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Sacred Steel

Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition

Robert L. Stone
Copyright Date: 2010
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Sacred Steel
    Book Description:

    In this book, Robert L. Stone follows the sound of steel guitar into the music-driven Pentecostal worship of two related churches: the House of God and the Church of the Living God. A rare outsider who has gained the trust of members and musicians inside the church, Stone uses nearly two decades of research, interviews, and fieldwork to tell the story of a vibrant musical tradition that straddles sacred and secular contexts._x000B__x000B_Most often identified with country and western bands, steel guitar is almost unheard of in African American churches--except for the House of God and the Church of the Living God, where it has been part of worship since the 1930s. Sacred Steel traces the tradition through four generations of musicians and in some two hundred churches extending across the country from Florida to California, Michigan to Alabama. Presenting detailed portraits of musical pioneers such as brothers Troman and Willie Eason and contemporary masters such as Chuck Campbell, Glenn Lee, and Robert Randolph, Stone expertly outlines the fundamental tensions between sacred steel musicians and church hierarchy._x000B__x000B_In this thorough analysis of the tradition, Stone explores the function of the music in church meetings and its effect on the congregations. He also examines recent developments such as the growing number of female performers, the commercial appeal of the music, and younger musicians' controversial move of the music from the church to secular contexts.

    eISBN: 978-0-252-09030-1
    Subjects: Sociology, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. 1 Discovery
    (pp. 1-8)

    “Hey Bob, listen to this!” It was my close friend and bandmate Mike Stapleton calling from the Banjo Shop in Hollywood, Florida, just south of Ft. Lauderdale. Compressed and distorted by the low fidelity of telephone transmission, what I heard sounded like amplified blues harmonica—but not quite. It was the soulful and compelling voice of African American gospel music played on the electric lap-steel guitar, the first of several samples of the music I would hear via Mike’s telephone calls from his store over the next several weeks. On more than one occasion he left a musical message, sans...

  6. 2 The Churches: Beliefs, Social Milieu, and the Development of the Steel Guitar Traditions
    (pp. 9-32)

    The music that has become known as sacred steel cannot be fully appreciated or understood without having some knowledge of the history, beliefs, and practices of the Keith and Jewell Dominions. Both are Holiness-Pentecostal churches, and as such, place importance on dramatic religious conversion and living life according to a rather strict doctrine of Holiness. Religious services are very demonstrative. Music—both instrumental and vocal—plays a central role in worship and the steel guitar is the dominant musical instrument. The nature of worship services is reflected in what the steel guitarists play and how they play it. Those who...

  7. 3 Church Meetings and the Steel Guitarist’s Role in Them
    (pp. 33-52)

    Keith Dominion worship services follow a general pattern common to many predominantly African American Holiness-Pentecostal churches. Familiarity with some specific characteristics of the services should help the reader better understand the origins and evolution of the steel guitar tradition and the cultural milieu in which the steel guitarists, clergy, and congregants operate. What follows is a general description of aspects of Keith Dominion worship and ritual most relevant to the steel guitar musical tradition.

    Keith Dominion churches meet four times each week: Wednesday night Bible study, Friday night tarry service, Sunday morning for Sunday school followed by worship services, and...

  8. 4 The Steel Guitar
    (pp. 53-62)

    Steel guitar, slide guitar, bottleneck guitar, Hawaiian guitar, lap-steel, pedal-steel, Dobro—these terms are commonly used today, but what do they mean? Not even those who make or play the many variants of the instrument agree on a basic terminology. This brief chapter attempts to clear some of the confusion that surrounds the instruments employed by the musicians of the Keith and Jewell Dominions.

    The steel guitar takes its name from the bar, sometimes called the “tone bar,” that right-handed players hold in the left hand and place lightly on one or more strings to make notes. The first bars...

  9. 5 The Eason Brothers
    (pp. 63-76)

    Brothers Troman and Willie Claude Eason are perhaps the earliest Keith Dominion steel guitarists to impact the music of the church on a national scale. Their father, Henry Eason, was born in 1878 and their mother, Addie Eason, was born in 1889. Henry, Addie, and their parents were born in Georgia.¹ Troman (1905–49) was the oldest of fifteen children, and Willie was the tenth.² The 1910 and 1920 U.S. Censuses locate the Eason family in a community known as Lickskillet (later named Ebenezer), about five miles southwest of Ellaville, the seat of Schley (pronounced “sly”) County, Georgia, and about...

  10. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  11. 6 Little Willie and His Talking Guitar
    (pp. 77-103)

    When Troman Eason began to play the electric Hawaiian steel guitar for Keith Dominion services in Philadelphia, Bishop J. R. Lockley (1893–1971) enlisted him to travel with the Gospel Feast Party, a troupe of musicians, preachers, and dancers he organized in the late 1930s to perform at church services, revivals, and assemblies from New York to Miami. Lockley served as chief helper to the national leader, Chief Overseer Bishop Mary F. L. Keith. His dioceses included the state of New York, Philadelphia—where the Eason family worshipped—and the west coast of Florida. As proprietor of a used car...

  12. 7 Henry Nelson: The Liberace of Sacred Steel
    (pp. 104-125)

    Willie Eason’s brother-in-law, Henry Nelson, was a major contributor to the Keith Dominion steel guitar tradition. Eason inspired Henry to play the steel guitar, and like his inspiration, Nelson’s charismatic personality contributed much to his success. While Willie Eason operated outside the Keith Dominion for much of his life, Henry Nelson—except for a hiatus in the Church of God in Christ—was solidly ensconced in the Keith Dominion, resulting in his having a larger impact than Eason on the functional music played in church meeting.

    Henry’s father, Bishop W. L. Nelson (1893–1973), was a dedicated clergyman who worked...

  13. 8 The Jewell Dominion
    (pp. 126-148)

    As in the Keith Dominion, the electric steel guitar is the dominant instrument in the Jewell Dominion. One of the most significant differences between the two traditions is that in the Jewell Dominion one individual shaped the steel guitar style and repertoire far more than any other: Bishop Lorenzo Harrison. By contrast, the Keith Dominion tradition was shaped by several individuals of varying levels of musical influence.

    For decades, the Jewell Dominion leadership was dominated by one family. Chief Overseer Mattie Lue Jewell led the Jewell Dominion from 1937 until her death in 1991, a reign of more than half...

  14. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  15. 9 Motor City Steel
    (pp. 149-166)

    Detroit, Michigan, was a destination for many African Americans who migrated from the South during the first half of the twentieth century to work in the automobile industry. The Motor City was home to several of the best steel guitarists from the Jewell Dominion, some of whom later joined the Keith Dominion and played a significant role in shaping its musical tradition. This chapter focuses on three influential steel guitarists from the Detroit area: Felton Williams, Ted Beard, and Ronnie Hall. Calvin Cooke, a fourth Detroit steel guitarist, is also introduced here. Because Cooke traveled so widely, spreading musical innovations...

  16. 10 Calvin Cooke
    (pp. 167-181)

    Although he is not a large man, Calvin Cooke stands as a giant among contemporary Keith Dominion steel guitarists. His musical innovations in the form of inventive, exciting tunes, or “jams,” which propelled congregations to ever higher levels of spiritual ecstasy, have been imitated by dozens of Keith Dominion steel guitarists. His unrivaled forty-seven-year tenure as a steel guitarist at the annual General Assembly has helped make him a venerated figure to thousands of congregants, spanning three generations.

    Calvin Cooke was born January 11, 1944, in Cleveland, Ohio. He has three brothers and three sisters, all of whom are alive...

  17. 11 Shaping the Modern Sound: Pedal-Steel Guitar Innovators Chuck Campbell and Glenn Lee
    (pp. 182-205)

    Two innovative pedal-steel players have figured importantly in ushering the Keith Dominion steel guitar tradition into the twenty-first century: Chuck Campbell and Glenn Lee. The groundbreaking music Campbell played at the General Assembly and at large church meetings throughout his father’s dioceses in New York, Georgia, and North Florida profoundly affected musicians on a national level. Glenn Lee’s influence was felt primarily in Florida, and his status there remains unrivaled. Unfortunately, he died in his prime at the turn of the new century. The playing of other inventive pedal-steel guitarists is admired by and sometimes imitated by their Keith Dominion...

  18. 12 Negotiating the New Millennium
    (pp. 206-228)

    The release of six hundred copies of theSacred Steelcassette/booklet album by the Florida Folklife Program in late 1995 generated a wave of interest among the few people who obtained the albums. But it was the worldwide distribution of the CD version of the album, licensed by Arhoolie Records, that resulted in the initial wave of international enthusiasm for the compelling music. Since Chris Strachwitz founded the label in 1960, Arhoolie Records has released hundreds of albums in genres of regional and traditional music, including blues, Cajun, zydeco, norteño, and Tex-Mex, which were previously little known to many listeners....

  19. Notes
    (pp. 229-246)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 247-254)
  21. Interviews
    (pp. 255-258)
  22. Discography
    (pp. 259-263)
  23. Videography
    (pp. 264-264)
  24. Index
    (pp. 265-280)
  25. Back Matter
    (pp. 281-290)