A Brief History of the House of God Steel Guitar Tradition

by Robert L. Stone

The steel guitar is usually identified with country or Hawaiian music. Pedal-steel guitars are routinely found in contemporary white country gospel bands. In most African-American church services, however, the instrument is unheard of. In the House of God, Keith Dominion churches the steel guitar has reigned supreme for decades. The House of God is a Pentecostal church. Those sects are known for music-driven worship services in which the presence of the Holy Spirit is manifested by dancing and involuntary body movements. The House of God cites Psalms 150:4, "...praise him with stringed instruments...," and 149:3, "Let them praise his name in the dance," as scriptural support for the music and Holy dancing. Worship services are driven by music played by an ensemble, which is led by a steel guitarist. The steel guitarist works closely with the minister to play a very important role in worship services. In addition to belting out driving "praise" or "shout" music, the steel guitarist provides dramatic emphasis for sermons and testimonies, accompanies singers, plays for offertory processions and aids in healing.

Hawaiian music, with its signature singing steel guitar sound, was a major theme in the popular music of the U.S. from the 1910s until World War II. During that period Hawaiian music schools proliferated throughout the country. Troman Eason (c. 1895-1971) took steel guitar lessons in Philadelphia in the mid-1930s from a Hawaiian whom his surviving brother, Willie (b.1921), remembers as "Jack."
Troman and Willie Eason brought the electric steel guitar to House of God services in the late 1930s. While Troman played in the straight Hawaiian style, Willie, who never had lessons, imitated African American singing with his instrument. His voice-like single string work became the basis of the House of God steel guitar tradition. Willie traveled widely playing the steel guitar and singing, first to tour with Bishop J. R. Lockley's Gospel Feast Party, then later by himself to perform street corner music ministries. He recorded a total of eighteen sides in the 1940s and 50s.

Henry Nelson was born in Ocala, Florida in 1930. His father, Bishop W. L. Nelson (1895-1973), was a prominent figure in the church. Henry's oldest sister, Alyce, became Willie Eason's first wife. Hearing Eason and his "talking guitar" for the first time in about 1940, young Henry was amazed and soon took up the instrument. Nelson developed a style of praise music, which consisted of voice-like lines punctuated by a variety of driving, rhythmic "frams," or strums, under which the band played without chord changes. His praise music became the foundation of what is accepted by many as true "House of God music."

Willie Eason also influenced Bishop Lorenzo Harrison, who established the steel guitar style for the Church of the Living God, Jewell Dominion, which shares a common origin with the House of God, Keith Dominion. Unlike the driving one-chord Keith Dominion music, Jewell music has distinct chord changes. Jewell steel guitarists usual played at slower tempos and often use of wah pedals for tone coloration.

In the 1970s the pedal-steel was introduced into the House of God by musicians including Maurice "Ted" Beard, Jr, Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell and Acorne Coffee. Determined to incorporate the pedal steel into their musical tradition, they developed unique tunings, pedal set-ups, and playing techniques.

Developments in recent years have included more exchange between Keith and Jewell Dominion musicians, continued exploration of electronic effects and incorporation of ideas from the full variety of contemporary music. With the release of the Sacred Steel CD in 1996 by Arhoolie Records this rich musical tradition, which had been kept a secret from the world at large for nearly 60 years, started a flood of worldwide interest that continues to increase. Steel guitarists including the Campbell Brothers, Aubrey Ghent, Calvin Cooke and Robert Randolph, have begun to present their vibrant music at concerts and festivals throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe and Africa. The result is invariably standing ovations and encores.

House of God steel guitar music continues to grow and evolve. With a solid core of mature masters and a fourth generation of aspiring, inventive younger musicians, the tradition seems stronger and more vibrant than ever. (c) Robert L. Stone 2001 [/quote]

 

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