Sunday, June 23, 2024

Bill Bentley on Arizona Dranes

Arizona Dranes, He is My Story. And what a story it is. Between 1926 and 1928, Arizona Dranes recorded 16 burning vinyl slabs of spiritual bliss, turning the most heathen into an audience who couldn’t take their eyes off the sparrow. She did it with a mesmerizing voice and hypnotic piano, a blind woman who was almost wholly self-taught against all odds to move up a little higher. As a child she had a choice in the school for the blind to study music or learn how to make brooms. Arizona Dranes chose the road to freedom.

Her recordings for Okeh Records became legendary among collectors of gospel music, and Tompkins Square’s collection is a stunning set that transcends most of this year’s reissues. The music itself is breathtaking, recorded under minimal conditions but always able to transcend the physical plane. Dranes really was in a class by herself, practically inventing a piano style for spirituals that is still being played today. Her voice goes right for the Holy Ghost, walking hand in hand with a power higher than all others. Then there is Michael Corcoran’s essay. Easily one of the best music writers in America, Corcoran has been waiting for a story like this his whole career, and tells Drane’s tale with a moving touch, always factoring in the mystery at the center of this amazing woman.

There have been only a few artists who stood at the start of a brave new world like this, someone who seized the day and never looked the other way. Arizona Dranes put God and secular piano together in a righteous union that sparked an inner revolution. Along with Reverend Thomas A. Dorsey they opened up church people to music like this for the very first time. Her life was riddled with hardship and dead end roads, but through the beauty of a devoted few these 16 songs now get to live again. The last song, “Sweet Heaven is My Home” pretty much says it all. For that we should thank all our lucky stars.

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