Revisit The Life & Music of Sister Rosetta Tharpe: ‘The Godmother of Rock and Roll’

Sure, Kei­th Richards bor­rowed some of his best licks from Chuck Berry. But do you know who Chuck Berry bor­rowed from? Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe. Tharpe was one of the pio­neers of 20th cen­tu­ry music, a flam­boy­ant, larg­er-than-life fig­ure who fused gospel and blues into some­thing new. “Lis­ten to her record­ings,” said singer-song­writer Joan Osborne, “and you can hear all the build­ing blocks of rock and roll.” Lit­tle Richard, Elvis Pres­ley and John­ny Cash each named Tharpe as one of their fond­est child­hood influ­ences. “Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe was any­thing but ordi­nary and plain,” said Bob Dylan on his radio pro­gram. “She was a big, good-look­ing woman and divine, not to men­tion sub­lime and splen­did. She was a pow­er­ful force of nature–a gui­tar-play­ing, singing evan­ge­list.”

Yet despite the enor­mi­ty of her influ­ence, Tharpe has been vir­tu­al­ly for­got­ten by the main­stream cul­ture. For many years fol­low­ing her death in 1973, she lay in an unmarked grave. In the last decade, though, there has been a slow resur­gence of appre­ci­a­tion for Tharpe. In 2004 Osborne, Maria Mul­daur, Bon­nie Rait and oth­er artists joined togeth­er for a trib­ute album called Shout, Sis­ter, Shout! A biog­ra­phy of the same name, by Gayle Wald, was pub­lished in 2007. And in 2011–the same year Tharpe’s grave final­ly received a head­stone, thanks to a fundrais­ing con­cert– film­mak­er Mike Csaky direct­ed a doc­u­men­tary called The God­moth­er of Rock & Roll: Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe, which aired this Feb­ru­ary on PBS as part of the Amer­i­can Mas­ters series. You can watch the full 53-minute film below.

And for a quick exam­ple of Tharpe’s stun­ning artistry and stage pres­ence, you can start by watch­ing the short clip above, from a 1960s Sun­day-morn­ing tele­vi­sion pro­gram pro­duced in Chica­go and dis­trib­uted by NBC called TV Gospel Time, in which Tharpe sings the gospel stan­dard “Up Above My Head.” Sources dif­fer on the exact year of the per­for­mance (TV Gospel Time was broad­cast from late 1962 until 1966.) but PBS gives it as 1964–1965. Two-thirds of the way into the song is the famous elec­tric gui­tar solo that was fea­tured in the French film Amelie. “Tharpe did­n’t just play the gui­tar,” writes her biog­ra­ph­er Wald, “she owned it. Like a snake-charmer, she coaxed sounds out of the instru­ments, turn­ing wood and met­al into lome­thing alive yet com­plete­ly under her con­trol. her con­tem­po­raries referred to this as mak­ing a gui­tar ‘talk.’ Some­times, too, they said she played ‘like a man,’ as though a woman was­n’t capa­ble of pro­ject­ing such command–or a woman-in-gospel con­vey­ing such pal­pa­ble eroti­cism.”

Also fea­tur­ing Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe:

“Mud­dy Waters and Friends on the Blues and Gospel Train, 1964”

James Brown Gives You Danc­ing Lessons: From The Funky Chick­en to The Booga­loo

The Alan Lomax Sound Archive Now Online: Fea­tures 17,000 Record­ings

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  • I Love Open Cul­ture!!!! Thank you :)

  • Daniel Hameed says:

    You know, I’ve nev­er heard the voic­es of angels, but i think that Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe’s voice came near to the angels one on earth sound­ed like she did,and no one played a gui­tar like she did. Some­times i have to stop and and say to myself, that God,gave Sis­ter Roset­ta Tharpe a unique voice.Her voice was clear and sharpe, you can under­stand every word that came out of her mouth.

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