Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(and the False History of Rock & Roll)

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.

31 comments to Sister Rosetta Tharpe
(and the False History of Rock & Roll)

  • tordoc

    Amen Joe. Amen

    Not much to say but “Wow.”

    Sometimes folks just don’t know what they’re missing…

    And her signal chain – WIRE!

    Some of these Gospel / Blues crossovers seem so channeled. When she looks up at the Heavens as she plays… Light years ahead her time. And yes, often under-appreciated due to race, sex, etc.

    And continuing the tradition of powerful female players: Rory Block, Del Rey.

    Thanks for the post! Made my night.

    • joe

      I’d like to see that in a guitar mag:

      GEAR LIST: Guitar, wire.

      For that Manchester train station gig, it sounds like she’s plugged directly into the PA (or “into the Tannoy,” as Brits would say), hence the dry, plinky tone. And she STILL sounds awesome. Though it’s hard to beat the melting-amp tone on “Up Above My Head.”

  • w.r.

    Great stuff! She’s amazing! I found some of the same clips on youtube a while back. Truly and treasure…and St. Vincent? Well that’s not fair! I heard that her uncle is Tuck Andress! Wonder if she picked up a few things from him… :)

  • bear

    I swear sometimes, there must be something creatively freeing about being a female guitarist. You don’t see the ridiculous hero worship or egocentric guitar styles crop up so often. Instead, you see distinctive styles and bold music emerging quite often.

    Off the top of my under-caffeinated head, Juana Molina, Rebecca Gates (Spinanes and solo), Romy Madley Croft of the xx, Emma Anderson of Lush, Jessica Bailiff’s first two albums.

    Lisa Germano often outsources guitar work to other skilled folk (hi, Joe!), but Geek the Girl is all her, and damned if she isn’t generally one of the boldest musical voices out there.

  • Don’t forget about Emily Remler (1958-1990), Wes Montgomery was her model figure. Emily was an amazing guitar-player and teacher. Passed away too early :(

  • jude gold

    Never too late to tell an important story. Thanks, Joe!

  • joe

    Oh, cool — my pal Jude Gold posted the link to the full “Up Above My Head” performance!

  • Yup, she’s the bomb! And thanks for pointing out the erroneous ‘history-of-rock’n’roll’; good example: GP magazine asserted that ‘Rocket 88′ by Jackie Brenston was the first rock’n’roll tune so many times (constantly referencing their own old articles) that Mike Molenda wrote that Ike Turner had pioneered rock guitar on the track despite the fact that the Ikester had played piano on the track. Unfortunately, there were very few interviews done with the old timers, so the writing and ethnomusicological work is alarmingly self referential. Hilariously, a bunch of furniture salesmen did what the ethnos could not: they made the records, and the records provide the greatest hints we have about the historical record, and even those can’t be trusted…Just because Lonnie Johnson recorded a string of ‘Tomorrow Night’ copy records, doesn’t mean that’s all he played. The artists were under pressure to provide follow-up hits and often recorded material that was not near and dear to their hearts.
    Under close examination of the historical record you come to realize that as soon as the radio and jukebox became available, all the sociological boundaries became blurred; genre is a salesman’s invention.

    • joe

      Well, at least the “Rocket 88″ example is a step in the right direction. When I was a youngster, you’d often see “Sh-Boom” by the Chords cited as the first rock and roll disc. Or, god forbid, “Rock Around the Clock.”

      I so love “Sh-Boom” — the sax solo may be my favorite early rock & roll solo, period.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SBgQezOF8kY

      But sheesh — Tharpe’s 1938 recordings are at least as rock & roll as that. Even so, I’m not going to be dumb enough to argue that those are the first rock & roll performances either. You probably could have heard something very much like rock & roll on New World slave plantations. Not to mention in Africa, where 99% of this stuff originates.

      (Mike’s right that Ike is a crucial and under-appreciated rock & roll pioneer. And I’ve probably made the piano/guitar error myself over the years.)

      • joe

        Oh, I should also add: Good ears are often a better guide than bad memories. Artists are OFTEN incorrect about the technical details of their work. Sometimes the misinformation is accidental. Sometimes not.

        • Didn’t mean to rip on Mike, I was just pointing out how much of the scholarship is based on the same references. As much as I’ve read on this subject (quite a lot), the music really tells the tale in a more fully fleshed out manner. And more than anything, I learned that the music is all more the same than different, different branches of the same tree.

  • This reminds me of another forgotten part of Rock & Roll history; that the record companies didn’t want the white kids listening to “race music”, so they would get “wholesome” white entertainers like Andy Williams to record songs from artists like Little Richard. Gotta protect out youth, right? ;)

    Tharpe was great, and anyone should see that R&R came from blues and gospel, and none of that was white folks music. I still cringe anytime I see some new blues guitarist on the scene. They mostly regurgitate the same SRV licks, and frankly I find what’s currently called blues to be extremely cliché and limiting.

    Then of course you have the whole stigma against women rockers. I’ve always enjoyed working with female musicians, and currently work with a great one, who writes some amazing heavy rock songs, plays guitar and bass and sings her ass off. :) I’ll take her over most of the guys any day.

    • joe

      +1, big time.

      Yeah, we forget about the chart dominance of neutered white cover versions because, well, they’re so eminently forgettable. But scan Billboard lists from the era — it’s all about Pat Boone and Andy Williams.

      Oh — and speaking of Little Richard: Oh man, it’s hard to miss how much he borrowed from Tharpe’s vocals!

    • Rock’n’roll definitely came from blues and gospel, but don’t count out country and western swing as influences (BTW country music and western swing are different styles, despite the Blues Brothers gag). However, because history is messy, it’s important to remember that the father of country music, Jimmy Rogers (the Singing Brakeman, not Muddy Waters’ buddy) was essentially a blues singer, recording a string of ‘Blue Yodels’ (one of which was done with Satchmo) and laying the foundation for the work of Hank Williams in the process (who was also ostensibly a blues singer).
      Once again, though, radio was the great leveller; for every first-gen rock’n’roller who talks about listening to blues and spirituals on the radio, you get a Charlie Parker, who liked to listen to country stations because he loved the storytelling.
      …And I’m not even going into how white parlour music helped codify proto-blues into recognizable forms…

      • joe

        All 100% true!

        Really, I’m just rebelling against the outdated “ebony and ivory” view of rock’s origins. Without a doubt, multiple races and cultures contributed to the stew. But at its core, rock & roll is African.

        Having said that, cultural traffic moves in multiple directions. Many of the white influences associated with early rock and roll were already heavily Africanized, as in some of the examples you mention. And Africans, of course, have been heavily influenced by European and New World music for centuries.

        • There’s much to rebel against. The codified notion of the history is pretty flawed. Thank God for guys like Jas who do excellent in-depth interviews with the old timers, help fill in the gaps and debunk the accepted models.

  • Nick

    what an awesome piece of history..It’s really a shame musical history gets gets distorted and hidden to a select few who are clever enough to research it honestly and forthright…Kudos to you Joe for spreading awareness..I took the liberty of posting this on My hometown Cleveland Guitarist’s facebook page..but it will probably fall on deaf ears…

  • mngiza

    Great post. I suspect that she, and Ike, and T-Bone, didn’t worry too hard about the silky highs and gutsy midrange of their guitar cables, or whether their pickups had ceramic or alnico magnets. (How many ads would appear in a 1952 GP magazine?)

    I find it amazingly liberating to perform pedal-free. Nowhere to hide!

  • NotSoFast

    I didn’t read everything, but I hadn’t heard of Tharpe at all until she showed up on PBS’s American Experience a few months ago. Totally blown away by her performances. At the same time her life had its share of tragic, as all lives do I suppose, but more so when you are on the edge of culture.

    If you haven’t seen it check it out – you can download it from iTunes most likely.

  • David Weiss

    Awesome post! She’s new to me!

  • Dale

    Joe, thank you for shining a spotlight on this incredible performer – she has blown me away since I first heard her on CD many years ago, and her video clips are electric. Her music certainly prefigures rock’n’roll, is utterly groundbreaking for her genre, and, crucially, is performed on a solid-body axe – all of these things support your argument.

    But I think you may be overstating your case a little, and here’s why: there has always been an enormous overlap stylistically between black gospel and secular r’n’b, and r’n’b is clearly a direct precursor to rock’n’roll, especially of the variety served up by early black rock’n’rollers like Little Richard and Chuck Berry. (The Sun guys did have more country in the mix, as Double D mentions.) However, gospel has not typically been given primacy as a precursor, not because of race or gender, but because of the subject matter. Gospel performers sang about Jesus; r’n’b performers sang about love, sex, and partying. And so did rock’n’roll singers.

    In that sense, trying to create a direct line from Sister Rosetta Tharpe to early rock’n’roll – to put her as directly in the path as you might put Joe Turner, T-Bone Walker, or Ike Turner – might be going too far.

    I’m obviously being pedantic – the beauty of American music, as you note in your reply to Double D, is that it’s an indivisible gumbo. But on the other hand, we’ve seen how sloppily the subject has been dealt with in the past, so maybe my stick-up-the-ass approach is some kind of corrective.

    But mostly: thanks for writing about this stuff – it’s my manna, and everybody needs to get in on it!

    • joe

      Thanks for the nice note, Dale!

      Actually, I’m not sure we disagree about anything, since I DID mention religion/subject matter as one explanation for Tharpe’s relative lack of recognition as a rock and roll precursor. However, I stand by my assertion that race and gender are also factors, especially given the half-century tendency to overstate the non-African origins of rock and roll. And remember, I said up front that I was speaking musicologically, not sociologically. On those terms, I think you can make a pretty strong case that Tharpe is more directly in the rock-and-roll path than, say, T-Bone — or, for that matter, anyone other guitarist prior to Check Berry.

  • Dale

    Yep, her electric guitar work is straight up rock’n’roll. I wouldn’t say there was nobody else as rock’n’roll as she was before Chuck came along; Carl Hogan, Louis Jordan’s guitar player, would certainly be a candidate – Chuck himself cited Carl as a primary influence (the double-stops he does on “Saturday Night Fish Fry,” and, especially, the intro to “Ain’t That Just Like A Woman”, are pure “Chuck Berry” licks, pre-Chuck.)

    In terms of religious content being a reason she hasn’t gotten her due as a rock’n’roll progenitor – my point was you could say that about gospel in general. The religious content alone is the reason that we think of gospel as twice-removed from rock’n’roll. But we can get into Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Aretha… Hell, Little Richard, for that matter. (And Elvis, Jerry Lee – those guys loved gospel!)

    But musicologically? SRT is undeniably rock’n’roll.

  • Abe

    Another great Tharpe performance of another great song, Didn’t it Rain, one whose phrasing breaks totally out of the 4-bar box:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SR2gR6SZC2M

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