Sacred Steel is a musical style and African-American gospel tradition that developed in a group of related Pentecostal churches in the 1930s.
The Church of the Living God, was founded in 1903 by Mary Magdalena Lewis Tate. Following her death in 1930, the church divided into three branches, known as the Keith, Jewell and Lewis dominions. The steel guitar was embraced in the worship of two of these dominions, the Keith Dominion (officially, The House of God Which Is the Church of the Living God the Pillar and Ground of the Truth Without Controversy), headquartered in Nashville and the Jewell Dominion (Church of the Living God, Pillar and Ground of the Truth, Which He Purchased With His Own Blood, Inc.) headquartered in Indianapolis. Brothers Troman and Willie Eason introduced lap steel guitar to worship services in place of the traditional organ. This new instrument was met with great enthusiasm and taken up by others including the Bishop J.R. Lockley. The three toured together and later Willie put the new style down on record, recording a total of eighteen sides in the 1940s and 50s.
Since then, Sacred Steel has grown and flourished within the Keith and Jewell Dominions in churches in at least 22 states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina and Tennessee. The most famous practitioner is Robert Randolph of the Robert Randolph and the Family Band. Randolph, the son of a deacon and a minister, took up pedal steel guitar at 17. Just seven years later, he went on to become one of the most original and talented practitioners of the Sacred Steel form.
Willie Eason’s nephew Aubrey Ghent had also become a celebrated steel guitarist, preserving the sacred steel tradition and bringing it to a wider audience. Ghent’s father, Henry Nelson, was also schooled by Eason and played sacred steel for over 50 years, sharing the stage with Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Mahalia Jackson. Unlike Robert Randolph and the Family Band who have crossed over to doing more secular music, Aubrey Ghent has stayed closer to the gospel roots of tradition, as have many of the steel guitarists of the Jewell Dominion.
Sacred Steel Style Players
Examples of Songs / Artists
Recommended CD Compilations
Sacred Steel Artifacts Donated to the Arhoolie Foundation Archives
Folklorist and archivist Bob Stone is to donate his personal collection of photos he has taken of the Sacred Steel gospel tradition—along with his recorded interviews of Willie Eason, Chuck Campbell, and other key figures in the genre—to the Arhoolie Foundation archives. Arhoolie in turn will share much of this collection on their website (click logo). Bob Stone’s upcoming book of Sacred Steel photographs, made possible in part by a grant from the Arhoolie Foundation, will be published by the University Press of Mississippi in December 2020.