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The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes

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“He Is My Story” is a magnificent, long-neglected 1928 gospel recording by Texas-born African-American Pentecostal singer and pianist Arizona Dranes, who was the first person to play piano on a gospel recording and whose prowess as a singer and performer has been acknowledged by such gospel musicians as Thomas A. Dorsey, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Mahalia Jackson. It’s possible that “He Is My Story,” which is based on the hymn “Blessed Assurance,” went unreleased by OKeh Records because the session mandolinist—whose playing on the recording is superb—complained to the record company’s executives that Dranes had not compensated him for the recording, a charge the singer denied. Perhaps rather than risk a legal battle, those executives shelved the recording.

The Tompkins Square label has recently published He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul of Arizona Dranes to redress the larger neglect of Dranes and her music. The book is accompanied by a CD of Dranes’s music—or, one might say, the label has released a new CD with an accompanying book, as the CD offers splendid transfers of all of Dranes’s rare 78s and test pressings from her brief recording period (1926–1928). All of these recordings have been remastered for the first time (by noted music preservationist Christopher King) to convey the true dynamic range of the original performances rather than the altered-pitch sound of the 78 RPM releases.

The book refers to documents that reveal that the singer, whose biography had been shrouded in mystery, was born blind, as Arizona Drane or Drain, in 1889 or 1891. He Is My Story’s author, journalist Michael Corcoran, suggests that the musician might have contributed to the confusion about her identity by intentionally falsifying her age in order to remain a student at the Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth in Austin, Texas. For a blind African-American female in the American South during the harshest period of Jim Crow racism, staying in school provided a degree of security that would evaporate upon graduation. When Dranes graduated, she found another sanctuary in the Pentecostal-affiliated Church of God in Christ. 

A formally trained, rhythmically dynamic pianist who was also an intense but controlled vocalist, Dranes became, in Corcoran’s words, “the first musical star” of a denomination that “brought instruments, dancing, and polyrhythmic handclaps to the black church in an era of assimilation.”  The Church of God in Christ encouraged all of its members to express their connection to the Holy Ghost through glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and other overt expressions of faith, including various kinds of ecstatic music making. This denomination’s rise was roughly conterminous with the emergence of recording and broadcasting technologies and, given her musical skills, Dranes was uniquely qualified to carry the religious community’s spiritual message and unbridled expression of faith to others through the medium of such new platforms.

Between 1926 and 1928, Dranes recorded sixteen numbers for OKeh Records and soon became a gospel music star. Unfortunately, her recording career suffered due to misunderstandings between Dranes and the record company’s executives. After 1928 and until her death in 1963, Dranes served the Church of God in Christ by performing at churches around the country, quickly falling into near-complete obscurity (her last public appearance, where she was billed as the “Famous Blind Piano Player,” was in 1947). He Is My Story brings Dranes out of that obscurity.

The CD demonstrates the variety and power of Dranes’s small recording output. It includes two instrumental recordings—“Crucifixion” and “Sweet Heaven Is My Home,” both from 1926—that reveal her exciting, strongly syncopated piano playing. As thrilling as her piano technique is her vocal style, which is gloriously documented on the other fourteen tracks. One of the strongest gospel songs on the CD is Dranes’s “Bye and Bye We’re Going to See the King,” from 1926. English rock star Ronnie Lane—a founding member of both the Small Faces and Faces—memorably covered the song on his 1974 solo album, Anymore for Anymore, but it’s revelatory to hear the original.

In recovering the life and music of Arizona Dranes, He Is My Story does a noteworthy job of conveying her significant role in the history of gospel music. It is hardly surprising, then, that the project was recently nominated for a Best Historical Album Grammy Award.

 

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