Arizona Dranes: Tennessee, Texas and Elsewhere

Arizona Dranes: Tennessee, Texas and Elsewhere

Like just about anyone who was born blind at towards the end of the nineteenth century, Arizona Dranes had few options. One, was to land a servant’s position somewhere and hope that the lack of sight might be overcome after familiarization with a home’s layout. The other was to perform music. Understandably, she opted for that latter.

Born in Texas, dates are a bit fuzzy, Draines attended a school devised especially for black folks with disabilities. The fact that such an institution exited anywhere at the time seems somehow miraculous, but considering Draines didn’t live too far from it might have counted as some sort of minor miracle. While attending school, the pianist had a variety of teachers help her along the way, eventually arriving at a style folks credit with creating the foundation for modern, foot stomping, church music.

Working in a variety under a variety of ministers and preachers (no, I can’t tell you the difference), Draines earned a reputation strong enough that along the way, someone suggested to an Okeh recording scout that the pianist cut a few sides. Coupling secular music with a message from the Church was, apparently, a new revelation at the time. But regardless of that, Draines was deemed talented enough to accompany performers on a few other sides. In all, she performed on something like twenty-two sides. Most likely a few have disappeared since the 1920s, during which she recorded most frequently.

While not in a studio, though, Draines continued to head various choirs and lead a relatively normal life. The songs she adapted – since it’d be difficult to say she summoned each melody and lyric from scratch – each wind up being, at least, mid tempo sing alongs with God in mind. On occasion the pianist and her attendant back-up singers are accompanied by a twinkling mandolin, supposedly contributed by Draines’ mother. On cuts like “God's Got A Crown,” it’s a bit difficult to hear the stringed instrument at times, but when it’s audible, the mandolin adds a concerted air of sophistication to the barrelhouse style dominating the songs.

Hearing Draines sing, accompanied or not, listeners are going to be struck by the forcefulness with which her voice finds itself transmitted. Surely, there were other singers and players approximating these sounds around the same time. It’s just that Draines landed on wax first. There’s a reason for that. And it becomes plainly clear after hearing a few cuts of her work.