Steel guitar is one of American music's signature sounds. The weeping swells of the pedal steel, the swooping hokum of bluegrass dobro, the grinding rock riffage of, say, Ben Harper pushing his Dumble amp with his pickup-equipped Wiessenborn --the round timbres, wobbly tremolos, and octave wide portmanteaus--these sounds say "American music", the way the sound of the hammered cimbalom says "Hungarian music" or the sound of the charango says "South American music".
Of course, like many of the things we think of as characteristically American, the steel guitar is an import. In fact it is a Hawaiian approach to a Spanish instrument that took the continental US by storm after its appearance at the Hawaiian pavilion at the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco touched off a craze for Hawaiian music, steel guitar, and steel guitar instruction, a craze of a sort not seen again until the electric guitar boom touched off in the wake of the Beatles. (For more about how a Hawaiian instrument became a mainstay of country music see Episode 4 of my podcast, Down in the Flood).
Lesser known, until recently at least, has been the tradition of sanctified gospel steel guitar. Mostly an East Coast phenomenon associated with the House of God church so-called "sacred steel" guitar emerged along an Atlantic Coast sanctified circuit from New York to Florida, bursting into the public eye when Arhoolie Records licensed a collection of sacred steel performances from the Florida Folklife Program.
Soon one player in particular--Robert Randolph out of New Jersey--emerged as the genre's biggest star, a pop music darling, the go-to player when some rock star wants to add a "sacred steel" flavor to his or her records (he's recorded with Elton John, Dave Matthews, Ringo Star, Santana, and Los Lobos among others).
Mostly these days Randolph records secular music and to be sure he's a smoking player, witness this rip through one his signature show stopper "The March":
But in large measure the sacred steel style is descended from the work of one man, gospel steel pioneer Willie Eason, who, in the 1930s and 1940s, rocking an Epiphone lap steel, brought the sound of steel to the church.
No doubt the few records Eason made in the 1940s and 1950s were thought of by the labels that released them as novelties. Eason was never much of a singer or leader, witness his 1951 recording for Regent records "I Want to Live So God Can Use Me."
Perhaps Eason's best known recording is his 1947 pairing with The Soul Stirrers on the jubilee style political song, "Why I Like Roosevelt." That recording, is, unfortunately completely unavailable in any digital format although Eason continued to perform it until his death in 2005, including this warm performance Eason delivered for filmmaker Alan Govenar in 2004 .
If Eason's few records were mostly novelties, the performances he continued to make up and down the East Coast until his death in 2005, were more influential, inspiring among other Eamon's brother in law Henry Nelson, and Nelson's son Aubrey Ghent to take up the sacred steel style.
Ghent continues to perform in church in the style Eason taught him:
Eason was never the virtuoso that Randolph is or that Chuck and Darick Campbell of The Campbell Brothers are.
But his few recordings remain an inspiration, especially the later-in-life Eason performances collected by folklorist Bob Stone for the influential sacred steel anthology including this Eason performance of "Just A Closer Walk With Thee."