Sacred Steel exposes yet another cranny of roots music pulsing quietly but vibrantly in the United States. Services in the Afro-American House of God Keith Dominion are driven by electric steel guitars. (Steel refers to guitars played on the lap, Hawaiian style, fretted with a metal "bar" instead of fingers.) These churches are located along the East Coast from Florida to New York State, with a national convention in Nashville, Tennessee.
In this video, church leaders and musicians discuss the history and message that the steel is meant to convey to the congregation. There are several stirring performances, as the video brings a bit of the sound, spirit and energy of typical Wednesday, Friday and Sunday services. It is not only about the music, but also the religion for which the steel serves.
The guitars punctuate sermons, accompanying singers and holiness sessions. They all are amplified, pedal and various lap and table models tuned to E or A major.
Willy Eason is considered to have introduced and popularized this early style in late 1930's. He employs mostly single string riffs with lots of slow slides and wide vibrato, reflecting the heavily melismatic singing of the churches. It still serves as the bedrock for all the players on this video. Henry Nelson extended the style to that which now drives the services, a hotter version, with some chordal and octave moves imitating moans and percussion. The sound can cause a congregation to get the spirit and "fall out."
The steels are usually accompanied by bass and drums (and some keyboards). This is a living and still developing tradition. Some of the younger players are stretching techniques. The video reveals some as true virtuosos of steel guitar.
There seems to be an unending supply of localized great music percolating under the commercial juggernauts of America's mass media. Here is hoping that people like the folks at Arhoolie have enough patience and perseverance to find some more. - Stacy Phillips