History Hunt: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

And now it’s time to visit America again, for music of a very different type: rock and roll!

Many people believe that rock and roll got its start in the 1940s and 1950s, but Sister Rosetta Tharpe was rocking out in the 1930s. Although she’s not well known these days, back in her time, her fans included Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, and Johnny Cash called her “his favourite artist.” (PopMatters)

Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas as Rosetta Nubin. Her mother and father were singers and her mother, Katie Bell Nubin, also was a skilled mandolin-player. Tharpe was a child prodigy in the tradition of Clara Schumann, George Bridgetower, and Maria Anna Mozart–she started performing on the guitar when she was four years old and when she was eight, she started touring with her mother. She was called “the singing and guitar playing miracle” (Premier Guitar) and as she grew up, her performances became no less miraculous!

In 1938, when she was 23, she moved to New York and took the city by storm, playing at the famous Carnegie Hall within her first year of arriving–not something a lot of musicians have managed! It was here in New York that Tharpe found herself divided between her roots and her passion: her mother was an Evangelical Christian and Tharpe’s first love was gospel music, but she also deeply loved playing the guitar, which some of her more conservative fans considered a “sinful” instrument. She performed in both churches and nightclubs, which led some of her fans to abandon her.

But even as she lost some fans, she gained far more. She performed for the troops during World War II and was one of two gospel artists to record what was called a “V-disc,” a record specially produced to keep up morale among soldiers. In 1945, her single “Strange Things Happening Every Day” hit the number two spot on what was later called the Billboard R&B charts.

She was so popular that, when she wanted to get married to her third husband, she had no time to go off and have a wedding ceremony, and so she got married at Griffith Stadium in Washington, D.C. in front of 20 000-25 000 people–and then gave a concert in her wedding dress!

One of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's Guitars

One of Tharpe’s guitars, which is now part of the collection at The Delta Cultural Center in Helena, Arkansas. (Image courtesy of Premier Guitar.)

In the 1950s, her popularity in the U.S. began to lessen, but after performing in Britain in 1957, she gained a whole new set of fans in Europe and became tremendously popular once again.

Though she isn’t often cited as a founder of rock and roll, Tharpe was aware of what she had achieved. In an interview with the Daily Mirror, she said, “All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now . . .” (Premier Guitar). And now, slowly but surely, more people are learning about her: In 1998, the US Postal Service put out a stamp featuring her, she was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2007, and January 11, 2008 was named “Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day” in Pennsylvania. Now that’s more like it!

Click here to watch a video of Tharpe performing “Down By the Riverside” (and performing a wicked guitar solo!). (Embedding for the video has been disabled–sorry!)

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To Learn More (sources):
The Gospel of Sister Rosetta Tharpe at NPR.org
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Etched In Stone At Last at NPR.org
Forgotten Heroes: Sister Rosetta Tharpe at Premier Guitar
Sister Rosetta Tharpe got rock rolling long before Elvis at PopMatters
Sister Rosetta Tharpe: the godmother of rock’n’roll at The Guardian
Pennsylvania Governor Rendell Proclaims Sister Rosetta Tharpe Day on January 11, 2008 to Honor the Gospel Music Legend at WebWire
Sister Rosetta Tharpe at Wikipedia.org

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