The Black Woman And The Black Church That Birthed Rock Music

On Sister Rosetta Tharpe and her still-unsung genius

By William C. Anderson

“The Sanctified Church is a protest against the high-brow tendency in Negro Protestant congregations as the Negroes gain more education and wealth.” –Zora Neale Hurston, The Sanctified Church

When Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915, black America was in the midst of a populist religious awakening. A decade earlier, in 1906, the Azusa Street Revival birthed the Pentecostal church movement in Los Angeles, setting off sparks around the nation. This was the foundation of a global Pentecostal movement, a spiritual reinvigoration of conviction that’s still continuing to this day. The Los Angeles Times greeted this development with perplexed racist diatribes, labeling it a fanatical sect engaging in a “Weird Babel of Tongues.” These particular churchgoers were calling themselves “saved and sanctified” while refusing to be associated with the oppressive confines of the denominations they had abandoned for the Pentecostal church. The musical styles that were birthed out of what many have come to know as the Sanctified church or Holiness church would later be adapted and appropriated to create blues, jazz, and rock – the very bedrock of American music.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe embodied the explosion that was black music at the turn of the last century. A stunning black woman of 23 years of age, just beginning her career with a rich voice, she sang gospel music while accompanying herself on electric guitar. Tharpe, in her time, was a vital presence in American music, her playing as crucial and influential as T-Bone Walker and Muddy Waters. The difference was that she was mostly playing in churches, to the devoted critical ears of the black sanctuary.

Not much is known about Tharpe’s father, who was said to be a talented singer. Her mother was a learned musician who greatly influenced Rosetta – but the greater influencer of both Rosetta and her mother was the Holiness Church of God in Christ (COGIC), for which Rosetta’s mother was an evangelist. The city of Cotton Plant, Arkansas, where Rosetta was born, is only an hour from the musical mecca of Memphis, where the COGIC was based. This area of the South, along with the Mississippi Delta, forms a Bermuda Triangle of black music where heads may get lost in the rapture. Tharpe’s upbringing here is crucial in context to the sound she perfected and brought to her secular audience.

As a child, Rosetta played various instruments at church and in her travels, accompanying her mother. Multi-instrumentalists are common in the Holiness church, which fully embraces music as a part of its doctrine. My own father, who is an elder in the church, regularly quotes the 150th Psalm’s third verse: “Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp!” Services offer praise to the heavens with guitar, drums, and outcrying, boisterous vocals that are recognized the world over – a sound whose excited dynamics clearly informed Tharpe’s development as an artist.

Rosetta’s secular career venturing outside the church began to blossom in 1938, when she moved to New York with her mother after her first marriage to a COGIC preacher came to an end. That year, she began recording for Decca Records and released multiple hits: “My Man and I,” “The Lonesome Road,” “That’s All.” These songs positioned her as something that other gospel artists traditionally hadn’t been — aligning her with jazz and blues musicians as a talented contemporary and available collaborator. This would alienate her from many churchgoers, who objected to this sort of integration into what’s called “worldly” music, as well as rumors of her bisexuality. Yet concerns over the prurience of her work did little to impede her career.

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