The lasting legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the Spring 2016/Roots & Branches issue of No Depression in print. Subscribe now for just $6 per month and never miss another issue.
There are many ways to tell the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but all angles converge on one thing: her work ethic. That, combined with her showmanship and remarkable talent, earned her a long, dynamic career. In videos of her performances, Tharpe wears her trademark evening gown and flirts coquettishly with the audience. You can get wrapped in her personality, but then her voice rings out full, round tones glorifying God, even as she grabs her guitar to shake and shimmy as if in spirit possession.
Then there’s her legacy, which there’s no denying. Johnny Cash said she was his favorite musician. Keith Richards looks up to her guitar prowess, and she had a deep influence on Elvis Presley. Tharpe’s tours to the UK made her a source of inspiration for the British Invasion. And today, still, numerous musicians who span the gamut of genre, race, and gender consider her a great inspiration – not just musically, but also as a performer, and as someone strategic enough to overcome all the obstacles and limits she faced, so long as she could keep making music.
Moving the Audience
Rosie Etta was born to Katie Harper and Willis Atkins in Cotton Plant, Arkansas, in early 1915. (Tharpe was her first husband’s last name.) She grew up in the Church of God in Christ – a small, then relatively new branch of the Pentecostal Church. Thus, to tell the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one must also tell the story of COGIC.
The church’s strict rules governed women’s appearance: they could not wear makeup or jewelry and were not permitted to either lighten or darken their skin or hair. Yet, contrary to these rules that aimed to steer congregants away from vanity, there was a rich emotional expressiveness to the church. Revivals were chaotic and could go on for hours, congregants and preachers intuiting when to interrupt one another with a song or a sermon.
“The Church of God in Christ … is a Pentecostal denomination that was already open to, first of all, praising God with instruments, but also praising God with all kinds of instruments – including those that were not looked upon fondly in other more mainline churches, like Baptist churches or Methodist churches,” says Tharpe biographer Gayle Wald, author of Shout Sister Shout. “So she grew up in a church context where horns were welcome, drums were welcome, acoustic guitars were welcome. I think it was the liberalism of the church around what the music of worship could sound like that really shaped her musical sensibility. … [Those] church audiences already knew that and weren't as interested in music just for pleasure, or music as a way of moving the body, certainly – moving the body in a way that wasn't about giving glory to God.”
Here among the dichotomy of restrictions and bombastic expression, Sister Rosetta Tharpe spent her early years shaping into the star she’d become. More than happy to toss aside rules about appearances (at the end of her life, she had an entire shed devoted to storing her gowns), Tharpe kept that flamboyant spirit alive throughout her career.
Still, as restrictive as COGIC was, it may have offered Tharpe an agency of musical expression that was harder to find in the music business. “Commercial music didn't necessarily give her agency as a female performer,” Wald explains. “In some ways, I think the church had afforded her more agency and authority as a female performer. Those first records for Decca, where she's accompanying herself, she doesn't need to be anyone's frontwoman; she's a kind of self-sufficient soloist. They become powerful evidence that, even what seems like a socially and sexually restrictive environment for women – like the Pentecostal church, where you're not allowed to wear makeup and you're not allowed to date and you're not allowed to dance and you're not allowed to have any sexuality – paradoxically, that could be a space where she had musical and cultural authority. As opposed to when she went with [bandleader Lucky] Millinder in the secular realm, she had apparently more access to being a sexual object, but it was at the cost of being constructed as an object of the male gaze. And also, she didn't get to play her instrument the same way. … There were attempts to give her the stage, but that wasn't her only or primary goal.”
Indeed, Tharpe first came to fame as the frontwoman for Lucky Millinder’s swing band. Later, she and vocalist Marie Knight developed a long-term musical, friendly, and romantic relationship. Knight, with her pretty contralto, proved to be an excellent complement to Tharpe’s own voice, and the two had chemistry – fluidly trading off on vocals, featuring Tharpe turning toward the piano instead of the wild applause. Together, they produced hits like the spirited “Up above My Head,” which Rhiannon Giddens revived for her 2015 album Tomorrow Is My Turn.
That said, while it would be easy to point to restrictions Tharpe faced from record labels, from a racially segregated society, and from a couple awful marriages, this is not a story about how a great musician found limitations and restrictions and oppression at every turn. Instead, it’s a story about how she always had a strategy up her sequined sleeve, a way to move through her career with a resilient jubilation.
Despite all the things that could have kept her down, Sister Rosetta Tharpe found her strength in rising above oppression. It is harder to say whether that transcendence or her musical and performance prowess has contributed more to her legacy. But what we do know is that Tharpe has been inspiring musicians for decades, and those musicians pass her name to others.
Light into Darkness
Singer Joan Osborne, whose voice balances clear soul and gospel influences, remembers her early encounters with Tharpe’s music. “I was very interested in the fact that she was a big star in her era and she came out of gospel music but not in typical gospel settings,” she says. “She became this huge sensation because she was mixing those two worlds and it was very controversial at the time. But it seemed like her philosophy was, ‘This music needs to be in places where there's darkness,’ which she considered the nightclub world to be – the light that she was bringing was necessary. So I was impressed by the fact that she was able to stand in both places. You don't get to do that unless you are incredibly talented and gifted enough to entertain people and get your message across. You have to have both of those abilities, and she certainly had them.
“She had a huge amount of charisma,” Osborne adds. “She was an excellent guitar player, very influential in her guitar playing. … I also love a lot of the material she did. That song ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day,’ that's such a great hook to talk about the mysterious things that happen in our lives. She would attribute them to spiritual causes and faiths and beliefs, but you could also take this broader perspective of the mysteries of life, or a religious lens or a spiritual lens or a broader, almost Buddhist take on it. As a songwriter, there are certain things in her lyrics that ring out to me, that have this really cool sort of frisson, that suggest this deeper reality that all of us are connected to.”
Singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon’s mother, Bernice, was a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singer and founder of Sweet Honey in the Rock. The elder Reagon built her career straddling the line between gospel music and socially conscious songs, and it was through her that Toshi discovered Tharpe. “My mom,” Toshi Reagon says, “she did a version of ‘Precious Memories’ with Sweet Honey in the Rock. But she talked about her before because she played guitar and sang, and I played guitar and sang when I was young. So I was always looking for women guitar players to be like, ‘Well, see, I come from a line!’ It was great for my mother to introduce me to her because she had started so early and she was way before a lot of guitar players, male or female, that I liked. It was a great gift that my mother gave me, that I was in the right place [for], because of her.”
Like Reagon, folksinger Janis Ian remembers her thirst for female guitarist role models. “She and Victoria Spivey – along with Nina Simone – were pretty much the only female players and band leaders I was aware of as I came up,” Ian says. “Sister Rosetta played guitar like the men I was listening to, only smoother, with bigger notes – if that makes any sense. And of course, personally, any female player was a big influence on me, because there were so few.”
Ian is right that, then and now, women are less likely to receive accolades for their guitar playing, more likely to be heralded for “playing as good as the guys.” Thus, Sister Rosetta Tharpe seems like an anomaly now, considering how many worlds she inhabited, but she was also an anomaly among her contemporaries.
"Unlike her contemporary, Mahalia Jackson, who stood tall and strong and very still onstage when she sang gospel, Rosetta Tharpe was an entertainer." - Bonnie Raitt
Comparisons and Curiosity
Nonetheless, she was not the only woman who was known for playing guitar in the first part of the 20th century. Memphis Minnie (also known as Lizzie “Kid” Douglas), who taught herself banjo and guitar as a child, was one of a few notable female guitarists/singer-songwriters. But Memphis Minnie’s music and life followed a different path than Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. Minnie toured with the Ringling Brothers Circus for a few years, then returned to live among the blues on Beale Street. There, she supplemented the income from her music with prostitution, which was not uncommon for performers at that time.
Tharpe’s gospel peers also stood apart from her. Though she was most often juxtaposed with the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, that comparison isn’t exactly parallel. Jackson avoided secular crowds and flashy clothes, and she didn’t play guitar. But the frequency with which they were compared says more about the media’s need to pit two black female gospel musicians against each other than it does any similarities in their approach to the music.
In fact, aside from both having worked in the gospel idiom, Tharpe and Jackson could not be more different. Master guitarist and singer-songwriter Bonnie Raitt agrees. “Rosetta was a pioneer in several fields,” she says. “She was the first black gospel artist to appear at the Apollo Theater [in 1943]. She had a major label recording contract with Decca that spanned three decades. She hosted her own syndicated gospel television program from 1962 to ’64. She was one of the few women lead guitar players at that time; Memphis Minnie was the only other one of any prominence. Unlike her contemporary, Mahalia Jackson, who stood tall and strong and very still onstage when she sang gospel, Rosetta Tharpe was an entertainer - her sprightly stage presence contrasted well with the spiritual content of her songs.”
That sprightly stage presence had a lot to do with Tharpe’s fame and following, especially among white listeners. For them to see that gospel could swing, that an African-American woman in a swanky dress could be upbeat – even in songs petitioning God for help – was new and, notably, nonthreatening. Her songs generally weren’t political and didn’t directly address race issues – topics that had often put white audiences off of listening to black singers. Plus, she was beyond charming, belting out her songs while she played guitar so hard that the instrument seemed more like a dance partner than an electrified piece of wood.
Nonetheless, in her day, African-American women who became famous musicians, especially those with instruments, initially were regarded as a novelty. Wald tells of one notable performance by Tharpe at Carnegie Hall, at an event dubbed “From Spirituals to Swing” – a landmark 1938 concert of black music performed for an integrated audience. When Tharpe performed, Wald says, “she was situated more as a kind of ethnographic curiosity for audiences. I don't mean to say that there was no appreciation of her music, but where she was onstage is a wonderful example of the music being produced in black churches.
“The audience for From Spirituals to Swing,” she adds, “which would have been a culturally elite audience, white audience in 1938, would have received her with a kind of enthusiastic curiosity. She was kind of a spectacle. Musically or culturally, swing was there, but also the folkloric discovery of the ‘American South’ and its traditions, and the black American south – I think that shaped her reception, at least among white audiences.
“As far as I could tell when I was doing research for the book,” she continues, “she had a wide range of audiences. She appealed to white Southerners and black Southerners. She had exposure to fans of commercial swing music through Lucky Millinder. The church would have known about her and responded to her. There [were] people listening to country music who knew about her. And generations of rock and rollers in the United States and Britain that discovered her at some point. So she had this broad audience.”
"The sacred has to do with everything. It doesn't just have to do with this little corner in your heart that belongs to Jesus or belongs to Buddha or whoever you pray to. It doesn't have to do with that tiny little place. It has to do with your entire being." - Toshi Reagon
Both Sides of the Line
In part, Tharpe’s audience was so broad because the work she did was broad.
While a lot of gospel-bred musicians abandoned sacred music for blues or the burgeoning sounds of rock and roll, Tharpe never lost her gospel edge, even when she was rocking out in nightclubs. “But she's really complicated because she tried to straddle the line between sacred and secular,” explains Wald. “That made her a controversial figure and an attractive figure, and that challenges some of our ways of understanding that line between the two – understanding that there is a line between the two. Al Green goes back and forth, but she was someone who stayed committed to the church her whole career, but also brought that church music to a secular audience. So I think that that makes her really interesting and potentially different from other musicians who followed a similar path.”
Despite the success her sound brought her, Tharpe carried sorrow over being ostracized from certain church populations because her music swung and she performed in nightclubs. “I've certainly heard rumblings that she wanted to go back to church music because her music was controversial in a lot of conservative church circles,” says Osborne. “She didn't want that rejection from those people; she felt like she wanted to go back and do straighter gospel music. But because this style had been more successful for her, she was really pushed away from that. … It's not something I have a great knowledge of, [but] I think what she was able to do in that moment – whether she wanted to or not – was to really expand an audience for gospel music. Maybe that was the personal price that she had to pay in being ostracized by members of her community.
“If you can look at it from the [distance] that we can look at it from in this day and age,” she adds, “you really can see that what she was doing, a lot of people who came after her did as well. They took gospel and expanded the audience. Somebody like Mavis Staples and the Staple Singers, somebody like Sam Cooke – they were following in those footsteps as well. It seems like it had this air of inevitability about it because the music is so powerful you can't keep it sequestered in this tiny community. It's something that can travel to a lot of places, and will.”
Tharpe’s breakthrough hit, “Rock Me,” is a perfect example of how she blurred the line between gospel and rock. The lyrics, adapted from lines penned by Tommy Dorsey, are ambiguous enough that she could be talking about either a lover or Jesus:
You hold me in the bosom
Til the storms of life are over
Rock me in the cradle of your love
Her impassioned vocals encompass both a pleading tone and a praising one. “Rock Me” is a song that captures Tharpe so perfectly, with one foot in the sacred world and the other in the secular.
On an album made to pay tribute to Tharpe, Shout Sister Shout, which was curated by drummer and producer Mark Carpentieri, Toshi Reagon gave her interpretation of the song. Since Reagon wasn’t provided with a lyric sheet, she guessed at the words after hearing the recording, which led her to sing “Tie me” instead of “Hide me” in one of the verses on the album. But for Reagon, that mistake just added to the mythos. “Now that I understand a lot of the context of her recording that song,” she says, “I actually don't mind my lyric [mistake]. I like that song because it says ‘rock me,’ and it says ‘rock me in the cradle of your love until the storm is over.’ That really shaped my arrangement, and I like anything that asks to be heard. It's a song that's very much like, Hear me. Later, when I found out it was part of her transition into the secular world, I thought that was probably a song she was trying to ground herself in as she was doing something that was very new for her.”
Reagon says she knew right away that her arrangement would be funky, and she wanted a contemporary gospel vocal on the chorus. The bridge, too, has a gospel influence, but Reagon wanted to highlight a guitar in honor of Tharpe’s own instrument. Asked about the sensuality in her version, Reagon laughs. “People have said they thought there was so much sensuality in my version, and it's so funny because I was not thinking about that at all. I was thinking straight-up spiritual and call to the universe, to hide me and protect me and help me get through things that are too hard for me. And other people were listening to it saying, ‘It's so sensual,’ and I was just like, ‘Y'all are crazy! You're looking for sex in everything.’ Just cause it has a wah-wah guitar in it doesn't mean I'm trying to fuck somebody.
“In a lot of sacred music, the sacred has to do with everything,” she explains. “It doesn't just have to do with this little corner in your heart that belongs to Jesus or belongs to Buddha or whoever you pray to. It doesn't have to do with that tiny little place. It has to do with your entire being.”
Married to the Job
Tharpe would almost certainly have agreed with Reagon, given her knack for blending the churchy with the pure fun. No event encapsulates this better than Tharpe’s wedding – her third – to Russell Morrison in 1951.
The event was planned as a big wedding/concert at Griffith Stadium in Washington, DC, and Tharpe was to be the bride. These things were planned with only one thing missing: a groom. The search began for one, and, in the end, Morrison was chosen. The nuptials were quick and then the concert commenced, complete with Tharpe, still in her wedding dress, playing in the outfield. Church groups, music fans, and a diverse array of others attended the festivities. The crowd was said to number 25,000 people.
Music critic Greil Marcus referred to the wedding as “a classic American tall tale, except that it happened.” In an article for the magazine CounterPunch, Scott Borchert writes, “Looking back, the wedding seems like a crude publicity stunt, and in many respects, it was. But isn’t there another way to see it? Imagine Sister Rosetta in the midst of that absurd scene, her wedding gown billowing, with fireworks blazing overhead and her amplifier ringing. ‘Get a load of this,’ she might be thinking. ‘What a farce! But at least we’ll get an LP out of it – and a great concert!’
“The wedding was a means to an end,” he continues, “but the end was not Russell Morrison or a vow to any man. The vow was to her music, and the groom, in a sense, was incidental. It’s as though the ceremony was a declaration that Sister Rosetta would be wedded first and foremost to her musical career – to her fans, perhaps, and to herself – and that nothing else deserved her full and total devotion. For this act alone – ridiculous and defiant and inspiring all at once – she ought to be remembered.”
And that image – Tharpe resounding from the outfield with that perpetual smile on her face – is what has lasted, indeed. It’s an iconic moment, summing up so much of what made her so powerful.
Trying to tease out some of what made Sister Rosetta Tharpe so unique, Wald says, “She had a kind of energy that was partly energy she had modeled after the Pentecostal church she came from. But she had an energy to connect with her audience. She did that as a vocalist but also as a guitarist. And she was also a kind of very spectacular performer with regards to her guitar. And early with the electric guitar in the ’40s, but even before that when she was still playing an acoustic instrument, she figured out – there's not a word for showmanship that has to do with women but I think she figured out how to make the guitar an aspect of her onstage show. Watching her with her daredevil moves was pretty spectacular and got people excited.”
It’s natural but unfortunate that many people praise Tharpe simply by talking about those she influenced. While her work did inspire a lot of early rock and roll greats, Tharpe deserves her due for being her own musician. The fact that this so rarely happens is no doubt due in part to her novelty as a talented female guitarist. But there’s also the problem of white musicians who appropriate the music and performance style of musicians of color and then receive more accolades.
“But if you see how people contextualize her,” Reagon says, “they contextualize her against what white people think is great. White people say ‘She influenced Elvis! Look!’ And I'm, like ‘Fuck Elvis, man. Come on, did that man not get enough?’ [Or,] ‘She was the godmother of rock and roll!’ [I think,] ‘Fuck rock and roll!’ [But] that is white people's bar for us. They never want to see that she was over Elvis. At the end of the day, Elvis was a cool white guy who could sing some black music okay. He was a great showman. He sold a million records. But if y'all had not oppressed every black person up to that point, he would not be able to stand.
“The context to [Sister Rosetta’s] greatness,” Reagon continues, “is based on white oppression of black artists. And it's insanity. No, you can't hold her up to Elvis. Elvis is Elvis because you would never give somebody else on the same platform who was a black person – that he was copying – the same exact space that you gave him. You never would. Elvis cannot be the context for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. And rock and roll cannot be the context for Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was bigger than both, and using those lines to try to say ‘that's what she was’ is people trying to give other people a teaching guide.”
So, while Tharpe’s work may often be seen in a context that slights her, it’s undeniable that she’s influenced others both through her music and her life. Wald talks about some of those influences both in the US and in Europe: “She's influenced directly a large number of female musicians – not just guitarists but her example of self-sufficiency stands out, a kind of career that had ups and downs but wasn't defined by a Svengali-like man or by her decline into victimization. So she stands out as this interesting example of a woman who tried to have a career on her own terms as long as she could. And she was really adept at her instrument.
“For a lot of women musicians,” she adds, “that ends up being a really inspiring example. There was a whole generation of young people who were exposed to her in Europe in the late ’50s through the late ’60s, so for about a decade. And that generation would be part of the generation that would constitute the British Invasion, so there's these layers of influence she has. She was probably the most well-known American woman touring in the ’50s and ’60s with these, they called them gospel caravans or blues caravans, that were organized. So she had a more contemporary influence in Europe at a time when the US audience was fading.”
An Endless Well
Unfortunately, Tharpe’s career was cut short by her illness and death in 1973, but she lived every moment of it. After one of her legs had to be amputated, she still performed – sometimes hopping around the stage on one leg. She had to make music and she had to perform it, and maybe that’s the simplest way to describe her career.
“She was a great show-woman,” says Reagon. “She was a great guitarist. She was a great vocalist. She was a great interpreter of texts. She had the most fierce enunciation of anybody. She had excellent phrasing. She could play with a small band, she could play with a giant choir, she could do anything.”
“She's part of the canon of artists who you're able to go back again and again to that well for inspiration,” Osborne adds. “And you may not have listened for five or six years, but you listen again and you hear some other shade of meaning in the words or connect with some other aspect of what she's doing rhythmically, or with the guitar. [Her music is] just a source, it's a well you go back to again and again. I'm sure that there are many people besides me who look to her for that kind of inspiration.”
And they will keep on looking, especially as Tharpe’s name becomes more known to a new generation. In 2009, she finally received a proper headstone after years of lying in an unmarked grave in Philadelphia. Writer/publisher Bob Merz heard an interview with Gayle Wald and was moved to organize a concert to raise money for the stone. Tharpe’s friend Roxie Moore wrote the epitaph: “She would sing until you cried and then she would sing until you danced for joy. She helped to keep the church alive and the saints rejoicing.” A fitting tribute, but we all know Sister Rosetta Tharpe is still singing.