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Sacred Steel

Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition

Robert L. Stone

Publication Year: 2010

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.

Published by: University of Illinois Press

Series: Music in American Life


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pp. ix-xii

The hair stands up on my arms and the back of my neck as I listen to my field recording of Aubrey Ghent soulfully finessing an unaccompanied hymn on his battered lap-steel guitar. The year was 1992. Today, eighteen years after hearing “sacred steel” for the first time, I find the power of this rich and complex music has only increased as I have immersed myself ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

First, I thank the musicians, clergy, and congregations for opening their churches, homes, and hearts to me so I could attempt to document their fascinating and compelling musical tradition. Keith Dominion Bishops James C. Elliott and Charles E. Campbell were especially supportive, as were Jewell Dominion Bishops Naomi Manning, Eunice Treadway, and Calvin Worthem. ...

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1. Discovery

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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 ...

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2. The Churches: Beliefs, Social Milieu, and the Development of the Steel Guitar Traditions

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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 ...

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3 Church Meetings and the Steel Guitarist’s Role in Them

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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 ...

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4 The Steel Guitar

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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 ...

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5 The Eason Brothers

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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 ...

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6 Little Willie and His Talking Guitar

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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 ...

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7 Henry Nelson: The Liberace of Sacred Steel

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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 ...

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8 The Jewell Dominion

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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 ...

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9 Motor City Steel

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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 ...

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10 Calvin Cooke

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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 ...

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11 Shaping the Modern Sound: Pedal-Steel Guitar Innovators Chuck Campbell and Glenn Lee

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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 ...

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12 Negotiating the New Millennium

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pp. 206-227

The release of six hundred copies of the Sacred Steel cassette/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 ...


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pp. 229-245


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pp. 247-254


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pp. 255-258


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pp. 259-263


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pp. 264


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pp. 265-280

E-ISBN-13: 9780252090301
Print-ISBN-13: 9780252035548

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Music in American Life