Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sister Rosetta Tharpe: First Lady of Rock

LINK TO: Shout, Sister, Shout!: The Untold Story of Rock-and-Roll Trailblazer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The career of “Sister” Rosetta Tharpe embodies many of the themes endemic to American popular music, authenticity, gender mediation, the impact of technology on the creation and distribution of music, and race mediation.

Rosetta Tharpe was raised within the Pentecostal tradition which regarded music as a way of achieving religious ecstasy. Gospel music audiences expected their singers to be “clean and untarnished by the world” (Wald, 139). Songs were expected to be spiritual and spirit filled, a gospel song was to be, “a sermon set to music”. Rosetta Tharpe could perform within this milieu, but like many other gospel performers faced the dilemma of limiting her options (and income) or crossing over to perform secular music as well. Performers such as Tharpe, and Sam Cooke “crossed over”, while others such as Mahalia Jackson and Dorothy Love Coates, “could not relate to (secular) music”. Mahalia Jackson was embraced as the preeminent Gospel singer because of her authenticity. Gospel audiences were skeptical about Rosetta Tharpe’s sincerity as a spiritual entertainer because she also performed secular music.

There was room for skepticism. Rosetta’s personal life suggests that while she may have been willing to placate audiences and offer up a public persona somewhat matching their expectations, in private she was a woman with the type of “will to power” associated only with men during that period. Rosetta was a hard living woman with a string of husbands and some say at least one woman lover (the later being an unforgivable sin to conservative Christian audiences). In her professional career she was a domineering force (to the chagrin of men), outplaying men on the guitar ( the “man’s instrument”) and issuing orders authoritatively to subordinate males (reversing the “natural order” of things).

Rosetta pragmatically adapted her career to meet changing circumstances. Starting in gospel music, she crossed over to secular blues music as the size of radio and television audiences eclipsed the size of gospel audiences. In the early 1950s she was not afraid to record with country music idol Red Foley. In 1958, as Britain and Europe embraced American black musicians, Rosetta quickly discovered the value of “folk credentials” (bestowed on her a decade earlier by Alan Lomax). “If ‘folk’ was the rage among a record buying public of earnest young people, then ‘folk’ she would be” (Wald, 175).Sister Rosetta Tharpe played the game, and played to win.

The unintended consequences of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s larger than life career are musically telling. She had a tremendous influence on young British musicians who, in turn, would re-interpret American black music and re-introduce it to mainstream American audiences. The British invasion together with the heavily Gospel/Blues influenced music of Elvis Presley put black music and style at the center of American popular music, “but the conduit(s) of these new sounds and styles did not have to be black” (Wald, 145).

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