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Traditional Music & Dance

SACRED STEEL

Learn about traditional Sacred Steel music as practiced in New York State.

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FOLK ARTS & CULTURE:   Traditional Music and Dance

MUSIC BY GENRE IN NEW YORK STATE

Sacred Steel

The steel guitar is well-known in the country and western tradition, but is very rare in African American church services, with the exception of the House of God steel guitar tradition. The House of God Keith Dominion Church is a Holiness-Pentacostal denomination that started in the South around 1903.

The tradition of playing steel guitar in worship services started with a young man, Troman Eason, in Philadelphia who liked the sound of Hawaiian steel guitar coming over the radio in the 1930s, learned to play the instrument, and began playing it at House of God services in Philly. Soon he was asked by the Bishop to join the Gospel Feast Party Band, a group of musicians and preachers based in New York that regularly traveled to Florida. Musical traveling like this kept this tradition alive amongst House of God churches in disparate areas, and developed a strong communal tradition despite the geographical differences. Troman and his brother Willie were the early pioneers of the sacred steel guitar tradition, clearly drawing from an African American musical heritage in the way they incorporated call-and-response type stylings, mimicked the sound of gospel choirs and even imitated the vocal yells and shouts of field hollers. Henry Nelson, a bishop’s son from Florida, and Calvin Cooke, based in Detroit, are some of the other well-known masters of the tradition.

Born to a New York state Bishop of the church in Rochester, Chuck Campbell became proficient in steel guitar during his teen years, and was one of the first to play the pedal steel guitar in the House of God Keith Dominion. He is known as an innovator of the tradition, having mastered the styles of Calvin Cooke and Henry Nelson. He continues to innovate with his brothers in the Campbell Brothers Band, using distortion, complex chords and fast picking.

Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett was the son of a minister in the House of God Church in Rochester, and grew up with the sounds of sacred steel guitar. He saw Calvin Cooke in a live service, and ever since strived to play like the master. He continues to play with his sons in Rochester.

Musicians such as these continue to meet and be influenced by each other—despite geographical differences—through sacred conventions and meetings. The tradition has been spreading and gaining popularity in recent years thanks to the release of sacred steel recordings, put out by Arhoolie Records, and live performances outside of a sacred setting.

Artists:
Charles T. “Chuck” Campbell
Lonnie “Big Ben” Bennett and family
The Campbell Brothers

These traditional music & dance web pages were developed with support of New York State Music Fund, administered by the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. These music pages are still in development. Please enjoy and come back again, as we continue to expand this section.
 

Chuck Campbell
Chuck Campbell plays “Jump for Joy”
at the Sacred Steel Convention, Sanford, Florida, 2001.
Photo: Robert Stone


Read more about House of God steel guitar here:

“Sacred Steel and the Empire State“ by Robert L. Stone, in Voices 28:3-4, Fall-Winter, 2002. Download PDF of article here.




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