From the inception of music in America, negro spirituals evolved from the 1800’s into a variety of classic African American music genres such as gospel, jubilee, and blues. These styles of singing would later influence what is currently known as rock-and-roll that sparked popularity in the mid 1900’s. As a direct correlation to the social and political climate of the country, the lyrics and musical qualities is demonstrated to reflect an artist’s innermost feelings regarding their state of being. By relaying the life and times of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the acceptance of a new grit and timbre is observed to have been introduced by this awe-inspiring talent. Although not much credit is given to Sister Rosetta Tharpe, her unique musical qualities became the influence of a new generation of rock-and-roll from her beginnings in gospel which transpired into an evolutionary sound that inspired legends.
In American history, the evolution of culture coincides with the popular musical interests of the times. During the mid 1950’s, the revolutionary aspects of rock and roll heavily influenced the desegregation movement during a period between 1956-1964. During this time, people began rebelling against the norm, thinking in a wider spectrum, and accepting new ideas for how society should be viewed. Due to the baby boom, half of the population in the United States in 1970 were 25 years old and younger. Their massive numbers would largely influence the content of literature, film, and music, so their purchase of entertainment was essentially catered to this younger crowd of teenagers and young adults. With desires to increasingly assimilate, many adolescents would transform their introspection after the events surrounding World War 2. This audience began rejecting the hyper-romanticized era of the 1930s and 1940s, where the “American Dream” took root in order to sell a perfect idea of family, togetherness, and success. In response to this highly unrealistic idealization, the youth of America would begin to explore the different subcultures present beyond the mainstream. Intrigued with black slang, style, and crime, the culture demonstrated by black music began to be an alternative to the norms teenage white Americans experienced. Rock ‘n’ roll is a revolution that inspired artists and fascinated audiences to break the mold and push the envelope in American culture.
With origins in rhythm and blues, rock-and-roll is a musical genre that took a deep root in the southern states of America, including Memphis, Tennessee and New Orleans, Louisiana. It is heavily influenced by black popular music of the 1940-1950’s, in which blues originated in cities like Chicago and New York City. At first glance, artists such as Chuck Berry were the frontrunners of the beginnings of this musical genre. Specifically, he accredits the union of hillbilly, blues, and swing-jazz as major influences that brought about this unfolded culture. The delivery, stage presence, and rhythm were significantly different and more grungy than previously experienced. The analytical content that these artists impersonated greatly stemmed from gospel and was directed towards the minorities of the younger generations. There is no denying the black musical reference that commenced the birth of this particular music. This diverse integration of hometown blues with a new expression of feeling was endorsed by the world famous Elvis Presley and also exemplified by Johnny Cash. But, who influenced these rock artists?
Accredited as the woman who created rock ‘n’ roll, Rosetta Nubin was born in Arkansas in 1915 to a couple of cotton pickers. She began singing and playing the guitar at the ripe age of 4 with the influence of her musical mother. Her music career began as she traveled with the evangelists of her church following the divorce of her parents. After moving to Chicago at 6 years old, her popularity skyrocketed as her unique gospel performances gained significant fandom. As a precocious child and through her teenage years, she would perform at churches, tabernacles, and revival meetings. A plethora of witnessing family, friends, and fans have described her stage presence as a natural talent, saying that she looked to the heavens and seemed to have been singing to God himself every time she rose to the occasion to perform. Within the church, she would become a nationwide celebrity with her unique guitar playing and angelic voice.
The major hymns in which Sister Rosetta sang would express topics of suffering and wanting to survive, but her emphasis on freedom was awakening to the congregation. Married off at 19 to preacher Thomas Thorpe, he was described as a tyrant that desired only the benefits of Rosetta’s performances to draw in larger audiences for his church. After the marriage failed, she would later move to New York get involved in numerous other relationships with men, and women. The subject of her songs diminished religion and began incorporating themes of pleasing men, which would be criticized by the church in the mid 1930’s. Even so, she accepted her love for God while integrating into the secular world of show business. Bridging the gap between nightclubs and the church, an interpretation of the techniques from the fusion of gospel, jazz, and blues would develop Tharpe’s signature style.
Throughout the tense climate surrounding WW2, audiences of all backgrounds enjoyed the stage presence and talent that exuded from this mesmerizing artist. But as a black woman singer, she still had to experience the segregation due to the still very present “white only” hotels, restaurants, along with others. However, roadblocks such as this and her two divorces only propelled her career ambition. At 30 years old, she went on to tour with a singer and rumored lover, a woman named Marie Knight. After this risky two woman band drifted apart, Rosetta’s third wedding was staged at a stadium in 1951, selling tickets to all who desired to witness the event in which a concert followed. This caused a brief boost in her record sales, but her new husband and manager turned out to be a fraudulent who took advantage of her fame and fortune for over 20 years. Empowered by her experiences, the deep passion and feeling would be idolized by young white men musicians in Memphis by the raw energy and syncopated rhythms of African American gospel. From the church into the white world, spirituality created the essence of rock ‘n’ roll, while the likes of Elvis observed the guts, feeling, and soul of the rhythm and instrumentation of Rosetta’s records.
Sister Rosetta is a prime example of where gospel met rock in order to intermesh and give birth to a whole new meaning of spunky and daring musical fashion in the 1950s. Some notable admirers who were influenced by this innovation include Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley. In fact, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was quoted in 1957 by saying, “All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now…. Ninety percent of rock-and-roll artists came out of the church, their foundation is the church.” The way that she picked the guitar had a major impact on these artists who channeled her technique. Songs like “That’s All” played on the electric guitar was cited to have influenced the style of these white male artists.
At this time, the distinct style of singing and playing the electric guitar was a virtuoso feat. In the late 1950’s, Rosetta Tharpe was on her way out of the business due to her shortcoming to keep up with the times. In 1954-1955, Rosetta was considered an oldies act, singing the same songs she recorded in 1938. As one of her last musical hoorah, Tharpe went on a month long tour in Great Britain in 1957 with Chris Barber, a Dixie Land trombonist. With a new fan base in Europe, she maintained her throne as a gospel legend, as the first authentic representation of black spiritual music made its way to influence a new generation of English male guitarists. Bridging the gap between African American and white music, Rosetta took pleasure in intermingling her particular way of performing and introducing this one-of-a-kind genius in an extensive cultural platform. This is seen with her hit “Didn’t It Rain” in 1964, which was an iconic performance in Manchester across a train station platform.
After being afflicted with diabetes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe passed away when she was 58 of a stroke in 1973. The legacy that lived on is a historic influential creation of what we now know to be Rock-and-Roll. In fact, she arguably recorded one of the first rock-and-roll records that expressed the irony of being a black star, “Strange Things Happening Everyday.” Therefore, Rosetta is justified as an awe-inspiring gospel artist that used her God given passion to open the doors for many followers to replicate this same grit, gut, and feeling into their own instrumentation and rhythmic dialect. Although criticized by more of her early conservative audiences, she never left her individualistic and head strong way of living life which transpired in the lyrics of her secular music. Mixing her background in African American spirituals with her distinctive vocals and skilled electric guitar strumming birthed the very punk feeling to rock ‘n’ roll. In this way, the black woman inspired a lineage of white men who desired to express this same spirit of animated intensity, making Sister Rosetta Tharpe the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.
Williams, Stereo. “The First Badass Female Guitarist: Meet Sister Rosetta Tharpe, the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” The Daily Beast, The Daily Beast Company, 28 May 2016, www.thedailybeast.com/the-first-badass-female-guitarist-meet-sister-rosetta-tharpe-the-godmother-of-rock-n-roll.