The Spirit moves people in funny ways.
Some people dig on a god, some dig on drugs or booze, some need politics, some crave sex, and some need danger.
And some people, like musical pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, need nothing more than a different backbeat.
”Born in Arkansas in 1915, Tharpe (née Nubin) grew up in a religious and musical family. By the time she was 3, she was playing the guitar, and at 6 she was helping her mother lead tent revivals all across the U.S. South as “Little Rosetta, the singing and guitar playing miracle.”
Like all pioneers, there’s no list somewhere of definable points that made Tharpe important. Arguably, she became the inventor of rock n’ roll because of multiple, complementary talents she possessed – and a little bit of luck.
There’s a rather predictable path for people of faith who decided to pursue musical success in a secular world. Sam Cooke, Al Green, Mahalia Jackson – they all in some ways were forced to choose between their religious roots and secular output, with varying degrees of success. It’s a devil’s bargain, with no group ever truly being satisfied with the artist’s choice.
Tharpe, perhaps the original joiner of the two worlds, was better than most at bridging the divide.
Freshly arrived in Chicago from the South at a young age, she quickly found that using all the performance elements associated with the sermon translated well to secular showmanship.
Much like the innovation stumbled upon by the early vaudevillians when they realized that the loud braggadocio of the travelling circus translated well onto a different stage, Tharpe’s application of the pulpit to the secular realm was a (non-divine) revelation.
There was no doubt Tharpe was regarded as both a musical force and a diva – new wigs every set, a growling and winking while she played, her constant patter and joking with the audience, playing both the coquettish harlot and the pious woman of the cloth in the same performance.
Tharpe’s chosen instrument was the guitar, while most traditional band leaders, especially in gospel at the time, either played piano or were purely vocalists.
View a performance of hers, like the above Up Above My Head from the mid 1960s Tharpe’s body moves and sways with the guitar, she raises her arm in the air to give the guitar a moment to sing before crashing back down on the strings. Watch it once, twice. It’s something that seems so natural as to be completely obvious. But it wasn’t at the time.
Surrounded by jazz greats in Chicago, Tharpe took the then-popular jazz style – the rolling step of the swing beat, made famous by Fats Waller and others, that put emphasis on the 1 and 3, instead of the 2 and 4– and applied it to her guitar-playing style.
She combined this with her extraordinary picking skills and her gospel-influenced vocals – and all of a sudden rock and roll stands there, blinking in the morning light. Most of Elvis’s early songs were direct duplications of Tharpe’s work. It’s not really a story we’re told too often.
Tharpe, who at one time headlined Carnegie Hall with Cab Calloway, would eventually fade from view, even as people like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis cited her as a seminal influence.
As she aged, she apparently lost none of her heart-stopping charisma or verve.
In later performances, Tharpe cuts an odd figure, one seemingly more out of a strange dream than reality. Who is this grandmother in a housecoat, shredding? She stands there on stage, swaggering, letting the guitar speak first, letting the feedback pop up here and there, a wry grin on her face, sweat on her brow.
There’s no doubt about it, the godly possess a special appeal in the secular world of the music business, maybe because there is a small question in the back of all the audience’s mind, as to what exactly is happening before them.
Is the performer they see in front of them an artist… or a vessel?