Herstory 13: Sister Rosetta Tharpe Was A Guitar-Shredding Legend
Meet the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll
Sister Rosetta Tharpe blurred the lines between sacred and secular music, invented rock, and her stage presence became a blueprint for some of our biggest stars.
Rock ‘n’ Roll is really a by-product of Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s innovative mind. If you watch clips of Elvis Presley in his early days, you can tell that he’s channeling Sister Tharpe in a lot of ways. In a radio interview, Bob Dylan speculates that Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s European tour inspired lots of young, English boys to pick up an electric guitar.
So how did she lay the groundwork for rock ‘n’ roll?
Rock ‘n’ Roll Came Out of the Church
At six years old, Sister Rosetta Tharpe migrated from Mississippi to Chicago with her mother. Their move was during the start of The Great Migration, a long-term movement of African-Americans from the South to cities in the North. The move to Chicago exposed the musical prodigy to new genres that would have a major influence on her signature sound.
Chicago became a place where Mississipi blues met New Orleans jazz, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe was surrounded by these genres in her most developmental years. Her signature style was a cross between delta blues, jazz, and gospel.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe got her start in the church. She honed her craft as a musician and performer. And with a newly electrified guitar, her gospel-singing, guitar-shredding performances were captivating.
Blurred Lines between The Church and Nightclub
After a failed marriage, Sister Rosetta Tharpe moved to New York City with her mother. As a musical act, her talents were starting to outgrow the church. Luckily, New York City allowed her to explore showbiz. Alongside her new nightlife gigs, she was still performing in the church.
She caught the attention of Decca Records and they signed her – this meant that Sister Rosetta Tharpe was also the first gospel singer with a record deal.
At this time, she started performing music with secular themes - usually about pleasing a man. Her religious fan base was shocked - Sister Rosetta Tharpe was ostracized and criticized for the new direction of her music.
The Struggle for Personal Agency
What the public didn’t know, was that the lyrical change had more to do with a clause in her contract (with Lucky Millinder) - not her own interests. The clause required Sister Rosetta Tharpe to sing whatever Lucky Millinder’s orchestra gave her. We can’t know for sure, but there’s a good chance that she was very uncomfortable with the move towards more sexualized themes.
Nevertheless, her new image introduced her to a different crowd. Overtime, her religious following came around too. At the end of her 7-year contract to Lucky Millinder, she returned to gospel music and her secular fans found that to be just as entertaining.
Navigating Music as a Queer, Black Womxn
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s artistry and electrifying performances deserve a spot in our history books, but so does her ability to navigate fame amidst the social climate of mid-century America.
How do you go on tour during segregation, where white people pay for your art but their restaurants and hotels refuse to serve you? For Sister Rosetta Tharpe, it meant building a tour bus that her team could sleep in. It was a concept that puzzled her white counterparts (like the Jordaines).
While Sister Rosetta Tharpe did not come out, there were rumours around her sexuality. Her touring partner, Marie Knight, was believed to be her romantic partner. When we’re retelling the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe, its important to recognize that she was a queer, womxn of colour. Her rise to fame is even more surprising because she was navigating a system that actively shuts out her community.
Gay Black Girls Rock Too
What if we had celebrated Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s role from the very beginning? How would that change our perceptions around rock, gender, and sexuality? When we don’t document these stories, it become easy to simplify rock ‘n’ roll as a space for white, male guitarists.
In reality, womxn of colour were instumental to the development of rock. Decades after Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s rise to fame, artists like Elvis were discovering the upbeat, gospel music and she had popularized.
At the 2018 BET Awards, Lena Waithe explains the importance of documentation, story-telling, and reminding society that “gay black girls rock too.”
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for the global, music community.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
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