Beyond The Blues
Devil's Dream (Global Jukebox) collects Alan Lomax's 1942 field recordings of multi-instrumentalist Sid Hemphill and his band playing at a picnic. Hemphill, who was blind and black, must have been quite something to watch, because these recordings are boisterous to their core. Hemphill sings and alternates between fiddle, fife, and quills (a/k/a Pan flute). He is backed by guitar, banjo, and a snare and parade bass drum of some kind. While in no way polished, this music is truly grabs you and keeps you. The tunes he plays on this day are largely known to bluegrass more than blues fans, but he also performs the World War 1 era hit "Sidewalks Of New York" and the ever-popular "Boll Weevil," a popular folk song associated most often with (ta-da) Leadbelly.
This was no more an official recording than youtube videos of a picnic are a film. What we have is a recording of Sledge, Mississippi's best local band playing a typical gig, complete with typical audience in their typical habitat. Some of it is sweet, some of it is rowdy, with parts between. Hemphill's charisma and charm reach out of the recording, too. It's a hard recording not to love.
Likely the most informative recent bit of musical history again comes to us from that wonderfully informed source, Tompkins Square Records, who rank right up with Dust To Digital as the Little Label That Can. A few months back, they issued the book/CD package He Is My Story: The Sanctified Soul Of Arizona Dranes. Arizona Dranes was a singing pianist whose total output as a leader is but sixteen recordings, all cut in 1926 for Okeh. She came out of the Church Of God In Christ, which is a charismatic Southern Protestant denomination.
She came not from Arizona but from Sherman, TX (hometown of Buck Owens), and recorded in Chicago. She seems to have been the first to marry secular piano stylesjazz, ragtime, hokumto sanctified singing. In her vocals, we hear the seeds of Mahalia Jackson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Clara Ward, and virtually any other subsequent gospel giant to come to spotlight after about 1940. Her piano style contains many clues to the future as well. One hears snatches of licks that found their various ways to Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, and Amos Milburn, among many others. The most influential gospel songwriter and pianist, Thomas A. Dorsey, credited her as an important influence on his will to mix sacred and secular. Dranes' piano style pulled in the rhythms that first animated black America in the wake of the first World War. Dorsey added the blues influence. Even if he had not composed "Peace In The Valley" or "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," his stature as a pianist would still be more than enough to warrant musical immortality. Remove him from the equation and much about blues, jazz, and gospel becomes inexplicable.
Hearing the early pioneers is often a kind of hide and seek. We're frequently looking specifically for prenatal glimpses of subsequent music, and that might be the primary value of the excursion. Not so in Dranes' case. These sixteen recordings are exciting. You can tell nothing quite like he ever happened like this before. The true sound of discovery has been captured in these 1926 sessions, and she is one of those whose sheer volume guaranteed that her presence wasn't diminished by pre-electric recording limitations. Like Al Jolson and Louis Armstrong both, she overpowers the sonic limitations. At times, she is so vivid and otherworldly as to be truly scary.
The disc is packaged in a slim but beautifully written book by historian Michael Corcoran, with a great many photos, letters, record labels, and other ephemera. Again, Tompkins Square's graphics department (which is apparently a woman named Susan Archie) is all that, and the pristine mastering job Bryan Hoffa did deserves much credit. This is not the first time Dranes' recordings have been issued, but this is the first time the performances aren't behind a wall of scratches and other sonic distress. Producer Josh Rosenthal deserves more than praise for this package. It's an enrichment.
Dranes died of a stroke in 1963 at the age of 74. Her last live appearance had been about 16 years before. No record survives of her reaction to the musicians she influenced. Hemphill passed two years earlier, at the age of 85. His influence was confined to his small Mississippi community, where he did mold young local musicians, none of whom seems to have achieved fame.