- Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition by Robert L. Stone
During my short stint with the Florida Folklife Program (1983–84), I traveled across the state doing fieldwork for a variety of projects, none of which came to fruition because I was only there for about seven months. Nonetheless I caught tantalizing whiffs of information about black Americans playing steel guitars in their church services. Having just finished my dissertation on black gospel quartets in Memphis, and drawing upon my previous experience documenting African American banjo players and blues musicians in North Carolina and Virginia, I found these rather vague leads quite interesting. But my time was so short that I did not track down these leads before I returned to Virginia to work at Ferrum College’s Blue Ridge Institute.
Fortunately about a decade later, another Florida Folklife Program employee stumbled across what is now known as the “sacred steel” tradition. We are indeed fortunate that Bob Stone was in the right place at the right time and in the right professional position to explore and document this fascinating and highly emotional music. Stone invites the reader into this groundbreaking book with the first chapter “Discovery” that details his 1992 introduction to this tradition. His research has resulted in not only Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition but also a documentary film Sacred Steel and eight recordings of sacred steel music, all of which are issued by Chris Strachwitz’s indispensable Arhoolie label. I should note that these media resources work well together and that I use them all when I introduce sacred steel music to students.
It occurs to me that these two paragraphs underscore the significance of fieldwork in discovering [End Page 111] and documenting folk music and cultural traditions. In retrospect it’s surprising that no one “discovered” sacred steel music prior to Stone’s work. A handful of commercial recordings (most notably by Willie Eason) of the tradition date back to the late 1940s, and I have had some of these 78s in my own collection since the early 1980s. I dismissed them as oddities and never really considered their genesis. Perhaps more importantly, sacred steel music is exactly that—sacred. All too often American music scholars exploring the vernacular traditions either overlook religious music or treat it as a second-class citizen. There are exceptions to be sure: for example, Jeff Titon’s work in Virginia that resulted in Powerhouse for God (both a book and a film), Glen Hinson’s Fire in My Bones, or the Tom Davenport/Daniel Patterson film Singing Stream: A Black Family Chronicle, set in North Carolina, are all exemplary studies of sacred musical forms. That it took until the mid-1990s for most of us to become aware of sacred steel makes one wonder what other longstanding regional or ethnic music traditions await a wider popular and scholarly audience.
Based largely on his fieldwork and interviews, Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition uncovers a world and a musical genre largely unknown to those outside of two closely related Pentecostal churches: the Keith and Jewell Dominions of the House of God Churches. The Pentecostal-Holiness churches were formed at the turn of the century, and musicians began using steel guitars in the 1930s within their gospel music tradition. Of necessity, part of Stone’s job is to relate the history of these two denominations within the House of God churches, which boast about two hundred congregations across the United States. Most of these churches are located in the South (the majority in Florida), though congregations have been ensconced for decades in Detroit and Rochester, New York.
Families, perhaps not surprisingly, form the core of these congregations, and it is simply not possible to separate the musicians (who often intermarried) from their particular church and their music. Unfortunately, the details of this lineage, important as it may be, occasionally bog down the book. This problem is particularly evident when Stone meticulously details the...