Sacred Steel Directed by Robert L. Stone Arhoolie Foundation (video)
Just past a brief title sequence, we enter a worship service in full joy, finely dressed folk stomping and shouting and working it all out while a steel-guitar-led band orchestrates the service. The camera cuts to Bishop Charles E. Campbell: “Music, we always say, is the next best thing to heaven. If you ever want to have some glimpse of what heaven is about, you need to hear the heavenly sound.”
Thus one is transported — more by the music than the film — into a new world. The House of God, Keith Dominion, is not a door I would comfortably open unasked. As a simple matter of respect, I would presume that a white, Northern fellow unschooled in any Christian tradition might only be an unwelcome (however generously tolerated) presence.
This 55-minute video, then, in concert with the fine series of Sacred Steel recordings Arhoolie has released, will have to serve. And serve it will, if only as a taste. Sacred Steel never aspires to be viewed as art, simply seeks to provide a visual introduction to the music, and does an admirable job establishing its context.
As the story goes, Hawaiian steel guitar was all the rage in the continental United States during the 1920s. The instrument’s impact on country music is as obvious as the tradition that began in the Keith and Jewel Dominions of the Holiness-Pentecostal Church in the late 1930s is unknown.
Willie Eason, the grand old man of sacred steel, has a twinkle in his eye as he tells how he surprised his older brother and another musician — both instructors — by playing “A Closer Walk With Thee” in church one day, just tugging at a single string to make it sing the words back to him. Today that tradition, expanded and transformed by generations of musicians, forms the central focus of the worship service at a church that has spread to 26 states, Jamaica, and the Bahamas. (The offshore adherents are, alas, not represented here; one wonders…)
The service is as spectacular as the music, and both narration and camera work are carefully neutral. This is a wild, joyous scene, and director Robert L. Stone does well to present both musicians and ministers in calmer, reasoned settings explaining and exploring the tradition.
Presumably because Sacred Steel is meant to serve as an introduction to the style and to its important players, one gets only fragments of services at several churches, augmented by a secular (nightclub, presumably) performance in California. It ends up rather more anthropology than art, more scholarship than swing.