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Rock & Roll Pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe

posted by Jason Kottke   Sep 20, 2021

If you’re talking about the origins of rock & roll, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has to be included in those conversations. Her early fusion of gospel, the blues, and the electric guitar (as on 1944’s Strange Things Happening Every Day, a contender for the first rock & roll record) had a huge influence on men like Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Elvis Presley, who ended up winning much of the credit for this innovation. This 60-minute BBC documentary from 2011 is a good place to start learning about Tharpe — part 1 is embedded above and here are parts two, three, and four.

I found this via Ted Mills at Open Culture, who writes:

As the doc makes clear, Tharpe had a rebellious streak, didn’t do what she was told, and pushed boundaries in a very segregated America. She invited the all-white Jordanaires to tour with her, surprising house managers and booking agents alike. And she carried on a love affair and creative partnership with fellow gospel singer Marie Knight for decades, very much on the down low.

So perhaps this is the reason Tharpe has not been on our collective radar — we’ve been slow to admit that rock guitar was created by a queer black woman devoted to the Lord.

And if you want to see the whole clip of Tharpe performing Didn’t It Rain from the opening scene of the documentary, there’s really not a better way to spend eight minutes (bc you’ll probably want to watch it twice):

Damn.