The godmother of rock ‘n’ roll

Women’s achievements and stories have been largely ignored, overlooked or misrepresented throughout time because of a fundamentally Eurocentric and androcentric view of history. The voices and successes of Women of Colour (WoC) and LGBTQI people are even more concealed. Women’s achievements have not just been overlooked or disregarded, but many argue that men have either directly stolen or taken credit for them and, in turn, profited from their successes. This not only means that women have been erased from history, but that we are also seen as largely inferior, as it appears that we have not actively made any historical contributions (aside from being mothers and wives). This misrepresentation has real-life consequences for young women and their aspirations.

As a young musician interested in Rock ‘n’ Roll, I struggled to find myself represented in the classic rock ‘greats’. Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, this heavily impacted my perceptions of rock music as it covertly illustrated in my mind that a man’s place is on the stage and a woman’s place is in the audience. It made me feel that men were allowed to occupy a space that women so obviously were not, further reinforcing my feelings of inadequacy and isolation and making me feel incompetent as a musician purely because of my gender, thus damaging my already trembling teenage self-esteem.

If only 15-year-old Blair had known about a name largely forgotten in history: that of a queer WoC and the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll – Sister Rosetta Tharpe (1915-73). Tharpe was a woman who did the impossible – she succeeded in a male-dominated field and influenced a generation of the most renowned and leading male musicians. She was a badass woman who played guitar, loved music and loved her Lord. It was this combination that grew the precursory sounds of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Women’s lives and accounts are important and to tell their forgotten achievements, to remember their names and to celebrate them we need to keep telling their stories. Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s story began on March 20, 1915 when she was born in Arkansas to her strong mother, Katie Bell Nubin, who was also a musician and an evangelist preacher for the Church of God in Christ, which allowed women preachers. Tharpe, through the support of her mother, started playing guitar from an extremely young age and was seen as a musical prodigy. By age four she was playing the guitar and singing onstage with her mother, and at age six she became a regular performer in a traveling evangelical musical group. With her mother, she performed gospel songs across the Southern US, before settling down in Chicago, Illinois in the mid-1920s. It was during this period that she really made herself known as a musical prodigy and stood out as a black woman guitarist – the latter of which was extremely rare at the time.

It wasn’t until the 1930s, when she moved to New York and signed with Decca Records, that Tharpe finally recorded four songs: “Rock Me,” “That’s All,” “My Man and I” and “The Lonesome Road”. These were the first gospel songs recorded for Decca and each one became a hit, launching Tharpe as a nationally successful gospel singer. In the late 30s, Tharpe began singing gospel in blues/jazz halls to secular audiences which, on top of being a woman and playing the guitar, upset the conservative religious circles to which she was tied. It was rough performing with these different musicians, and her unique guitar picking, that blended the melody of the blues and the pulsating swing sound of jazz with her traditional gospel style, were the initial sounds of what we now know as Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In the early 1940s, Tharpe, accompanied by Lucky Millinder’s orchestra, recorded the following secular hits: “Shout Sister Shout,” “That’s All”, “I Want a Tall Skinny Papa” and “That’s All”. The song “That’s All” was the first recording for which Tharpe played the electric guitar, having previously only recorded using an acoustic. Due to this song’s electric sound, it had a huge influence on young musicians such as Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Rock ‘n’ Roller Little Richard has stated that Tharpe’s style of gospel-like stomping and shouting, combined with her extremely unique and revolutionary guitar picking, made her his favourite performer as a child. Furthermore, during the war Tharpe was the only WoC musician, and one of only two African Americans, to record a ‘V-disc’ or ‘Victory disc’, distributed to US troops to boost their morale.

It was also during this decade that Tharpe further bridged the sounds between gospel, RnB and jazz to create early Rock ‘n’ Roll sounds. In the mid-1940s Tharpe, with blues pianist Sammy Price, recorded multiple songs which combined gospel singing, a guitar and piano – something that had not been recorded previously – again, founding the sounds of Rock ‘n’ Roll that became more popular in the 1950s and 1960s.

Though Tharpe’s popularity receded in the 1950s, she toured frequently until her death in 1973. Tharpe inevitably returned to performing religious gospel songs though she did make a few standout performances in her final decade. One was an acclaimed performance in 1960 with musician James Cleveland at the Apollo in Harlem and also her performance at the famous Newport Jazz Festival in 1967.

Women’s stories have largely been ignored or forgotten throughout history and you don’t exactly think about the black woman behind the young white men. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was an inspirational musician who heavily influenced famous Rock ‘n’ Rollers such as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and even Bob Dylan, let alone the musicians they have each inspired. These men have largely been accredited as being the Fathers of Rock ‘n’ Roll yet the unique sound was led by a queer Woman of Colour. A woman whose name we need to remember – for the sake of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and for all women musicians who have come after her.

It is important to talk about and discuss important women throughout history. We need to yell their names from the rooftops, to tell their stories and to let other women and queer people know that we are represented. We are here. We are fabulous. We are inspirational.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s name needs to be remembered. She needs to be remembered for being a groundbreaking musician who not only established herself in a tough male-dominated industry but pioneered the most revolutionary genre of the 20th Century – Rock ‘n’ Roll.

I will leave you with a video of her in 1964 that shows her rich voice, amazing stage presence even at the age of 49, and her absolutely inspirational guitar skills.

Image: Lucas Boesche

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10959001_10153616839379942_6105974438929988424_nBlair Williams is a PhD candidate focusing on the negative media portrayals of women prime ministers whilst writing articles and feminist slam poetry in her spare time. She is an active feminist warrior who is disillusioned with the world.

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