NOTE:Nothing controversial about this post — it only involves race, gender, and religion!
A few decades ago, the standard history of rock and roll went something like this: In the mid 1950s. black R&B and white country music collided. White kids went apeshit. Rock happened.
That may hold a bit of water as sociological history, in the sense that, yes, white kids got hip to R&B in the ’50s, and the term “rock & roll” was adopted to describe the resulting craze. But as musicological analysis, it’s bullshit.
Today the knowledgable listener is likelier to realize that all the ingredients of early rock and roll percolated throughout African-American music decades before Elvis. (How can anyone with ears not perceive Louis Jordan’s 1949 recording of “Saturday Night Fish Fry” as a fully realized rock & roll track?)
Nowhere is “white guy-centric” rock history more apparent than when discussing the legacy of Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-1973). How is it that she is perceived as anything other than a genre-defining rock guitar innovator? If you don’t know Tharpe’s astonishing guitar work, check this out (especially the segment that starts around 1:45):
Watching the footage of Tharpe’s 1964 performance in Manchester, England, you can practically feel her spawning a thousand British rock bands. (And how telling is it that one of her goldtop Les Pauls wound up in the possession of Big Jim Sullivan, the preeminent British session player of the ’60s?)
And remember — by the time Tharpe visited England, she was into the fourth decade of her career. When she performed at Carnegie Hall’s legendary From Spirituals to Swing Concert in 1938, she was playing acoustic (along with boogie-woogie piano titan Albert Ammons), but her phrasing, note choice, and aggressive attitude are pure rock and roll — exactly 20 years before “Johnny B. Goode.”
Why is Tharpe’s niche in the rock pantheon so modest? Hint: It’s got something to do with race, gender, and religion. (Tharpe sang mostly religious material and is generally regarded as a gospel artist — though you can make a strong case that early rock and roll was gospel music, only with secular lyrics.) But once you’ve heard Tharpe, it’s impossible not to perceive her influence on Chuck Berry, not to mention the countless players Berry influenced.
Back when I was an editor at Guitar Player, I realized Tharpe was a gospel performer of note who played guitar, but I had little inkling of her true significance. (How feeble is that? I was supposed to be an expert!) Then, as now, we magazine editors would fret about how overwhelmingly male our readership was, and wonder why there weren’t more female guitar geeks. But when faced with a female performer of overpowering virtuosity, charisma, and influence (most of the Sun Records artists were rabid Tharpe fans), we failed to tell her story and celebrate her genius.
Here’s a cool Tharpe story my pal Michael Ross wrote for Premier Guitar back in 2011. Coincidentally, moments after reading Michael’s Tharpe story, I came across his interview with Annie Clark, the brilliant singer/guitarist who performs as St. Vincent. It’s not as if Clark is being ignored — she’s quite the critics’ fave. But when I listen to her 2011 album Strange Mercy, I hear more fresh guitar ideas per song than most players manage per career. And I can’t help wincing at the thought that she’d get a lot more guitar mag coverage if she were a white dude playing yet another update of
Albert King Jimi Hendrix Stevie Ray Vaughan. If we hope to cultivate more great female guitar innovators, wouldn’t it be a good first step to pay proper respect to the ones we already have?
Sister Rosetta gets the last word.