Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Smile for a Saturday from Dan Rather:
February is Black History Month, an important time to remember that Black history IS American history, and that the contribution of Black people to the wealth, culture, and security of this country has been incalculable and vastly underappreciated. That has been particularly true for Black women, who have been and continue to be a backbone of this nation, even as they have faced unspeakable oppression, indignities, and erasure from our national story.
This brings us, in this Smile for a Saturday, to the story of Sister Rosetta Tharpe. If you have heard of her, then you get a tip of our Stetson. If you haven’t, and we have found this is even the case with people steeped in the history of American music, that speaks far more about our culture than any deficiency on your part.
Sister Rosetta was a trailblazer, a virtuoso on the electric guitar who influenced both Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley. Born in rural Arkansas, Tharpe was raised in the Pentecostal Church. Gospel music was her foundation and she became a superstar in that genre.
But Tharpe was an original who couldn’t be confined by any one musical style. And in doing so, she helped define a new music. Tharpe is often called the “Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
In 2018, Tharpe was inducted posthumously to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which tells her story like this:
In the fall of 1938, when she stepped out onto the storied stage of the Cotton Club, Rosetta Tharpe did what no performer sprung from the rich musical traditions of black Pentecostalism had ever previously dared, or perhaps even imagined. She presented the music of her church to a predominantly white audience in search of Saturday-night diversion, not Sunday-morning deliverance.
Tharpe was a celebrity throughout the 1940s, 50s, and into the 1960s, even as she faced the racial animosities and struggle of segregated America. She also endured gossiping about her sexuality. Eventually, Tharpe’s star faded. She died after a stroke in 1973 at the age of 58.
When people talk about the origins of rock and roll, Tharpe’s name is far too rarely mentioned. When people debate who were some of the greatest guitarists of all time, Tharpe is almost always overlooked. Well we can start to change that today, and hopefully smile a bit, by basking in the joy of this uniquely talented musician.