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, Arizona Dranes, Washington Phillips and Blind Willie Johnson had been woefully bypassed by musicologists and historians until recently.
They were from 1920’s Black Church, Texas and created soulful sacred music that linked 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, Wash and Blind Willie each had their own sound. But in unison, 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, congregational rhythm, which 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 in her prime. Blind Willie Johnson wrote the rules of bottleneck guitar and bellowing bass vocals. But the liner notes for ‘90s reissues of Dranes, Phillips and Johnson read like elaborate riddles- and most of the clues were wrong.
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,” which I had thought was a Led Zeppelin original, are the cuts that stayed with me from the first listen. When I found, via essential gospel histories How Sweet the Sound by Horace Boyer and Anthony Heilbut’s The Gospel Sound, that 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.
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 club. 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 were 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 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). Their records on the Victor Talking Machine label appealed to whites.
It wasn’t until Mamie Smith sold half a million copies of “Crazy Blues” in 1920, to a 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 higher 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 capitalized 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 1926, he knocked the piano-accompanied blues mamas out of fashion. Guitar-picked “country blues” was the new thing that everyone wanted to hear. Jefferson recorded more than 80 tracks, including the standards “Match Box Blues,” “Long Lonesome Blues,” “Black Snake Moan” and “See That My Grave’s Kept Clean” before his body was found 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 were just 6% of the total sold just three 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.
– Michael Corcoran
Ghost Notes Table of Contents
Section I: Gospel
1. A history of black gospel
2. Washington Phillips
3. Arizona Dranes
4. Blind Willie Johnson
5. Slide guitar before and after Blind Willie
Section II: Folk and Country
1. The Gant Family Singers
2. John and Alan Lomax
3. Henry and Virginia Lebermann
4. Leon Payne and Fred Lowery
5. Milton Brown and the Birth of Western Swing
Section III: Rhythm & Blues
1. Charles Brown and Amos Milburn
2. West Coast blues, Texas style
3. Sippie Wallace and the Thomas family
4. East Texas invention of boogie-woogie
5. Hattie Burleson
Section IV: Rock N’ Rap
1. Roky Erickson (with Okkervil River)
2. The DOC
3. Joyce Harris and the Story of Domino Records
4. Bobby Doyle
5. Sonny Curtis
Section V: Moguls and Mentors
1. Jimmy Bowen
2. B.L. Joyce, Kenny Dorham, Gil Askey and the L.C. Anderson Yellow Jackets
3. Rupert Neve
4. Camilo Cantu and Johnny Degollado
5. Don Robey