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Voices Fall-Winter, 2002:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read an excerpt of “Sacred Steel and the Empire State” by Robert L. Stone here.
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Volume 28

Sacred Steel and the Empire State

The Empire State has played a significant role in the history of the House of God steel guitar tradition. The tradition began early in the twentieth century, as skilled musicians helped preachers arouse congregants to states of spiritual ecstasy. For nearly sixty years the vibrant and compelling steel guitar music of the House of God was unknown to the general public. The interest created by the Arhoolie releases and concerts by contemporary artists has recently encouraged an unprecedented level of participation in the steel guitar tradition among younger House of God musicians, who bring their listeners closer to spirituality in secular as well as sacred venues...
The term steel guitar usually evokes the plaintive sound and characteristic glissandi of the instrument played in country-and-western music. Pedal-steel guitars are routinely found in some white country gospel groups and church worship "praise" bands. Yet the instrument is almost unheard of in African American churches, with the striking exception of the House of God and the related Church of the Living God, where the steel guitar as lead instrument has reigned supreme for decades. With thirteen churches in the state and several historically important steel guitarists associated with New York, the Empire State figures significantly in the House of God steel guitar tradition. Photo of Chuck Campbell
Chuck Campbell plays pedal-steel guitar at the dedication services for the new House of God in Rush, New York, March 1998.
Photo: ©Robert L. Stone
Worship Services

House of God worship services typically last about two and a half or three hours but may run five hours or more on special occasions. Services involve such standard elements of worship as prayer, hymns, offering, and sermon. The steel guitarist fulfills a variety of musical functions in a service. A guitarist may play a hymn as a soloist or as the lead in the instrumental ensemble, accompany either individual or choral singers, work with the preacher to punctuate pauses between spoken lines, or provide a musical backdrop for processions and periods of praise...


Evangelizing first in Tennessee and Kentucky, "Mother" Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate established the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, a Holiness-Pentecostal church, in 1903. Following Tate’s death in 1930, the church was reorganized into three "dominions." The largest is, formally, the Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth without Controversy, Keith Dominion, Inc., but commonly called the House of God. Today there are House of God churches in twenty-six states, the Bahamas, Haiti, Jamaica, and Africa.

Beginning in the 1910s, a Hawaiian music fad began to sweep the mainland United States. Hawaiian music maintained a significant presence in the American popular music milieu well into the 1940s. Troman Eason (c. 1900-1949), after hearing a Hawaiian steel guitarist who played regularly over the radio in Philadelphia in the mid-1930s, called the radio station, talked to the steel guitarist, and arranged to take lessons. Troman quickly gained competency on the instrument and began to play it in the House of God church in Philadelphia. Bishop J.R. Lockley, whose dioceses included New York, Philadelphia, and parts of Florida, drafted Troman to join his Gospel Feast Party Band, a troupe of musicians and preachers who traveled from New York to Miami each winter. Lockley owned a used-car lot in Brooklyn and is remembered for driving late-model black Cadillacs. The entourage would travel in two or three vehicles, Lockley’s Cadillac pulling a small trailer piled high with musical instruments covered by a tarpaulin. The Gospel Feast Party held services in tents and churches throughout Florida and other states where conditions were favorable...
Photo of Henry Nelson and Willie Eason
The two most influential steel guitarists in the House of God tradition: Henry Nelson (left) and Willie Eason at the author’s home, Gainesville, Florida, December 1998. As a boy of eleven, Nelson took up the instrument after seeing Eason play and sing at the church in Ocala, Florida, where his father, Bishop W.L. Nelson, served as pastor. Eason’s first wife was Henry’s sister, Alyce. Photo: ©Robert L. Stone
For the 1940 trip south, Lockley engaged Troman’s brother Willie (1921-), who had graduated from high school that spring. Troman had played in the straightforward Hawaiian style, but Willie developed his own technique, consisting of extended slurred passages often executed on a single string and punctuated by rhythmic backbeat strums. Willie was also a powerful, charismatic singer.
He often used the steel guitar as a second voice to answer a vocal phrase or complete a sentence. His passionate musicianship and magnetic personality quickly made him an important member of the Gospel Feast Party, but Lockley did not compensate him monetarily. After two trips south with Lockley, Willie struck out on his own to play street-corner music ministries for tips as well as for worship services in House of God churches. His influence among aspiring House of God musicians spread far and wide as he traveled. His popularity and stature were boosted by seven 78 rpm records he recorded on popular gospel labels...

Henry Nelson’s Influence

Henry Nelson cultivated what some have called a Liberace persona. He was a sharp dresser and made it a habit to charm the congregation—especially older women—with personal greetings before he sat down at his instrument to play. He built on Willie Eason’s technique and took it a step or two further. He developed a style of "praise" or "shout" music consisting of voicelike lines played on the treble and bass strings 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. To this day, his riffs and rhythms are played at many House of God worship services...

The Campbells

Charles T. "Chuck" Campbell (1957-) of Rochester is the son of Bishop Charles E. Campbell, who is the state bishop of New York and responsible for dioceses in north and west Florida and most of Georgia. An innovative and highly skilled musician, Chuck has played a significant role in the increased use of the pedal-steel guitar among House of God members during the past three decades...

Chuck is always accompanied by his brother Phil, five years his junior, who picks the standard guitar with driving rhythm and melodic invention, and Phil’s teenage son, Carlton, on drums. Chuck and Phil Campbell live in Rochester and play for one or two services a week at their father’s church in Rush, when they are not touring.
Photo of Darick Campbell
Darick Campbell plays praise music on the steel guitar as his nephew, Carlton Campbell, beats the drums at the Georgia State Assembly, Macon, August 1998. Darick travels extensively with his father, Bishop Charles Campbell, to play to play at assemblies and special services at churches within the bishop’s dioceses, which include the state of New York, most of Georgia, and north and west Florida. Photo: ©Robert L. Stone
Darick, the youngest of the three Campbell brothers, plays an eight-string nonpedal-steel for services in his hometown of Macon, Georgia, when he is not traveling with his father. In addition to playing steel guitar for his father’s assemblies in New York, Georgia, and Florida, Darick does much of the driving and helps with administrative matters. Darick’s steel guitar playing reflects considerable influence from Henry Nelson.
Chuck, Phil, Darick, and Carlton billed themselves as the Campbell Brothers and teamed with legendary House of God power-house vocalist Katie Jackson of Baltimore to record their debut album for Arhoolie Records in 1997. Following the success of their Arhoolie release, they began to tour, primarily at festivals and colleges on the "cultural circuit." Photo of Phil, Darick and Chuck Campbell
Phil (left), Darick (center background), and Chuck Campbell (right), wreck the house as they perform "Jump for Joy" at the second annual Sacred Steel Convention in Sanford, Florida, March 2001. Many of the young men in the audience are budding steel guitarists. Photo: ©Robert L. Stone
Initially unsure what to expect when playing for predominantly white audiences in secular venues, they were soon pleasantly surprised. Chuck explains,
The music transcends the church. People jump just as much outside of the church as they do at church. We are now experiencing another side of spirituality outside of church. We’re finding that this music celebrates not only the way we look at things spiritually, but the way everyone looks at their inner self.
Photo of Lonnie Big Ben and Cherlyn Bennett
Lonnie "Big Ben" and Cherlyn Bennett of Rochester at the first annual Sacred Steel Convention, Rollins College, Winter Park, Florida, April 2000. Photo: ©Robert L. Stone
The Bennetts

Lonnie "Big Ben" Bennett is a steel guitarist from Rochester who brings an uncommon combination of influences to the House of God steel guitar tradition. He was born in Hartford in 1959 and raised in an eclectic musical environment.
His parents were fond of classical, opera, country, and jazz in addition to the sacred music of the House of God, where his father served as a minister. As a young man he played in country and rock bands. He began to play the steel guitar in church at an early age, learning largely by watching other local steel guitarists. "By the time I was thirteen or fourteen, I heard Calvin Cooke play [at the General Assembly] in Nashville and he just blew my mind. The way he played just pierced me. So I forgot everything I had learned and I went home and I wanted to play like Calvin."

As the years passed, Bennett absorbed many of Cooke’s musical ideas and continued to develop his technical skills as well his ability to play for worship services. Cooke eventually became Bennett’s brother-in-law; they are married to sisters. Today Bennett is a highly regarded musician. He and his family attend the Rochester House of God No. 1, at the corner of Jefferson and Bronson. He is joined by his teenage sons Levi, who plays the drums (and is rapidly becoming an accomplished steel guitarist), and Daric, the group’s electric bassist. The males are often joined by mother Cherlyn and daughters Sierra (named for the brand of pedal-steel her father plays) and Sherrie, who belt out fiery vocals. The Bennetts perform for concerts and festivals as "Big Ben and the Family."


Robert Stone (mangoton@bellsouth.net) is Outreach Coordinator for the Florida Folklife Program, a position partially funded by an Infrastructure Grant from the NEA Folk and Traditional Arts Program. He began to document the House of God steel guitar tradition in Florida in 1992 and expanded his research to other states in 1996. He has produced seven Sacred Steel CDs for Arhoolie records and directed the Arhoolie Foundation’s Sacred Steel documentary video. His current projects in documenting the tradition include a book to be published by the University of Illinois Press and a traveling photo exhibit. Photo of Robert Stone
Photo: Judy Trotta.

The release of the Arhoolie Sacred Steel CD series, which began in 1997 and totals nine albums today, created a level of national and international interest in the music that continues to increase. After only a year and a half of performing at clubs and jam band concerts, young New Jersey House of God steel guitar prodigy Robert Randolph has risen meteorically to mainstream national popularity. He recently signed a rock star-magnitude contract with Warner Brothers. The vitality of the tradition seems ensured. How the increased popularity will affect it remains to be seen.

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The steel guitarist watches the preacher very closely and takes cues from him or her. As the sermon continues to build in intensity, the band becomes increasingly active in its role in helping the preacher heighten the energy. The musical interludes between preached phrases becomes longer and more intense. The steel guitarist may play extended slurred moans on the bass strings, similar voicelike passages on the treble strings, or even imitate a woman’s scream.

The full article, that is excerpted here, appeared in Voices Vol. 28, Fall-Winter 2002. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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