the cover of Creative Loafing of Atlanta. This humble singing preacher from Freestone County, who last recorded in 1929, is having a great year.
A writer wants to leave a mark and mine won’t be the three years I terrorized local celebrities with my “Don’t You Start Me Talking” column in the Austin Chronicle (1985-88). It’ll be my research of three Texas musicians who made a blip in the 1920s and then disappeared. I found them in death certificates and city directories and school enrollment records and told their stories. sometimes assisted by folks who knew them.
When I started writing for the Austin Chronicle, I was 29 and going to live forever or die tomorrow. Didn’t matter. But now I want at least some of my work to remain long after I’m gone. And even if this is the last thing I ever write, I know I’ve reached that goal. Fifty years from now, someone is going to hear true musical visionaries Wash Phillips, Blind Willie Johnson and Arizona Dranes for the first time- perhaps in the same hour as I did in 2001- and Google their names. And they’ll read what I wrote. This seems more fulfilling than reviewing the band playing at the Continental tonight, though I’m very grateful for the time I did that, too.