An overdue review of Robert Stone’s Sacred Steel book
One day in the summer of 1992, Robert L. Stone’s bandmate held up a telephone in the music store where he worked, a place called the Banjo Shop in Hollywood Florida. Stone’s day job was as a folk arts coordinator for the Bureau of Florida Folklife Programs in White Springs, population 800. (Hard to imagine such jobs exist these days.) This was, best anyone can tell, the first time the music of the sacred steel guitar was heard outside the insular world of the two Holiness sects in which it had — not quietly! — developed since the 1930s.
Stone began to investigate. By 1995 he’d gotten enough grant monies to produce and release 600 copies of a cassette documenting the music of Aubry Ghent, Glenn Lee, and others. It was heard, passed along to guitarists and aficionados, arguably the first new folk music discovered in the United States in decades.
Chris Strachwitz at Arhoolie heard the music, came to Florida to record it, and gave what came quickly to be called sacred steel music an audience, and international distribution. Today we have Robert Randolph.
Stone’s book, Sacred Steel: Inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition — published last fall — is the culmination of years of research, of oral history, of painstaking discographical efforts. It is the consequence of listening carefully and gaining trust, of crossing lines of race and (presumably, though he is careful not to say anything about his own beliefs) religion. He has been able to penetrate the worlds of the Keith and (to a lesser extent) Jewell Houses of God, and to produce a first-rate even-handed history.
Published by the University of Illinois Press, Stone manages the delicate feat of writing for academia without sucking the joy out of the reading. He is not, perhaps, a trend-setting prose stylist, but his writing is durable, direct, and impeccably researched.
It is a remarkable accomplishment, on both sides. The music is extraordinary, as is the extent to which the Keith (10,000 members) and Jewell (2,000 members) denominations have developed their distinctive praise music utterly separate from (and yet peripherally informed by) the secular world. The church is still governed by the 1923 edition of its Decree Book, which (even today) proscribes, as Stone summarizes: “wine, grape juice, unfermented wine, whiskey and beers; opium, morphine, cocaine, and other harmful drugs; gambling, checkers, cards, and dominoes; the reading of novels; wicked dancing instituted by the devil; shows, parks, movies, baseball games, and horse racing; the singing of reels, ragtime songs, jazzy songs, and all jazz and wicked songs; and wicked festivals and all places of amusement for sinners.” Later on Stone notes that, when the children of an influential church member took up football, what was permitted.
Both churches are based in Nashville, but have few members in Tennessee. Pockets of have developed in the Detroit area, in New Jersey (where Randolph comes from), in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina. And in the Bahamas. That Stone has been welcomed to so many services, into so many homes, and trusted with so much of this history is a testimony to his skill as a folklorist, and, one suspects, to the purity of his motives.
Following Stone’s discovery and the series of Arhoolie releases, the small sacred steel community discovered what we in Seattle came to learn in the early 1990s: money changes everything. The musicians came to learn that there were such things as monitors at secular gigs, and that they might be paid more than $15-20 for their work. They came to learn that they were good, and more than good. They came to confront Sam Cooke’s dilemma. Stone’s final (twelfth; I wonder at the symbolism) chapter touches on the new, conservative adminstration of the Keith Dominion which has made it difficult for its musicians to play outside church. Musicians say church membership has declined. Many of the best players have withdrawn from their roles within the church, ceding the floor to younger, greener musicians who are presumably being encouraged not to stray from the musical framework already in place. By which way the tradition is kept intact, and the musicians are kept in their place.
A discographical appendix is particularly helpful, though potentially expensive.
Finally, by way of apology to the small handful of folks who follow me here, all is well but little enough is unpacked. I have been moving — home and family business — since Christmas. My CDs remain in storage (I’d be moving them today, but it’s raining too hard), my stereo is not assembled, and the carpenters are still working at their own careful pace to finish the house we’re living in. And we’ve acquired a very large, very sweet bloodhound. And if the waters ever stop pouring out of the sky there will be a garden and an orchard to tend. But all’s well. Some day I’ll listen to the CDs I’ve been sent, and will maybe comment on a few of them here.