…She could outplay Chuck. She could out-sing Aretha. And she influenced everyone from Elvis to Rod.” (Richard Williams)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe. What a force of nature. What a breakthrough in modern music history. If you haven’t been introduced to Sister Rosetta, let me give you a little background:
She was born in Arkansas in 1915 from a family of cotton-pickers, church singers and preachers. As a child, Sister Rosetta joined her mother Kathy, a mandolin player. The two began touring all over the United States. Rosetta was quickly being recognized as a music prodigy and began her notorious career at a very young age. Her bond with her mother was strong and Kathy would continue to follow Rosetta through all of her career.
Rosetta’s move to Chicago with her family in the 20’s is probably the source of her signature sound – a fusion between her Gospel Church heritage and the integration of Blues and Jazz influences of the city and times. Her first record on Decca, “Rock Me,” has been acknowledged to be the first Gospel song to ever to be recorded, and became a tangible influence for artists like Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Some people referred to Rosetta as though “she could play like a man,” thinking they where giving her a compliment, when actually she was not only a precursor of her times but she could outplay any other player. Thankfully, she is now recognized as the indisputable pioneer and force in modern music history that she is. She’s famously attributed to be the Godmother of Rock and Roll.
Her controversial life and career are certainly interesting aspects worth discussing, given that at the time it was almost heretical to go from Gospel to secular, mainstream lyrics. Throughout WWII she kept surprising and shaping the understanding of audiences all over United States. She created the first female duo of the time; when Rosetta saw the raw talent of singer Mary Knight, she decided that going on the road with her would be the only sensible thing to do. They began touring together without a band, through Gospel circuits and clubs. This gave them the freedom to do their magic without many constraints: driving themselves, performing from club to club, giving us this amazing image of two empowered women living off their talents regardless of their time.
Her story is so amazing, it’s like a mythological creation in our psyche. If Rosetta’s life has caught you attention so far, may I suggest these links:
I found it extremely fascinating, the inspiration she has provided to artists like Jimi Hendrix, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and many other luminaries, capturing their attention and respect under her irresistible and innovative spell. Nobody could play those riffs on a guitar, like her or before her. She was the North Star and the only bright light to follow. Like a true great artist, she was ahead of her times, and with her ingenious ways and effortless style she changed the “Game” forever. Because it’s true, when one thinks of Rock ’n Roll, one doesn’t imagine a beautiful powerful black woman with a guitar, but that’s how it all started.
What is revolutionary about this figure, besides the obvious, was the courage she had, to stand up and stand out in a totally male dominate industry during those years.
Signing with Decca gave her some of the controversial traits she is famous for – like many other great artist of today, exploitation was a big factor. Sister Rosetta had signed a seven-year contract with Decca and I don’t think she was totally aware of what she was getting herself into (given that she was very young at the time). There are not many mentions of this deal but given her total change of content from Gospel to mainstream, it’s assumed that she lost control over her material and apparently she was obliged to sing and perform whatever songs she was given, in order to fulfill her record deal obligations.
But it is the primal power of her presence, her extraordinary talent and ability that deeply connect us to her. She embodies the very symbolic archetype, that even without our rational knowledge, goes to imprint in our collective consciousness, like a vessel, a new neural path, an open freeway. Offering us a new paradigm, a new way to understand, see and feel music. This is revolutionary because it creates so much more than just a great artist, it creates an heroic persona to break and remove the many cultural barriers, not only of the physical world but of our subconscious mind as well. These are truly the stories that impact the very fabric of our society profoundly, with outpouring on many levels. Creating platforms and opportunities for more women to be able pass the baton to the next woman, to the next generation, until the day we will all (hopefully) will be able to identify ourselves as a one human race, no separation by genders or fear, just no separation.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is the ground breaking ideal that allows us to redeem our sense of selves. Effortlessly, she gave us the courage to “do it,” to “go for it.” I can only imagine how it must have been for any type of woman coming from a poor background in Chicago back in the 20’s, however for a black woman it must have been even harder. Her resilience and message, deep down, tells us that everything is possible, that talent will override ignorance and bring justice to this world. As a result she was loved, respected and held very highly, regardless of the ignorance of the time period. Her infectious ways and powerful voice evoke so much more than depth, substance and the feeling of her ancestors – they’re an awakening force in themselves. She is Boss. She is Rock ’n Roll, Blues and Gospel. Her fierceness inspires us to be and do better, giving us the strength to go on, to endure the many injustices, the many heartbreaks and reclaim our power.
Honoring this outstanding woman is important for so many reasons, it’s almost impossible to list them all. I think the story of Rosetta teaches us today the absolute importance of understanding who we are, as women and as a collective, and reminds us of where we are coming from and what we should stay connected to. And most of all, the legacy we are leaving to the next generations. Her fearless spirit tell us there is more work to do, but we can always draw more strength and power to connect with source by feeling or listening to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.