The Gospel According to Sister Rosetta Tharpe

I’ve long held an interest in Sister Rosetta Tharpe. I didn’t realize how long until I came across a paper I wrote about her when I was in high school. That’d be around 15 (!) years ago. All I know is when I first learned of her work and existence, I was mesmerized by the fact that she wasn’t up there with other founders of rock’n’roll: Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, etc. I had seen a short clip of her on the American Roots documentary that was running on PBS at the time. I’m finally happy to say that she will be inducted into the Rock’N’Roll Hall of Fame this April. So, here’s a part of 16 year old me finding what little I could about Sister Tharpe and trying to be a music journalist for my English teacher. Totally unedited since 2001/2.

The Gospel According to Sister Rosetta Tharpe

Much like humans, music evolves and much like evolution, music has its roots. Unlike the theory of human evolution, the American popular music scene has not taken thousands of years to develop, but only under one hundred years, aided by the happenings of a few musical “revolutions.” Nevertheless, American music would not be what it is today, if it were not for the helpful roots of jazz, blues, gospel, folk, country, and rock which influence its creators, who will in turn, influence a new generation of composers. An influential musician might help define his or her genre of music. Sometimes he or she can help to muddy the line between two classes, beginning a so-called musical revolution of his or her own. One particular musician did both such things, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, a gospel and blues singer and guitarist. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was and still is an important influence in the American popular music scene.

Every influencer has influences of her own. Beginning her life 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, Rosetta Nubin was influenced by her mother, Katie, who was a singer, mandolin player, and an evangelist of the Holiness Church. Shortly after moving to Chicago when she was five, Rosetta made her singing debut before an audience of 1,000. She sang “I Looked Down the Line and I Wondered” with her mother. Rosetta and her mother began touring on the tent-meeting revival circuit with the Reverend F. W. McGee. On a tour spanning from 1923 to 1938, Rosetta sang next to her mother. She eventually became known as “Little Sister.” Somewhat of a prodigy, Tharpe mastered the guitar by the age of six. During the years of her tent-meeting tour, Rosetta used the opportunity to develop her skills as a performer and gained herself a reputation as a talented gospel singer within the Holiness church. While traveling with the circuit, she met a “sanctified blind pianist,” Arizona Dranes. Dranes’ style highly influenced her own. Sister Rosetta drew much influence from the mandolin playing of her mother and the piano playing of Dranes to inspire her own guitar technique.

Little did Tharpe know that her own voice and guitar style would take her so far quite suddenly. In 1938, she landed a record deal with Decca Records. The result of that was a hit recording of Thomas A. Dorsey’s song “Rock Me.” Soon afterwards, Tharpe was featured in Life magazine for her performance with Cab Calloway. In addition to her achievements, she performed at the legendary Carnegie Hall as part of the “Spirituals to Swing” concert. The three events propelled Rosetta’s success into the next decade and she soon became the new icon for the raging gospel music scene. Gospel became the new jazz. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was helping to pioneer the revolution; however, she took it as a compliment when someone would call her a jazz singer. The advent of the 1950’s brought gospel music into its full swing. Artists like Mahalia Jackson and Willie Mae Ford Smith were entering the scene. Tharpe began touring throughout Europe to widen her appeal.
Sister Rosetta’s approval was not as strong with some audiences. Some gospel circles were offended by her outrageous personality and her secular success. When during the 50’s Rosetta teamed up with a sanctified shouter, Madame Marie Knight, to record a blues record, Holiness church members were outraged. Rosetta’s music had always flirted with the blues. This interesting combination drove national audiences wild, but created negative reviews among conservative gospel circuits. The church folk were offended when she recorded video “Soundies” with the Lucky Millinder Orchestra. The traditional audiences of that time were not able to see the change Rosetta was bringing about in the music world, the fusion of gospel and blues. Sadly to say, the rift between Rosetta and the church was never healed. Her move into the mainstream caused much controversy; however, her success lasted the rest of her life. She later made an appearance at the Apollo Theatre. Tharpe spent the 60’s recording and playing more gospel songs tinged with blues and jazz. She was strong in her will to play music for the Lord, though it was always the way she wanted to play her music. The singer died in 1973. Rosetta’s dedication to music was life long: she had plans to record more gospel tunes on what turned out to be the day after her death.

Even though Sister Rosetta Tharpe was put into the category of gospel, she had a style of her own. Her guitar styling exerted obvious blues influences. She played the guitar like a blues guitarist, wailing improvisational lines similar to the vocal melody. Rosetta was one of the few female guitarists of her day. A revolution in itself. She helped to define the gospel music of her time and, despite controversy, she fused it with blues, creating a new genre. Her innovativeness has inspired the likes of Little Richard and Johnny Cash, among others, leaving such artists with her influential talent and desire to create something more out of the ordinary. Tharpe leaves listeners with her creativity and originality, aiding in the fast paced evolution of American popular music. Her vital role places her in the outstanding category of roots musicians, further exemplifying how much work has stemmed from her own. Without the music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, American popular music could not have evolved to what it is today. To relate music to evolution, one seemingly small happening can in effect, create a much larger happening of its own.

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