Friday, February 22, 2008

Sacred Steel's First Exposure

Its just been over ten years since Arhoolie Records issued its first anthology of the sacred steel music tradition. In the intervening decade some performers in the tradition such as Aubrey Ghent, the Lee Brothers and the Campbell Brothers have become well known outside this music's religious origins and Robert Randolph has become a star on the pop circuit. Here is my 1997 review from the Jazz & Blues Report of the CD that initiated the interest in this music. Kudos to Chris Strachwitz for generating interest in this genre like he did in cajun and zydeco, norteno and so much more roots music.

Arhoolie Records has issued a most intriguing collection titled Sacred Steel. Comprised of various field recordings, some from concerts and some from religious services, its subtitle of Traditional Sacred African-American Steel Guitar Music in Florida should give a sense of its contents. Producer Robert Stone provides a lengthy discussion of the music and the performers here. As his accompanying booklet notes, steel guitar (both lap steel and pedal steel) is an integral part of the worship in the House of God, and the five performers featured here are among its greatest proponents. Certainly there are moments where the music will be very much like blues, but with a different message. Steel guitar lends itself to vocalized playing that has always been a part of African-American music and this is illustrated in Sonny Treadway’s instrumentals of classic hymns as well as by Willie Eason, a pioneer of this music who recorded in the forties and fifties, and reprises his Franklin D. Roosevelt, A Poor Man’s Friend that he originally recorded after FDR’s death. The music from the religious services, where the steel playing gets entangled in the frenzied celebrations, is mesmerizing, as the music hits a fever pitch that would make a hot John Lee Hooker boogie sound like a bedtime lullaby in comparison. This collection serves didactic and entertainment functions equally well with many inspired performances.

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