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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.

Rosetta would perform at the world famous Cotton Club and Carnegie Hall, singing songs such as her major hit "Rock Me," which had gospel lyrics begging, “Wash my soul with water from on high,” and an almost secular delivery of the line “Rock me in the cradle of thy love.” She packed clubs and concert venues while delivering showy efficiency with her superb guitar picking. In archival footage of her performances, her eyes often seem transfixed, gazing above her audience, perhaps witnessing something everyone else cannot see. Occasional twitches of her neck, hunching of her shoulders, and kicking her feet up as if she’s pushing dirt at Satan creeping up behind her are staples of the Holiness church. Her performative movement in these clips resembles the COGIC sisters and mothers who moved, danced, and shouted like her while “catching the holy ghost” or “getting the spirit.” This is when churchgoers are overtaken by the spirit of God, known as the Holy Ghost or Holy Spirit, and become overwhelmed by the emotion of their spirituality. During these moments people often “speak in tongues,” which is a principal expression of the Pentecostal movement that separates them from other faiths.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote about this this in her epic ethnography, The Sanctified Church:

There is the expression known as "shouting" which is nothing more than a continuation of the African “Possession” by the gods. The gods possess the body of the worshipper and he or she is supposed to know nothing of their actions until the god decamps. This is still prevalent in most negro protestant churches and is universal in the Sanctified churches. They protest against the more highbrow churches’ efforts to stop it. It must be noted that the sermon in these churches is not the set thing that is in the other protestant churches. It is loose and formless and is in reality merely a framework upon which to hang more songs. Every opportunity to introduce new rhythm is eagerly seized upon. The whole movement of the Sanctified church is a rebirth of song-making!

The rock music that Sister Rosetta Tharpe created is the unwanted child of sanctification and the Holiness church. As black artists have often done, she took this sound beyond the church walls where it was conceived. After all, dancing, singing, racial integration, black protest and many of the sounds we’ve come to know as blues or rock were already happening in the Holiness church long before the secular genres that followed were established. Elvis Presley and his white contemporaries knew this well; many of them attended black churches and later copied what they were hearing. Too often, writers and historians have located the birth of rock and roll within other voices, without explicitly naming this black woman as the musical genius and crucial originator that she was. This only serves to undermine her talent and efficacy, and the exquisiteness of black history.

Tharpe toured relentlessly, performing with jazz and blues artists in both secular and religious settings. She went back to recording more gospel-themed music in the late 1940s. In 1947, she started a singing duet with fellow gospel performer Marie Knight (also from COGIC), and together the recorded traditional hymns such as "Oh When I Come to the End of My Journey" and gospel tunes including "Up Above My Head.” She experimented with explicitly secular blues music in the early 1950s, which turned out to alienate her ever further from her fan base. She would remarry again and continue touring throughout her life in the '60s and on into the early '70s. While she was on a blues tour in Europe with Muddy Waters in 1970, Tharpe would develop health complications that hastened her death. She died on October 9, 1973 at the age of 58.

It’s important to remember Tharpe. She has historically been under-recognized, as women often are. It would serve us well to attend her contributions to music and not further discredit her in death. Though she graced many musical icons with her presence, her name remains much less known than it should be. Sister Rosetta Tharpe was the product of a church that helped her craft style, and a race and gender that has to be twice as good at everything to be recognized as good at all. She did all this during a time when things were much harder. If we look back on her life, we’ll be obliged to honor a black woman who took the world where it had never been.