There is a constant cultural obsession with the ‘father’ and ‘grandfather’ and ‘godfather’ of rock-n-roll. The patriarchal nature of our society has the musical historian ignoring even entertaining the idea that women have been involved in the formation of music, either in sound or subculture.
It is important to push back against white-washing and recognize that there existed rock-n-roll roots prior to Elvis Presley. Any cursory Google search will list the names of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis, which still leaves something to be desired.
As Alexis C. Madrigal pointed out in a piece for Fusion, “Rosetta Tharpe was born 100 years ago today – March 20, 1915, twenty years before Elvis, a decade before Chuck Berry. And she could play the rock and roll guitar better than anyone, before anyone.”
(A great example of Tharpe’s guitar virtuosity is her song “Didn’t It Rain”.)
Sister Rosetta Tharpe was born on March 20, 1915 in Arkansas. She started playing guitar and singing at the age of four. Tharpe, by the age of six, was joining her mother as a regular performer in a traveling evangelical troupe.
Tharpe was heavily influenced by her mother, Katie Bell Nubin. Nubin was a singer, mandolin player, evangelist and preacher for the Church of God in Christ. The Church of God in Christ was founded by black Baptist bishop named Charles Mason. Mason was known to encourage rhythmic expression, dancing in praise and allowing women to preach in church.
Tharpe was not able to record until the age of 23. She recorded four sides with Decca Records. For these recordings she was backed by “Lucky” Millinder’s jazz orchestra.
While Tharpe was deemed an ‘overnight sensation’, her recordings also caused a bit of a stir. Churchgoers were shocked by her mixture of gospel lyrics with secular music. While churchgoers weren’t happy, the secular audiences loved the music.
Tharpe was revolutionary in the sense that she performed gospel music in front of a secular audience and in nightclubs. She performed alongside blues and jazz musicians and dancers. This caused those within conservatives religious circles the fact that a woman performed guitar at all, let alone in secular settings, was frowned upon.
For all the external conflict, there is evidence to suggest that not all was well internally for Tharpe, either. It has been said that she may have had little choice in the material she was contracted to record with Millinder. Gayle Wald wrote in Shout, Sister, Shout!, “Rosetta and Millinder were increasingly at odds in 1943, as Rosetta itched to quit the big-band circuit and renew her career as a strictly gospel act. As Roxie Moore remembers, she hadn’t wanted to do light fare poking fun at old-time religion or worldly material like Tall Skinny Papa, but found herself bound by contractual obligations.”
Her 1944 record, according to Wald, has been credited by some as being the ‘first rock and roll record’.
Another component of Tharpe, a rock-n-roll godmother of sorts, was her bisexuality. Tharpe, who was married three times, was also known to have relationships with women. The blog Queer Museum quotes Wald in discussing Tharpe’s bisexuality, “Tharpe’s biographer, Gayle Wald, found some of the singer’s contemporaries who were willing to talk off the record about her bisexuality; one fellow musician claimed to have walked in on Tharpe and two other women in bed together during her ‘honeymoon tour’ right after her third wedding in 1951.”
Anil Vora, in “Sister Rosetta Tharpe: Bisexual Music Legend” for Bi Magazine, wrote, “Halfway through [PBS documentary Sister Rosetta Tharpe: The Godmother of Rock & Roll] we learn that Tharpe was bisexual and lived as openly as she possibly could in that period. Her close friendship with singer Marie Knight is discussed briefly after which the documentary respectfully moves on to other matters in Tharpe’s life.”
Another piece, entitled “Black History Month 2014: Sister Rosetta Tharpe”, discussed the idea that her marriage(s) were a ‘sham’, “Although married a number of times, Tharpe was at least bisexual; many close friends have described her as a ‘secret lesbian,’ living out the sham marriages to protect her career and personal safety. In every other way she was a determined, outspoken woman who pushed musical boundaries, spreading joy on her own powerful terms – she so deserves to be celebrated.”
Rock-n-roll has a diverse history, full of diverse people. Understandably, the narrative of cisgender, heterosexual, white (and sometimes-secular) does not have room for folks like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, but that doesn’t change the fact that her music had an impact. She was a bisexual Christian black woman from the southern United States who played blues, gospel and rock-n-roll. It makes me wonder who else is hidden in the ignored annals of the history of the music we all love.