Saturday, December 02, 2006

Imagining Arizona Dranes c. 1905-?

Posted by olvlzl.

Arizona Dranes was a blind, African-Mexican American, Pentecostalist* singer and piano player from Dallas. She was featured on about 16 sides in the 1920s and accompanied groups on a few others the last of which dates from 1928. That is the extent of her recording career. She is known to have performed in Pentecostalist circles until 1947 when she abruptly disappears from documentation. Some believe she died in the 60s. The scant handful of miscellaneous facts about her live, her education at the Texas Institute for Deaf, Dumb and Blind Colored Youth in Austin and her playing piano for the Church of God in Christ don’t add much to our knowledge of her life. Whatever else that was, it wasn’t a climb to the top of the music business.

But listening to her recordings **, all made when she was in her twenties, it is clear that she was an unusually talented musician with a powerful and fluent piano style. Jerry Lee Lewis could have learned a thing or two from her. Her singing was vigorous and entirely unafraid. The diction is what you would expect from someone trained in the elocution of the period, clear and refined. I might not believe the message but this is the real thing, music of total conviction.

We can assume that Arizona Dranes must have thought about the musical world outside of Pentacostalism. She clearly knew the positively irreligious “barrel house style” which supplies a lot of the rhythms and techniques she sanctified in her gospel music. It is likely that she could have had more success and a real recording career if she had been willing to play secular music or to play in venues beside churches and revivals. Sr. Rosetta Tharp, who some say was influenced by Arizona Dranes, took that path and had a long and successful career that extended to New York and Europe.

The temptation is to regret that Arizona Dranes didn’t do the same thing, to believe that her beliefs, as much as the bigotry she faced, robbed her of success. Though possible that might not be true. Her life was undoubtedly limited by bigotry towards her ethnicity, her gender and her blindness but maybe it wasn’t limited by a choice to remain “in the church.” Maybe like Emily Dickinson, Arizona Dranes chose from the options available to her the one which seemed to offer what she wanted. Dickinson almost certainly wouldn’t have produced her work without her unmarried isolation. Maybe Arizona Dranes found something that doesn’t show up in the documents, some source of light or purity that those of us who aren’t Pentecostalist don’t see, maybe it was the best available career choice.

Her life might look like it was sacrificed to a rigid and limited sect but it is condescending to think that a woman of her obvious intelligence and will wouldn’t have been capable of making her own decisions. There isn’t any evidence that she compromised her dignity.

* I believe this is the Pentecostalism of the Azusa Street Revival of William Joseph Seymour which, though quite conservative, held to a level of racial and gender equality which were revolutionary for the time. It was one of the few religious sects in that period which had women preachers. Maybe given the facts of the world she lived in, Arizona Dranes was as free as she could hope to be within it’s confines. We can’t know, we can only hear what is there to be heard.

**Complete recordings by her and other early gospel singers are on:
Spreading The Word, Early Gospel Recordings JPS7733

You can hear some sound clips here and here. Note: I’m on dial up so I haven’t actually tried these.