Steel Guitars, Sacred and Secular in Black

Robert Randolph Band

The old adage that all black popular musicians get there start in the church has been played out to the point of cliche. Nonetheless, with the exception of Hip Hop - although many folk will make the claim that the mc is linked to a lineage that traces back through the preacher to African griots - cultural idioms nurtured in black churches have played an all too formidable force in the formation of popular cultures the world over. What follows is an insightful recent article from the New York Times that captures some of the creative ironies that emerge at the intersections of "sacred and secular."


NEW YORK TIMES - August 5, 2007 Music Singers Grounded by Sacred Roots By GEOFFREY HIMES


WHEN Ryan Shaw performed at the Artscape festival here last month, he brought a refreshing authenticity to the soul-revival movement that has made stars out of Amy Winehouse, Joss Stone and John Legend. Mr. Shaw, 26, could shake the oldies dust off songs from the late 1950s and early ’60s because he came to the music the same way the originals did: in the black church. And when he sang “Nobody,” his own composition and the new single from his debut album, “This Is Ryan Shaw” (Columbia/One Haven/Red Ink), it resembled the hymns that Ray Charles and Wilson Pickett once turned into pop hits by changing a few words.

Mr. Shaw, who was born in Georgia and now lives in Brooklyn, invited the sun-baked fans to imagine themselves with him in the Free Church of God in Christ of Atlanta, where he learned to sing. Sporting a black shirt with red piping and a bundle of thin braids with burnt orange tips, he sang the familiar words to “If I Had a Hammer,” delivered in the soul style of Sam Cooke. And when he led the crowd in a call-and-response sing-along, he swooped his outstretched arms as if he were still a choir director.

But he’s not a choir director anymore, and he would have trouble returning to the post given the mixed reactions to his pop music career. While some of his fellow churchgoers have been supportive, others have told him that he’s going to hell for singing secular music. Mr. Shaw acknowledged that he couldn’t sing the way he does if not for all those years in church, but he added that such criticism can make it difficult to grow as an artist.

“It’s that Catch-22,” he explained backstage at Artscape. “The traditions of the church allow it to preserve musical styles that might otherwise be lost, but it can also make for stagnation. Things are always changing in youth culture, especially in black music, and young people want to hear those changes in church.

“If the church gives in too easily to those changes, gospel music will lose its identity,” he said, “but if it resists those changes too much, it will alienate the youth. That’s why you have all these battles about what is gospel music and what God wants to hear.”

It’s a familiar story: A musician tries to take the music he learned in church out into the pop marketplace, and the church reacts by shutting its doors on the apostate. From Georgia Tom Dorsey, the minister’s son who played the blues for Ma Rainey in the 1920s; to Al Green, who gave up pop stardom to become a minister himself in the 1970s; to Robert Randolph, who was barred from playing in church after becoming a jam-band star in this decade, hundreds of artists have taken their turns as protagonists in this tale.

It is usually told in terms of a forward-thinking youngster and a hidebound institution, but it’s more complicated than that. If Mr. Shaw’s church, for example, hadn’t been so stubbornly old-fashioned, he never would have mastered the art of melodic shouting and never would have sounded so natural when he turned to retro-soul. Maybe these churches provide a valuable service by being narrow-minded about music.

“There are so few areas in popular culture that remain untouched by the mainstream,” said Peter Guralnick, author of “Sweet Soul Music” and “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” “that any area that remains separate and retains its attachment to a tradition is going to sound pure and distinctive.

“Some churches are more untouched than others, but all of them tend to preserve older styles of American music, whether you’re talking about soul music or bluegrass. That’s especially true in this era of hip-hop and rap, which are really the first popular forms of black music in my lifetime that haven’t sprung directly from the church.”

It’s funny, Mr. Shaw said, what churches will and won’t accept. “When R&B started using jazzy chords like 7ths, 9ths and 13ths, you couldn’t use them in church because that was ‘the devil’s music,’ ” he said. “But as soon as R&B moved on to something else, suddenly it was O.K. to use those chords because the devil wasn’t using them anymore.

“Just like in the clothes world, where some stores will sell last year’s fashions, the church often ends up using the last decade’s R&B fashions.”

Thus stars like Kirk Franklin and Da’ T.R.U.T.H. might bring funk and old-school rap to the gospel charts, but there’s still a time lag between the sounds on urban radio and those on gospel radio. And in more conservative churches you’ll find the styles of ’60s soul, ’50s doo-wop or ’40s quartets perfectly preserved. If you want to learn the craft of those genres, the church is the place to study.

“My church was very traditional,” Mr. Shaw said, “and for a long time the only songs I learned were gospel songs. It was a very aggressive kind of singing. We didn’t warm into a song. We were in it full throttle from the get-go. When I moved to New York and got a job at the Motown Cafe, those Motown songs felt like the music I’d been singing all my life, even if the lyrics and melodies were different.”

Sometimes a black church incubates a style that doesn’t exist anywhere else. That’s the case with the House of God, which adopted the steel guitar, an instrument associated with Hawaiian and country music, and adapted it to its liturgy.

If you had attended the House of God’s national assembly in Nashville in 2000, you might have seen a 22-year-old nobody in a brown pinstripe suit sitting behind a pedal steel guitar. As the preachers thundered and the congregants shouted back, he laced it all together with vocal-like swoops across the 13 strings of his tablelike instrument and wild, psychedelic digressions in the distinctive style known as sacred steel.

That nobody was Robert Randolph, and within a year, thanks in part to John Medeski and the North Mississippi Allstars, who recorded with him as the Word, he was headlining at rock clubs. When he came with his Family Band to the Sonar Lounge in Baltimore in December, his signature song, “I Need More Love,” didn’t sound all that different from the processional and offertory hymns he used to play in the House of God. Mr. Randolph, who still lives in his native New Jersey, was wearing a sports jersey rather than a suit, and the lyrics spoke of love in terms of universal brotherhood rather than obeisance to a deity, but the impact was much the same.

Sitting in his tour bus before the Sonar Lounge show Mr. Randolph kept glancing at the football game on the television because he had told the story of learning to play black gospel music on an unlikely instrument dozens of times before. But when asked about playing in the church today, his expression darkened and he gazed directly at a reporter.

“We were kicked out of playing in church in 2001,” he said. “They said we were playing the blues and our songs didn’t talk about God. But my goal was to take the sound I learned in church and show that that sound can find a place in the secular world. I wanted to prove that a young kid doesn’t have to talk about drugs, guns and booty. He can be successful singing about love and happiness.”

“When blessings keep coming down on this band,” he continued, “when we get calls from Eric Clapton and Dave Matthews, when people who have listened to thousands of records hear something special in what we’re doing, I know this is what God has carved out for me. It’s not up to anyone else to tell me what his plan is.”

Maurice (Ted) Beard is one of the sacred steel guitarists that Mr. Randolph learned from during his church’s national assemblies. Today Mr. Beard, a 72-year-old Detroit pastor, is minister of music for the Keith Dominion of the House of God, and he describes Mr. Randolph as a “very gifted musician.” He said that he regrets that the younger guitarist can no longer play in church, but that he understands the decision, which came down from the chief overseer of the church.

“We really feel our musical style is something God gave us to use to enhance our worship,” Mr. Beard said, “so we should really keep it in the church. If you play out in the so-called world, you’re barred. There are different thoughts on the policy, but that’s what it is. It’s because we developed our music in the church and kept it in the church that it sounds so different from everything else.

“I’ve had offers to play out in the world, but I made a promise to my grandmother to stay in the church, so I did.”

Mr. Clapton and Mr. Matthews are both guests on “Colorblind” (Warner Brothers), the new album from Mr. Randolph, who will play at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, N.J., next Saturday. Mr. Shaw frequently performs at all-ages festivals like Bumbershoot in Seattle; he’ll play there on Sept. 2, and he’ll play at Radio City Music Hall on Sept. 18 as part of the multi-artist Dream Concert.

Both Mr. Shaw and Mr. Randolph say they don’t care what their fellow churchgoers think of their secular careers, but neither is very convincing. They are obviously pained by the criticism and argue that far from abandoning their religion, they’re furthering it.

Mr. Shaw insisted: “As long as I’m singing about love and not being derogatory to anyone, I feel my music is still a part of Christianity, even if the songs don’t mention God. It’s the spirit behind the music and how it’s delivered that’s important.”

Mr. Randolph would agree. “Church is about spreading the word, and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said. “Even though some of our songs have more of a secular sound, it’s all about life, love and understanding. Sometimes we’re in church preaching the word and we think it only applies to us in the church, but there’s a whole world out there.”