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‘Getting My Praise on’ For a Sacred Steel Documentary

Florida folk expert Bob Stone is a lot like Indiana Jones. Not that he wears a particularly cool hat, or has a whip; but he does have a job that’s very similar. But instead of searching for hidden artifacts, he looks for hidden musical art amongst Florida’s palm trees and palmettos.

Stone is often credited as the first person to expose the pedal steel guitar players of the Florida House of God churches to the secular world.

The musical marriage that "Uncle Bob" Stone first began brokering in 1992 begat seven albums of sacred steel music, a documentary film for Arhoolie Records, and eventually a collaboration between the North Mississippi Allstars, John Medeski, and a New Jersey House of God pedal steel player named Robert Randolph.

Their 2001 release, The Word, was my first lesson in the power of sacred steel, and the positive soul rock that Randolph recently said, "thrives on making people feel good."

Documentary film director Gillian Grisman wanted to learn more about the sacred steel players that inspired Robert Randolph. So she contacted Stone and made arrangements to bring her small film crew down to south Florida to hear some music, and learn more about the House of God sound.

She is also the director of the award-winning documentary Grateful Dawg, about the musical relationship of her father, David Grisman, and the late Jerry Garcia.

Grisman has explored other music artists like Nickel Creek and Robert Randolph, for the Sundance channel series "Keeping Time". She also recently completed Matchbox Twenty: Show, a documentary dvd, scheduled for release in 2004.

Since 2002, Grisman has been researching the origins of sacred steel, and the monumental rise of Robert Randolph and the Family Band. She frequently called the project a "labor of love," and is providing the funding for the project herself. Grisman said she was near the end of filming the documentary tenatively titled "Press On" and hoped to have the film ready by summer 2004.

After answering a call for volunteer audio tapers for the project, my husband Gray and I were lucky enough to be chosen to spend the weekend with Grisman, Stone, cameraman Rob Lyons, and some of the most amazing musicians in gospel music I’ve ever heard. We are still pinching ourselves to be sure the whole weekend really happened.

I’ll be honest with you — I hate most Christian music. It’s usually played by a little old lady on a piano that hasn’t been tuned since the Nixon administration. Or it’s so over-produced and bleached of any real emotion it sounds like a commercial for Wonder Bread.

I do acknowledge a difference between gospel music and christian music, however. I’ve always been a closet fan of old Aretha Franklin gospel songs, and even the rap-inspired gospel work of Kirk Franklin. Elvis Presley also recorded some splendid gospel music. But I’ve never felt connected enough to any of those artists to feel any spiritual transcendence when I heard their music.

But there’s something about the pedal steel guitar when played by a House of God musician… The instrument’s range is so like a human’s voice. It can wail, it can laugh, it can whisper, and it can also scare the hell right out of you. That’s apparently by design.

House of God steel players called it "the anointing." A steel player can bring a person to a higher place, a transcendent feeling that can inspire dancing, shouting, and "speaking in tongues." If a musician isn’t approaching their steel playing from a religious position, if not so anointed — it isn’t consider the same.

Saturday Jam Session at Deerfield Beach House of God… Grisman films Lisa Lang, the only female steel player — Bob Stone is in foreground.

"If he doesn’t have the spirit — it’s just a show," said Frankie, a 24 year old steel player at Deerfield Beach, Florida’s House of God Church.

Roosevelt Collier agreed. Collier, the steel player for The Lee Boys, a band that plays both House of God services and regional music festivals, quoted scripture as proof.

"In the book of Isaiah, therefore we will sing my songs to the stringed instruments all the days of our life in the house of the Lord," Collier said.

In the Bible story "David and Goliath," the Prophet Samuel anoints David as the future king of Israel. The anointing is seen as a sanctioning by God of David’s expected path. Later in the story, David is brought to play his harp for the current monarch, King Saul, who was ill and wanted to be soothed by music.

House of God congregations appear to be equally soothed by the anointed sacred steel musicians in their churches. Music is a critical aspect of House of God services. Indeed, the pedal steel is considered the lead instrument in a church ensemble, unlike country music, where it serves primarily as an accompaniment. Not all churches are lucky enough to have a pedal steel player. But most have visiting pedal steel players performing there on a regular basis.

The Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth without Controversy, Keith Dominion, Inc. — otherwise known as The House of God, was established in 1903 by Mary Magdalena L. Tate. After her death in the 1930s, the church split into 3 separate sections, called dominions. Most of the pedal steel playing tradition is found in the Jewell and Keith Dominions of this Pentecostal religion.

The Hawaiian music fad of the 1930s and 40s indirectly inspired House of God musicians to try the pedal steel guitar in their service music.

Steel players vamp melodies underneath the voices of ministers to add tension and emotion to the message from the pulpit. But don’t think the minister is standing up there only to take his cues from a rock star. It’s first and foremost a service, and the young guns in the band were groomed for their positions by the older players, who are often church leaders.

At the Saturday afternoon jam session Grisman filmed at the Deerfield Beach House of God, church elders ran the show, often sending hand signals to designate which steel players were to take their solos next. During a 40 minute non-stop jam drummer "JD" became so visibly over-heated a church elder began to fan him and wipe his face — but never suggested he stop drumming. The metaphor of the older generation teaching the younger to "tough it out" for the important stuff — like God — was not lost on me.

At one count there were five pedal steel players performing along with 2 other lap steel players, in addition to the bass player, drummer, and keyboardist, all at once! Afterwards, both Grisman and Lyons said how hard it was to stand still and hold the cameras steady — and to resist their overwhelming urges to dance during the intense jamming.

I watched altar flower arrangements shake, and anyone within earshot steadily moving closer and closer to the steel army of musicians at the front of the church. Like Tolkien’s Golem and the ring, the playing was just too overwhelming not to try to get closer to it.

My husband had to cool his heels by the recording gear, but I didn’t have such obligations. I "got my praise on," to use the vernacular. I danced my head off. House of God services do allow dancing — without partners. Again, church members pointed to scripture as their justification, Psalms 149 verse 3 "Let them praise His name in the dance."

Looking back — I think many of the church members were still surprised at all the attention that is suddenly being focused on their sacred steel tradition. 2004 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Prince openly lauded the work of Robert Randolph, and by extension sacred steel music. More people are hearing for the first time — everyday. Randolph and his band even performed recently on "Regis and Kelly."

Sacred steel music and Robert Randolph’s meteoric rise into secular music isn’t completely approved of within the House of God congregations. Staunchly conservative in some ways, Randolph and other bands like The Lee Boys are sometimes criticized for playing in venues where alcohol and drugs can be in abundance. The Lee Boys’ Keith Lee, vocalist and devotional leader at Perrine House of God Church also points to scripture. "We gotta go into the highways and the hedges to do God’s work," Lee said.

Grisman and Lyons film interview with The Lee Boys, after Sunday service at Perrine House of God

Since the church service is so entrenched with the sounds of sacred steel, filming a church service was important to the plans of Grisman. She had filmed the New Jersey church where Randolph grew up. She also wanted to capture the emotion of the Florida House of God services.

The last thing anyone wanted to do was make the congregation feel uncomfortable, or to show disrespect to the House of God Church, said Grisman. All of us agreed. All four of us privately commented how privileged we felt at being invited. We wanted to leave a good impression. So when a woman approached us and courteously told us she didn’t agree with the minister’s decision to allow the filming, we got nervous.

Unfortunately, during the service a regional magazine reporter and his incredibly obnoxious photographer arrived to take stills of The Lee Boys. Their noisy arrival preceded their arrogant injection of themselves directly into the faces of the musicians and church members. Church members’ eyes were rolling at the duo’s behavior, and you could feel the energy that had previously been positive towards us – begin to sink. I still wonder if some of those folks think that photographer was with us. God I hope not.

Just as I began to get really concerned about our welcome at the church – "Uncle Bob" Stone deftly escorted the pair to the rear of the building, presumably to teach them the definition of religious respect. "Things like that can damage a relationship for decades, Stone said later.

Thankfully, the service continued uninterrupted. Children and adults played tambourines, some became spiritually-overwhelmed and were led away by church elders dressed head-to-toe in white. Mothers surreptitiously gave snacks and water to the little ones to get them through the marathon 2 1/2 hour service. I fanned my husband and myself feverishly with a paper fan that had an image of Dr. Martin Luther King on one side, and an ad for a funeral home on the other. Stone was still outside, presumably dealing with the offending photographer.

The minister preached a sermon, while the Lee Boys launched into inspired versions of gospel songs. I lost track of the number of riffs and melodies that I’d already heard before — at a Robert Randolph concert. The connection between Randolph’s incredible live performances and the House of God tradition was immediately obvious.

Often I’d look over and see both Grisman and Lyons crawling around the floor, cameras hoisted and grinning. Out of respect, both wore church clothes, and I’m sure they were broiling in them. The temperature that hot south Florida Sunday morning must’ve been 80 degrees at least.

Yet, you could tell they were having the times of their lives — in a small church filming musicians that most of the world have never heard of. Kinda like Indiana Jones might’ve felt — after finding a priceless artifact previously not known to exist.

After the nearly 3 hour service and subsequent taped interviews, we all went to lunch. Everyone seemed to need to "talk out" what they had just witnessed and heard.

That afternoon, over hamburgers and iced tea, Grisman talked about her little brother’s childhood predilection for breaking away and running onstage with his dad’s friend "Jerry" and the Grateful Dead.

Stone even retold the now-famous story about the first time he heard a recording of sacred steel music — via a telephone line — back in 1992.

Listening to them, I realized that the right people are formally presenting this kind of music to the masses. Grisman has the right level of respect and journalistic intelligence to cover the subject fairly — but with affection.

And Stone, through his continuing work, is writing a history of the sacred steel. And Bob Stone knows this music better than anyone outside of the religion. Like Indiana Jones, he found it first — so to speak. But instead of Harrison Ford — this time — Robert Randolph wears the cool hat.

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