Listen to this song by widely acknowledged gospel-blues pioneer and Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll herself Sister Rosetta Tharpe. It’s “Didn’t It Rain”, a gospel standard in this case delivered live in Manchester, England in 1964. This peformance is featured on the DVD The American Folk Blues Festival: The British Tours.
This 1964 version of the tour featured some of the pioneers of urban and rural blues at the time, including Muddy Waters, Otis Spann, Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee, and others. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s segment was filmed by Granada Television at disused Wilbraham Road station, fixed up to look like an American sharecropper’s porch in the American South. Two-hundred onlookers in the audience sat opposite the station platform that served as a stage. In typical British tradition, it rained during the performance. But, after it rained, Sister Rosetta performed this tune, a tale of Noah and his ark, of redemption, and condemnation.
Among other things, this performance reminded audiences of what they’d come to know as rhythm & blues and even rock ‘n’ roll in their purest forms. But even then, not many people at the time were fully aware of her role in creating a sound that served as a pillar for those musical movements, set in place when Elvis was still potty training.
The idea of taking the sacred and the secular and mixing them together into a musical stew is generally thought by many to have been a) an innovation of the 1950s, and b) a trend that was led by men. These suppositions are true to an extent, in that this important shift was due to the contributions of many men during the fifties. But, strictly speaking as pure musical form and approach, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was doing it almost twenty years before any of them, taking her gospel roots and adding some pretty noisy electric guitar to the proceedings. The figure she struck even at the time was something of an anomally, true of any pioneer. Even in retrospect, however, the nice church lady who can wail on a Gibson SG still seems almost comical. This says a lot about who we as a culture associate with important musical movements in the twentieth century and who “owns” a given sound, particularly when it comes to fiery guitar playing pioneered by a woman.
Her approach and intent was pretty bold when it came to how she developed her music, starting in the late 1930s, and gaining momentum throughout the 1940s. She wanted to bring gospel music from out of the church and to the masses where they lived, like a missionary would. Using the same kind of wattage that blues players were using in urban clubs wasn’t that much of a stretch for someone looking to play music for those not generally darkening the doorsteps of churches. From there, she enjoyed considerable crossover success after being discovered by musical visionary and impresario John Hammond. She also endured the ire of more conservative wings of the church, too. While she secured the foundations of what would come to be known as rhythm and blues and later rock ‘n’ roll, her stuff was still labeled under the “race records” category when songs of hers crossed over to the secular Billboard charts by the end of the 1940s. To use more biblical terms, it was like she was the voice of one crying in the wilderness.
By the sixties, and after a dip in her fortunes, she was very much a staple in the folk boom that was happening all over North America and in Europe, when listeners were looking for original and authoritative voices to help to guide them through tumultuous times. Even here in this appearance, elegantly decked out and refined as she is while also armed with a lethal-looking SG and with plenty of hot licks at her fingertips, Sister Rosetta Tharp owns the space. She reminds the audience that rock music as a musical form if not a social movement did not start with Little Richard (who was an avowed fan of hers) Elvis (yet another fan!), or Chuck Berry.
I think too that her work helped to establish that rock music and the blues was always spiritual in nature, inasmuch as it draws the spirit together with the physical, and blurs those lines in a way that religion always sought to separate. When it comes to ministry, maybe this is the greatest service she could ever have performed for humanity, leading the way for so many other performers to do the same in her wake.
To learn more about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, check out this article about her from The Guardian that came out a few days before what would have been her centennial year in March 2015.
Here’s yet another article from Fusion.com that talks about Sister Rosetta Tharpe as musical pioneer.
For more on the role of black women in the rock tradition, mentioning Sister Rosetta Tharpe directly, and particularly in the light of Beyoncé’s new album Lemonade on which she overtly explores rock textures, check out this article from Rolling Stone.