Willie Eason, St. Petersburg, FL, 1998
Credit: Copyright 1998 Robert L. Stone
"Praise Him With Stringed Instruments"Despite Arhoolie's 1997 release of Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida and the recent rise to name recognition of Robert Randolph, most people still associate the term "Sacred Steel" with images of Arthurian knights rather than the gospel jam sessions driven by lap-steel guitar that gave meaning to the term. That the first definitive recording of this gospel subgenre came out of the blue sixty years after the music's original conception is a testament to the extent to which a spiritual tradition and its founders have been has been overlooked.
by Calpin Hoffman-Williamson, NYU '07
As mythical as its name sounds, Sacred Steel designates a specific style of music made in a specific place. It is gospel music that features expressive lap steel playing found most predominantly in the Keith and Jewell Dominion sects of Florida's Pentecostal House of God churches. According to oral history, the form was created in Philadelphia IN around the mid 1930s by two brothers, Troman and Willie Eason. Interested in the slide techniques popularized by the Hawaiian music craze of the 1920's and 1930's, the older brother, Troman, took guitar lessons from Jack Kahanalopua, a local Hawaiian lap steel musician. Soon after, Troman began to apply the influence techniques he'd learned as a lap steel player in his local church. In 1938, after he'd honed his chops, Troman was asked to join Bishop J. R. Lockely's Gospel Feast Party, a traveling gospel troupe. During his tours he spread his spiritual Hawaiian playing to southern Florida's Keith Dominion House of God churches. As the lap steel gained popularity within these congregations, younger brother Willie took the role of the lap steel to an essential next level. Where Troman played in a what annotator Hubert Dupree calls a "straight Hawaiian style, Willie who never had lessons, imitated African American singing with his instrument." It was Willie's smoothly erratic single-string slurs and driving gospel-piano chords that elevated the energy, tradition, and tone of his brother's approach to a plane of utter irresistibility within the church. Soon replacing Troman in the Gospel Feast Party, Willie made the lap steel and specifically his playing style a staple within House of God services.
Willie Eason is truly the backbone of the sacred steel. All those that came immediately after the jazzier Lorenzo Harrison, popular in the Jewel Dominion sect, Henry Nelson with his subdued spoken tones, or Aubrey Ghent with his keen sense of vibrato and pitch, although valuable in their innovations, voicings, and ability to keep the tradition alive, are in essence building off of the techniques Eason created and solidified through his highly dynamic style, which Geoffrey Himes called "talking guitar." As Himes makes clear, Eason "pretty much invented a whole new style for the instrument."
Pioneering though it was, this new gospel aesthetic somehow remained almost exclusively within the small African-American Pentecostal church that spawned it. The scene was tiny, family-driven, and as Himes puts is, "might still be a secret locked away in the House of God if it hadn't been for Robert Stone." Stone was the Floridian folklorist who helped facilitate the sub-genre's first truly comprehensive recordings. Isolation from the outside world created a space where the lap steel, once divorced from the direct influence of Hawaiian music, was in an exclusive relationship with gospel music and Pentecostal religion. The intense relationship that the players had with the House of God, a religion whose prayer ethos revolved around the Psalms passage "praise him with stringed instruments," assured that the playing was always more about speaking to the Lord than technical virtuosity.
Nowhere is this orientation clearer than in an average House of God service. Although I have never had the pleasure of witnessing one in person, Arhoolie's compilation Sacred Steel: Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida and in-church recording Sacred Steel Live! do a good job of placing you within these uproarious meetings. On "This Is a Holy Church," featuring lap steel player Sonny Treadway, you are transported to the emotional pinnacle of a three-hour worship session. While you feel the soulful urgency of the female singer, it is hard to miss what Treadway is doing with the guitar. While at first the instrument merely seems to accompany the cries of the singer, as the song progresses the metallic strings begin to scream with her, trading off and reacting to the voice by producing vowel-like tones that are just as emotive.
In the House of God, the lap steel is another preacher or another choir member singing the praises of the Lord with a similar spiritual freedom. In "At the Cross," when the same female singer yells, "Sing out of your heart" to the band and congregation, it proves how vocally articulate the lap steel can be within this gospel tradition. As modern Sacred Steelist Chuck Campbell puts it, "You can almost hear the words in what I'm playing." Due to its fretless body, the lap steel can slide between notes the way the human voice can. Also, because the playing is not limited by the legato qualities of country or Hawaiian stylings, it works in the same way it often does with blues slide players, as another voice expressing the emotional core of the song in a heightened duet. Sacred Steel technique is dynamic in form; it can go from pointedly ecstatic high notes that shake and sway much like a church member caught in a holy trance to slow hymns filled with sweeping tonal slides in a matter of minutes. In all cases it is about tapping into the similarly dynamic spiritual urgency that imbues the House of God's notion of the Holy Spirit.
This intangible spirit has remained intact as the Sacred Steel tradition has passed from generation to generation. Although the addition of the more harmonically sophisticated pedal steel through players like the aforementioned Chuck Campbell did away with some of the appealing crudeness of earlier players, the same emotional core is still apparent in the Sacred Steel's most promising contemporary, Robert Randolph who is just now starting to take the form out of the church and into the mainstream. Though Randolph's work obscures its religious roots a bit, all one can hope is that his popularity will help fuel interest in this hidden gospel gem.
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