On this first day of spring, we celebrate the 96th anniversary of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's birth. Born March 20, 1915 in Alabama, Rosetta rose to fame in the late 1930s and early 1940s as one of the first great recording artists of gospel music. Tharpe's nickname the "original soul sister" rings true when you listen to one of these recordings, partly for her strong, heartfelt vocals, but even more so from a source that may surprise some not familiar with her music. Instead of telling you what I am writing about, I'll give you the chance to experience it for the first time on your own:
About 1:25 into Tharpe's performance of "Up Above My Head", her soulful vocals and rhythmic guitar accompaniment jump to another level, as her eyes look up above for that music she is singing about as she tears into a guitar solo comparable to Chuck Berry's best (which is no coincidence--Chuck Berry is one of several early rock and roll greats that cited Tharpe as a major influence). Talks of great guitarists rarely venture into gospel music, and even less frequently include African-American women, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe's pick-work is up there with the best, exploring new sounds with the instrument that led to the inception and development of rock and roll. In fact, Tharpe's 1944 recording "Strange Things Happening Every Day" has been dubbed by some as the first rock and roll recording ever made.
Despite Tharpe's use of blues progressions and popular rhythms, she never considered herself anything but a gospel singer. Her lyrics reflect this too, rarely straying from Christian stories and themes. I've touched upon this sacred/secular clash in a past column on Johnny Lang, but will continue it today and again tomorrow when we celebrate the birthday of the spiritually tortured bluesman Son House.
Although Tharpe's lyrics remained deeply Christian and spiritual throughout her career, the music she played along side them bothered many people. Mixing the pure and the profane was thought of as sinful, and many religious people saw Tharpe's playing as profane. Likewise, another artist influenced by Tharpe named Ray Charles would face similar criticism when he would later sing secular lyrics over gospel music. What interests me more about the criticism against Tharpe is that it has nothing to do with language. Even while not agreeing, it is easy to understand why religions that have rules and ideals regarding sexuality would be unnerved and defensive when interpreting song lyrics as sexual. But to be offended based on a sound and musical style is something much harder to figure out.
The roots of this kind of fear of the devil in music go back way before the days of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the first blues singer, or even America itself. I'll pick up there tomorrow, but until then, I will leave you with another performance by Rosetta Tharpe that would have this lapsed-Catholic in church every Sunday:
One final note: Rosetta Sharpe died in 1973. Poor and no longer famous, she was buried in an unmarked grave in Northwood Cemetery in the the West Oak Lane section of her final hometown, Philadelphia. It wasn't until a few years ago in 2008 that a concert was held that raised funds for a proper headstone commemorating her life and contribution to music. Soon after, Pennsylvania placed a historical landmark sign on her home in the Yorktown neighborhood of Philadelphia.