In celebration of Black History Month, Music Editor Ella Cockerill shares the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the black and queer icon to whom rock ‘n’ roll owes it all.
In the spring of 1964, British students lined the platform of a disused train station outside of Manchester. The venue was busy due to the jazz and blues festival that was in full swing. The majority of the youngsters waiting eagerly on the platform did not know the true magnitude of this moment in history, of which they were now a part. This was the moment 49-year-old Sister Rosetta Tharpe made her debut on British soil. She introduced the British public to the formidable, earth-shattering force of nature and culture that America had loved for over thirty years by then: this electric guitar-wielding, enigmatic performer. She is the crucible from which every chord, every note, and every lyric sung in the name of rock ‘n’ roll was formed. For this is not only the Mother of rock ‘n’ roll, but the Queen.
Born in 1916 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, to Katie Bell Nubin, a devout Christian, and Willis Atkins, rumoured to be a talented singer himself, it was no surprise that Rosetta was singing in gospel almost as soon as she could talk. At the age of six, she and her mother left her father and moved to Chicago. From then, the young talent was raised on blues and jazz, the likes of which only occur in a cultural melting pot like 1920s Chicago. Even as a young child this star was a talented performer. It was said she would be placed on top of the piano at sermons to show off her affinity for the guitar and astoundedly powerful singing voice to the churchgoers.
Making a name for herself in gospel singing and known for her weapon of choice the electric guitar, it was said she could bring an electrifying soul to church sermons, the kind of which had never been seen before. The electric guitar is a symbolically controversial instrument in music even today, especially in the hands of a woman. The male-dominated world of music has long established the electric guitar as a symbol of masculinity and promiscuous energy. It is something female artists continue to battle with, struggling to get the same level of recognition as their male counterparts. In response to this, our hero grabbed the problem by both hands – quite literally – and made sure the world took note of the way she played her guitar.
At nineteen, Rosetta signed her first contract with Decca Records, who were fascinated by this mix of gospel singing and secular, provocative performance. With them, she was quick to test the boundaries of what could be done. At the time, musicians could not exist in both the worlds of religious and secular music and were expected to pick one while writing off the other for good. Rosetta did not do this, and while any other musician would have lost their religious fans, Rosetta’s stuck by her. As her secular audience also grew, it was clear she was a force to be reckoned with. In less than 5 years she had established herself in a tough male-dominated industry, all while singing the songs she wanted to sing.
A common compliment of Rosetta at the time was that “she played like a man”. I hope we can all see the hollowness of this statement. I would also like to remind you this same sentiment is uttered by sexist rock fans everywhere today: “you play pretty good … for a girl.”
The point is that although sexism persists in the music industry today, performing as a black woman in the 1940s is a completely different story. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was fearless.
Music often acts as a mirror to the cultural and societal values of the time. It gives us the space to air out and make clear inequalities within gender, sexuality, and race, and the ways they interact with performance and art, as well as our daily lives. Rosetta Tharpe tackled all three head-on. In her unwavering command of the electric guitar, she defied gender stereotypes. Furthermore, she pushed the bar of what was socially acceptable at the time in terms of sexuality, as it was an open secret within certain circles that her onstage performance partner, Marie Knight, was also her lover.
In a segregated America, she experienced unrelenting and remorseless racism.
Her 1944 song ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’ was the biggest hit of her career and largely reflected society at the time. The war had ended and prosperity and freedom were being proclaimed as the right of all Americans. This song expressed the irony of this sentiment and the way it was at odds with Rosetta’s experience as a black person living in America.
1940s America viewed Rosetta in two parts: she may have been a star, but she was also black and therefore faced continuous discrimination. Rosetta Tharpe was on the road performing for over forty years, and segregation meant that she and her team could not sleep in hotels en route or eat at restaurants. The struggle to find food and shelter became a nightly routine.
Despite this, Rosetta Tharpe continued to push every boundary placed in her way. While her longtime touring partners were The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Rosettes, she also toured with The Jordanaires, a band of white musicians, something which had never been done before.
Over her lifetime and beyond, Rosetta amassed adoration from the public as well as other musicians. Her influence is within the DNA of rock, and can be heard in the likes of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins, all white men who are largely considered the founders of the genre. A friend of Elvis recounts visiting blues and jazz clubs as teenagers, and when the King discovered Rosetta it was her quick tempo and charisma that he admired and soon adopted in his own performance style. You only have to listen to their music side by side to witness the admiration for yourself.
Similarly, Buddy Holly is hailed as the original ‘guitar hero’, but to a guitar player in the 1950s, Rosetta’s influence would have been inescapable. Even Bob Dylan revered Rosetta, famously saying, ‘Sister Rosetta Tharpe was anything but ordinary and plain … she was a powerful force of nature’.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe defied all boundaries placed in her way. She is the queer, black, mother of rock. She is a hero to many and hopefully, after reading this, she is a hero to you too.
image: Rosetta Tharpe press shot. Photo by James J. Kriegsmann via wiki commons.