There’s something in the gospel blues that’s so deep the world can’t stand it.
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE
When one is to think of pioneering musicians, Sister Rosetta Tharpe should always be at the forefront of one’s mind. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a lot of things: a multi-instrumentalist, a gospel singer, a songwriter, and a guitar virtuoso. For whatever reason, she’s become more of a cult icon than the global icon she should be, which is a shame for many reasons. The biggest of those is the influence she has had on so many artists over the years. That influence continues today. Some even argue that the term “rock-and-roll” came from Sister Rosetta.
Born to cotton pickers in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Tharpe’s connection to music was forged at an early age. Her induction came by way of her mother, Katie, who was a gospel singer and evangelistic preacher. Katie encouraged her child to pick up a guitar at the age of four, and we thank Heaven she did.
A couple of years later, Tharpe joined her mother on the road in performing as part of a traveling evangelical group, and before she or anyone knew it, she was labeled quite rightly as a prodigy. Back in those days, a woman that played guitar was rare, but a black woman who played guitar as well as Rosetta did was even more so. The world was ready for her at a time when it was ready for nobody else like her.
In the ’20s, Tharpe and her mother moved to Chicago to play at various churches in the city. As jazz and blues migrated (far) north of New Orleans, she found herself in a spot of transcendental inspiration. Over the years, she started to distance herself from the churches she’d played in her entire life and into the bars; an action that only expanded on her move to New York City with her mother in 1938.
It was there she got her first recording contract. With Decca records, she took gospel mainstream, which made her fall out of favor with the gospel community. A woman playing guitar was a big no-no, and a woman playing guitar that happened to be taking their gospel and mixing it up with an outward, uptempo kind of sound just wasn’t something they were prepared to handle.
Her church may not have been willing to accept her, but the public bought up every part of herself she was selling. Sister Rosetta’s music was unlike anything they had heard before at the time. Understandably, they wanted more, and Sister Rosetta was all too willing to give more to them. At a time when bathrooms, water fountains, and even schools were segregated, Sister Rosetta was there at the forefront of a new, united audience.
She was a black woman with a white singing group to back her up. In the ’30s, this was unconscionable to them. In Mick Csaky’s 2011 documentary, “The Godmother Of Rock & Roll,” a woman that was in one of the bands that toured with her said that with the segregated state, touring introduced them to the worst but also the best in people. Her star was shining, and it was shining brightly.
Guitars have always been linked to men in the mass media. It’s a thing musicians-that-also-happen-to-have-tits have to deal with now as well, almost 80 years later. Sister Rosetta was a phenomenal guitarist, but her efforts — as is true today — were quashed by compliments of the backhanded; that she “played like a man.”
SISTER ROSETTA THARPE’S ICONIC AMERICAN BLUES FESTIVAL PERFORMANCE
No. Sister Rosetta Tharpe played like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and there wasn’t a guitar-bearing soul anywhere that could match her level of skill and aptitude. For her, it was like it came from another plain of existence. From somewhere else. When she played looking to God, for a second, onlookers might have felt that it actually did. She was an accomplished guitarist in her own right, with charismatic skill soon-to-be popular musicians of a later time citing her as their inspiration for picking up a guitar. Sister Rosetta did not play like a man. Sister played like the woman she was.
Sister Rosetta’s career grew from strength-to-strength and height-to-height through the World War II era, where she continued to record her music. One of her most popular songs, “Strange Things Happening Every Day,” was released during this time. It soared to the top of Billboard’s Harlem Hit Parade, marking a brand new era for Sister Rosetta and for music. It was with this record that rock and roll was born.
Whether wrapped up in the controversy of being different or playing nice for publicity — Tharpe would stage a third wedding to market it as a concert, it worked — or drowning in the emptiness of a lost love and her mother, she continued to shape the way music was made. Where politics and religion are the great dividers, it is in music that the opposite is true. She continued to perform for the rest of her life until suffering a stroke in 1970 by complications linked to diabetes. Being offstage was yet a further blow, but even on the night she died, she was preparing to record again.
If no other artist was to be inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame, more than anybody, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has the influence, the magic, and the music to be its sole occupier. There are many artists in there already that were influenced by her. The little gospel prodigy from Cotton Plant, Arkansas, who played guitar naturally as the sun doth rise.