While steel guitar has lodged itself
securely in white musical styles — country, pop, even Cajun — there’s
not been much of a steel guitar tradition in black music. The bottleneck/slide
mode has persisted, of course, and in such early recording artists as
Casey Bill Weldon we find clear influence of the fascination with Hawaiian
music that began about 1898, when the U.S. assumed control over the
islands, and extended well into the ’40s, at which time the Decca Records
catalog listed more than 500 Hawaiian titles.
The steel guitar has a rich heritage.
One of the first recorded instrumental hits was "Floyd’s Guitar
Blues," tacked pretty much as an afterthought onto an Andy Kirk
session in March of 1939, with Floyd Smith playing an Epiphone Electar
lap steel. Bob Dunn’s jagged, hornlike improvisations with Western swing
bandleader Milton Brown provided a transition from older, Hawaiian-derived
styles to single-string jazz playing — and some of the strangest solos
ever put to wax. Sol Hoopii’s stylings of popular songs were everywhere
in the ’20s; Bob Kaai, the finest of the Hawaiian players, contributed
a handful of spectacular recordings, including a series of stunning
jazz improvisations on "Home On the Range."
More recently, steel players like
Buddy Emmons, Curly Chalker and Paul Franklin have embraced jazz and
improvisational forms alongside their bread-and-butter work in country
music. Yet despite a profound heritage of slide-playing even in black
religious music — Blind Willie Johnson, Willie McTell, Sister O.M. Terrell
come quickly to mind — Freddy Roulette and Sonny Rhodes almost alone
have brought the steel, lap or Hawaiian guitar forward into contemporary
A notable exception is that of the
House of God, Keith Dominion, a Holiness-Pentecostal church where the
steel guitar has, since about 1930, been central to services. This latest
Arhoolie recording joins four previous CDs — Sacred Steel, the
Campbell Brothers’ Pass Me Not, Jesus Will Fix It featuring
Sonny Treadway, and Aubrey Ghent’s Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus
— in documenting a unique use of steel guitar.
This is a pure example of the folk
process at work. Just as the banjo vanished from popular music to be
retained in isolated mountain regions and from there reintroduced; just
as New Orleans blacks were able to take up discarded woodwind and brass
instruments from military bands to be had cheaply in pawn shops and
to adapt them to their own music, creating jazz; the House of God has
provided a refuge for steel guitar. As always in the process, adaptation,
or transformation, is central. Employ of the steel guitar in House of
God services hasn’t so much continued a tradition as it has created
a new one.
It’s a peculiarity of the instrument
that the steel can sound like an organ, a human voice, an entire string
section, a lead guitar, even a miniature orchestra, and glimmers of
all those possibilities are visible here. However eclectic, with touches
of blues styling here, an accompaniment formed about a single riff or
repeated rhythmic figure there, with even the inevitable train song,
much of the playing on Sacred Steel Live! is vocal-oriented,
often in patterns of call-and-response between voice and steel. Willie
Eason’s work on such tracks as "Near the Cross" probably best
defines the dominant style: voice-like, highly inflected, with soaring,
sweeping dynamics, ethereal one moment, solid as sidewalk the next.
Other highlights include Calvin Cooke on the Melobar, the Campbell Brothers’
fine ensemble work, and 22-year-old Robert Randolph’s pedal-steel improvisations
on the hymn "Without God."
— James Sallis