“This is what folklorists dream of: coming across a vibrant tradition that no one has ever heard of. It was like discovering another species. I started playing Aubrey’s tape for other people, and the reaction was universal — everyone loved it.”
Stone got some money from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Florida Department of Historical Resources to press up 600 copies of a cassette called Sacred Steel: Traditional African-American Steel Guitar Music In Florida in 1995. Accompanied by a 32-page booklet, the tape provided a 20-track overview of Florida’s Sacred Steel scene, showcasing live performances from Ghent, Lee, Sonny Treadway, Henry Nelson and Willie Eason.
One cassette went to Guitar Player magazine, which declared the recording its “Disc of Destiny” for 1995, beating out such competition as Sonny Landreth and Ani DiFranco. Another went to Chris Strachwitz, the founder/owner of California’s venerable roots-music label Arhoolie.
“Like any folklorist,” Stone explains, “I was aware of Chris and the wonderful work he has done, but I had never met him. So when he phoned me and said, ‘I’m calling about this extraordinary album,’ that was another high point of my life. That was a nice validation.
“It took him a while to get the rights from the State of Florida and to remaster the tapes, but he re-released the album in 1997 with only minor changes to the tracks and the booklet. The response was so positive that Chris called me up and said, ‘I want to do some single-artist studio albums.’ I told him it should be three albums: Aubrey, the Campbell Brothers and Sonny Treadway.”
In the meantime, Stone had been doing more research and had discovered that Sacred Steel wasn’t limited to Florida. At the House of God’s annual General Assembly in Nashville, he had heard the Campbell Brothers from Rochester, New York; Katie Jackson from Baltimore, Maryland; Robert Randolph from New Jersey; and Calvin Cooke and Ted Beard from Detroit, Michigan.
The second wave of Arhoolie’s Sacred Steel series, released later in 1997, included Pass Me Not by the Campbell Brothers, featuring Katie Jackson; the all-instrumental Jesus Will Fix It by Sonny Treadway; and Can’t Nobody Do Me Like Jesus by Aubrey Ghent. This year saw the release of the series’ fifth and best album, Sacred Steel Live!, with performances by the Campbells, Jackson, Eason, Cooke, Beard, Randolph and others recorded during actual House of God services. Here you get the full effect of Sacred Steel as it is used in its natural environment, Sunday church.
The album kicks off with Phil Campbell establishing a brisk, hand-clapping beat with his chunky, chicken-scratch chords. Jackson announces that “God is a good God,” first way down low and then way up high, as Chuck Campbell dances all around her with his pedal steel notes. Before long, Jackson is shouting out exclamations and Chuck is repeating each one in a near-perfect mirror image on his instrument. Back and forth bounce their phrases; up and up goes the energy; soon Jackson is hollering without words, and Chuck is off on a heart-racing solo that would excite the staunchest Duane Allman fan. On and on it goes for eight blistering minutes.
“That song is about how you can sit around and complain about things,” explains Chuck Campbell, “but if you stop and look around there’s a whole lot more good going on than bad. What I’m doing is just letting that feeling flow through me. Because I don’t have a voice like a Katie, my best way of expressing it to you is through my instrument. I’m paying close attention to the words and trying to sing them on the steel.
“If you listen, first I play the backup, then I answer Katie like I’m the congregation, playing the same words she sings. Once she lets it go, I take over the lead. You can almost hear the words in what I’m playing. Then I’ll just strike out where I’m screaming or hollering, because I’m so happy, because you realize it’s such a blessing for us to have each other in this world.”
“Chuck tells me that playing onstage is a piece of cake compared to playing at a service,” says Stone, “because in church you never know who’s going to get up and start singing; you don’t know what key they’re going to sing in and whether they’re going to stay in that key. And the selections can go on for a long time, eight to 12 minutes. In a typical service, there’s a real emphasis on the praise music, the hard-driving stuff, with a lot of spontaneous singing, clapping, tambourine-shaking, shouting and dancing by the congregation.
“The service usually begins with a reminder that the Bible says, ‘Make a joyful noise unto the Lord.’ Then there will be a praise hymn, with the steel accompanying the singers. Often the singing will stop and the steel will take over. Then there’s a sermon, often as long as 30-45 minutes. During the call to the altar, people come up to be saved, to give themselves over to Jesus; that can be quite emotional and can go on for half an hour. There’s also the offertory, where people come forward to make an offering to the church.
“These processions are accompanied by instrumental steel music — either ‘The House Of God March’, which Willie Eason says he invented, or a medley of hymns such as ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’, ‘I’ll Fly Away’, and ‘Down By The Riverside’. When things really get going, you’ll see church members do what they call the holy dance, where they fall out and go into a kind of trance. Sometimes even the musicians will get up from their instruments and do a holy dance.”