“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise.” —Psalm 98:4, King James Version
On February 26 in the McGuire Theater, brothers Chuck, Darick, and Phil Campbell will take the stage to set steel to steel in celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the release of John Coltrane’s seminal work, A Love Supreme. The Campbell Brothers are some of the world’s foremost practitioners of the “Sacred Steel” tradition, a strain of African-American gospel in which the organ and the choir are cast aside in favor of an ensemble of wailing and preaching lap steel guitars. With countless reinterpretations of A Love Supreme already in existence—in every medium imaginable and by everyone from choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker to poet Michael S.Harper—some might be bold enough to ask, “Is there really anything left to say about A Love Supreme?” When it comes to the Campbell Brothers’ version, the question of what they can say about the music becomes irrelevant. But things get a lot more interesting when you ask, “What can the Campbell Brothers do with A Love Supreme?”
It’s been much discussed how Coltrane’s Christian background influenced him on A Love Supreme. His grandfathers on both sides were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal church, and while the AME has a less affective and flamboyant style of worship than the House of God, Keith Dominion church that the Campbell Brothers come from, the musicality of the preachers Coltrane saw growing up no doubt had an influence on the album. As musicologist Lewis Porter notes, Coltrane’s playing on the piece’s final movement, “Psalm,” is essentially a recitation of the self-written poem he included in the album’s liner notes. Coltrane himself refers to “Psalm” in his own outline for A Love Supreme (below) as a “musical recitation of prayer by horn.” Porter points out that this recitation follows the basic “tonal system” of the chanted oral sermon1.
The technique of preaching through the instrument has been one of the defining elements of Sacred Steel music ever since pioneering steel guitarist Brother Willie Eason first performed “Just A Closer Walk with Thee” by “speaking the lyrics slowly while playing slurred passages on the top string of the steel guitar to make the instrument ‘talk,’” according to Sacred Steel historian Robert Stone2. These technical and structural parallels allow the Campbell Brothers to channel the Christian spirituality embedded in Coltrane’s piece.
The kinship between A Love Supreme and the music of the Sacred Steel tradition extends beyond technique. Both the House of God church service and the recording of a jazz record like A Love Supreme are occasions of structured improvisation. Just as Coltrane twists, mutates, and builds upon his composed themes in search of spiritual transcendence and knowledge, the Sacred Steel band leader will extend and improvise on sermons and spirituals while members of the congregation give personal testimony and seek the Holy Ghost3. There is a shared balance between intensity and meditation in the music of Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers. Professor Tommy L. Lott remarks that Coltrane’s saxophone playing features the same fiery intensity of African-American church singing, “with no overriding concern for pitch or intonation”4. Yet, the space for tender, melodic beauty is also made in Sacred Steel music, as well A Love Supreme, in order to heighten the intensity later on. In an interview, Bishop Charles E. Campbell, father of the Campbell Brothers, talks about a technique he taught his sons called “the breakdown”:
When you get it in high and everybody’s jumpin’ and getting emotional with you, we say, “Break it down. Lower it down.” Put in a certain thing…something touching that people can relate to. And they start thinking about the Lord and themselves and how far they’re down, and how they need to be lifted up…5
Coltrane and his band toy with energy in the same way throughout the piece. Clearly, there a number of ways in which we can see John Coltrane and the Campbell Brothers operating within the same musical, cultural, and spiritual framework.
But the question remains: What are the Campbell Brothers doing with A Love Supreme? Since Coltrane’s premature death in 1967, he has been mythologized perhaps more than any other figure in jazz. A Love Supreme is a central component of that myth, acting as a testament to Coltrane’s individual spirituality, a manifesto for his personal belief system. Coltrane himself seems to have wanted the album to be taken this way on some level. A Love Supreme is one of the only albums Coltrane ever wrote the liner notes for himself. These liner notes create a uniquely autobiographical context for the listener’s interpretation of the music6. He positions the album as a demonstration of his faith in God in the face of his struggles with drug addiction. At times, Coltrane explicitly asks us to see his music as personal testimony. In an interview with Newsweek from December 12, 1966, he said, “My music is the spiritual expression of what I am—my faith, my knowledge, my being.”
In his book Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album, Musicologist Tony Whyton asks why we view the studio recording of A Love Supreme as the essential document of the piece, when live jazz is so often hailed as the most authentic way to experience the genre and plenty of recordings of Coltrane performing the piece live have been released. Ultimately, he concludes:
Within the studio recording of A Love Supreme, the absence of the visual and the control of Coltrane’s sound creates a context for music to be experienced as more profound and mysterious. In many ways, the album transcends its status as a physical object to become something more symbolic, a reified object and associated set of events that bring us closer to Coltrane’s dialogue with God than any live performance could7.
Again, it seems that this album is continually experienced as a piece of testimony by John Coltrane. When we listen to the December 9, 1964 studio recording of A Love Supreme, it almost feels as if we are eavesdropping on Trane as he sings his song of praise.
The Campbell Brothers, however, are less concerned with the audience witnessing their testimony. In the Sacred Steel churches, the band acts as a facilitator for the spiritual experiences of the congregation. A steel guitarist measures his success by how much he moves the congregation, not by how well he can communicate his own faith8. The Campbell Brothers manage to turn the isolated personal statement of John Coltrane into a tool for creating a more communal spiritual experience. They can turn the holy experience of listening to Coltrane’s prayer alone in a bedroom into something shared, public, and no less sacred.
1 Porter, Lewis. “John Coltrane’s ‘A Love Supreme’: Jazz Improvisation as Composition.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 38.3 (1985): 593–621.
2 Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 75.
3 Ibid 34
4 Lott, Tommy. “When Bar Walkers Preach: John Coltrane and the Crisis of the Black Intellectual.” John Coltrane & Black America’s Quest for Freedom: Spirituality and the Music. Ed. Leonard L. Brown. New York: Oxford U, 2010. 115.
5 Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 51.
6 Whyton, Tony. Beyond A Love Supreme: John Coltrane and the Legacy of an Album. New York: Oxford U, 2013. 28–29.
7 Ibid 33
8 Stone, Robert L. Sacred Steel inside an African American Steel Guitar Tradition. Urbana: U of Illinois, 2010. 50.
The Campbell Brothers will perform John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, along with a selection of gospel and spiritual works from their repertoire, on Thursday, February 26 at 8 pm in the McGuire Theater.