“Can’t no man play like me.” — Sister Rosetta Tharpe

It’s her birthday today. In 2018, Rosetta Tharpe was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as an “Early Influence”. I mean, that’s nice, but it’s decades too late. She should have been in the first “class” of Early Influencers, alongside Robert Johnson. Never mind. She’s there now and her influence has been widely recognized. If you don’t know about her, then that’s entirely on you at this point. Catch up.

Plugging in her guitar was a revolutionary act. She was a gospel singer, and a powerful one, with a throaty voice, and a feeling of “call and response” in everything she did. This was participatory music, meant to work up the crowd. Rock ‘n roll music came (partially) from this well-spring. Rock ‘n roll – or rhythm and blues in its earlier iteration, if you can call it that – also depended on call and response, also wanted to fill the audience with Spirit, although not a Holy one. Rosetta Tharpe’s style had a huge influence on the ones who went on to explode the culture as we know it. People like Little Richard (whom she knew and helped early on and influenced.) Rosetta Tharpe predicts Link Wray. She used distortion deliberately. She leaned into that distortion. Distortion wasn’t a mistake.She wasn’t the only one who did it: as guitar/amp technology developed, there was a lot of experimentation along these lines. Rosetta’s experiments influenced everyone. She might have been left off of lists, but she wasn’t left off of guitarists’ lists. It just took some time to spread out into wider popular culture.

It was radio that separated out “genres”. But on the ground, among musicians, there was cross-pollination. Country, gospel, rhythm ‘n blues … everyone influenced everyone. Everyone took from everyone else. You can’t compartmentalize genres, and then say to artists, “Okay, don’t be influenced by this compartment.” Gospel – spiritual music – influencing the “devil’s music” – aka rock ‘n roll – is the best example of this in operation. There will always be those who resist or reject this. These people are part of the Past, not the Future. (Like the Nashville-based country music industry, so disturbed by rockabilly they kept Elvis and the Everly Brothers et al onto their charts for a good 15 years – thereby relegating themselves to rigid obscurity with zero influence on anyone. By refusing country artists who were influenced by rhythm ‘n blues – aka “race” music (let’s not forget: this is all racist-based) they Balkanized their music. It took outlaws like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings to make people outside of the hermetically sealed country music world to pay attention again. Additionally, they “allowed” bad-boy fallen-sinner Jerry Lee Lewis onto their charts. Charlie Rich. Influenced by gospel and jazz, rhythm ‘n blues, Rosetta Tharpe … Resisting cross-pollination in an attempt to keep something “pure” is a losing battle. Not to mention racist.

Rosetta Tharpe was born in 1915, and so she was perfectly positioned by sheer accident to benefit from technological advancements: the ability to record music, for one. Before things like record players and radio, musicians remained mostly regional phenomenons, although the word could spread. People needed to see you in person. Tharpe was born in Arkansas, to musical parents, and very early on was recognized as a musical prodigy. She was on the road with an evangelical music troupe by the time she was 6, 7 years old. Tharpe always stood out. Female guitarists were rare, and even rarer in the gospel world. She was an anomaly, as most revolutionary artists are. She was from the future, she pointed the way.

In her early 20s, she moved to New York City, and recorded a couple of songs for Decca Records. One of those songs – “Rock Me” – is considered one of THE moments in the history of rock ‘n roll. Recorded in 1938, “Rock Me” went on to influence the guys who influenced everyone else. Little Richard. Elvis. Jerry Lee Lewis. They all heard it and knew it.

Listen to that guitar. LISTEN. It’s 1938.

Her 1944 recording of “Strange Things Happening Every Day” was that rare breed, a gospel crossover hit – the first of its kind – as well as a protest song – reality is in this song – and it reached #2 on Billboard’s “race” charts (rhythm ‘n blues).

Baz Luhrmann used this song to stunning effect in Elvis, with the great Yola playing Sister Rosetta.

There are many contenders for the “first rock ‘n roll record”. Be wary of anyone who claims such and such is “the first”. But Rosetta Tharpe got there before most everyone, 7 years before, with “Strange Things Happening Every Day.”

“Strange things” were happening in the culture: radio and records and the war ending and prosperity and kids with money to burn and racial inequality starting to be addressed, a massive protest movement coalescing … music was changing, it was reflected everywhere, in country, in gospel, in r&b … but this Love of Lists has often meant Tharpe has been ignored. Understanding and accepting gospel’s influence on the secular demons of the ’50s and ’60s is essential.

Similar to a later boundary-crosser like Sam Cooke, Rosetta Tharpe was controversial among the community from which she sprung. There was something unruly in her music, something deemed “inappropriate” by the gospel world, something down-and-dirty, more appropriate for a juke joint on a sweaty Saturday night. (That was one of the difficult things about gospel: the best of it inspired physical frenzies, people fainting and writhing and screaming, not all that different from fainting/writhing/screaming teenagers at an Elvis show. There’s a reason gospel inspired all of those early pioneers who grew up singing those songs in church. They knew the feelings it inspired.) Tharpe was often rejected by her own world, and embraced by the secular white world. The gospel community is tough on “their” performers. Sister Rosetta performed in nightclubs, in front of jazz orchestras, backed up by people like Cab Calloway. The gospel community was not on board with this at all.

Tharpe was celebrated in her own time. She did not suffer in obscurity. The ’60s showed a resurgence in interest in folk music, with people like Mahalia Jackson surging into importance (eclipsing Tharpe somewhat). But she toured Europe with Muddy Waters (she was a huge influence on him). She died in 1973, and in the following decades her name fell into obscurity. People like Robert Johnson continued to be recognized, but she … she was forgotten. Not among musicians, but the general public had no idea about this essential figure, one of the wellsprings of everything that followed. This changed in the ’90s. A biography came out, which launched a flurry of coverage, NPR segments, documentaries, all of which helped re-connect the broken continuum with our collective past.

Take a moment out of your busy day to watch her work. Let her work ON you. Her music lives.

And this is extraordinary. During her tour of Europe in 1964, she gave a performance at an abandoned railway station in the rain.

You can’t understand the history of 20th century music if you don’t include Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Her name is perfect. She is a living breathing American Rosetta stone.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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