June 18, 2010 Volume 24, Number 06
Album recalls the gospel heritage of Sister Rosetta Tharpe
By D.S. Martin | ChristianWeek Columnist
Like railway passengers facing forward, we may not glance back to where we've been. Preoccupied with what's new, we may miss older worthwhile things.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe is a part of our Christian music heritage we should not miss. If you don't know her recordings, imagine her to be one part blues guitarist, such as Reverend Gary Davis or Mississippi Fred McDowell, one part gospel singer, in the tradition of Mahalia Jackson, and one part jazz singer, like Billie Holiday.
In 1938 Sister Rosetta recorded her first four sides for Decca records. They included: Thomas Dorsey's "Rock Me," "That's All" (which was originally recorded as "Denomination Blues" by Washington Phillips in 1927), "My Man And I" and "The Lonesome Road." These recordings, only accompanied by Rosetta's own blues guitar riffs, became the biggest gospel hits of the 1930s. She recorded six more songs, with particular gospel focus, the following year, again with solo guitar. If all of her performances had been recorded so simply, it would have been enough for her posterity, but this was just the start.
Sister Rosetta was an innovator in being all things to all people, not considering it a compromise to play secular music. She was really the first crossover artist, long before that term was ever coined. Her performances at venues such as the Cotton Club were controversial. Life magazine ran a feature on her double-life: praising with the saints on Sunday and entertaining New York's elite on Monday.
As she performed alongside such jazz greats as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, her music was transformed. She joined Lucky Millinder's big band in 1941, and her recordings went far beyond her solo origins. She re-recorded many of her earlier songs, giving them a big band treatment. Although she was always a gospel artist, some songs were gospel in format, but slim in content.
An illustration of this is "Shout, Sister, Shout." The band members chant the title, not unlike Glenn Miller's Orchestra with "Pennsylvania Six-Five Thousand," while Rosetta sings, "There's a reason for living / a reason for dying/ a darn-good reason why a woman starts crying," and further lyrics that grow no deeper, interspersed with interjections of "Hallelujah," yet never fulfilling the promise to "tell the whole world what it's all about."
Even so, Sister Rosetta Tharpe used her popularity to bring gospel music where it had never been. As her star rose, she started writing and selecting more profoundly spiritual pieces.
By 1942 she continued with a two-pronged approachperforming and recording with the Millinder big band, and recording solo gospel material. She re-recorded many of the same titles for various reasons: for early video recordings, as Victory Discs for the troops during the Second World War, and to explore the same songs in various settings.
When big band music's popularity started fading in 1944, Rosetta joined forces with the Sammy Price Trio to produce a new sound for gospelthe piano/guitar duo. Tharpe's huge hit "Strange Things Happening Every Day" comes from these sessions.
Sister Rosetta's influence today is subtle,but immense. Sam Phillips pays tribute to her in the 2008 song, "Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us," which Robert Plant and Alison Krauss also covered.
"I hear Rosetta singing in the night
When country superstar Randy Travis wanted to express his faith in his all-gospel album Glory Train (2005), he recorded seven songs from Sister Rosetta's songbook, including many of her own compositions, such as "This Train" and "Up Above My Head I Hear Music In The Air."
Because she re-recorded many titles, many times, it's hard to know which are the definitive versions. This partially depends on your own taste. In the four-CD set The Original Soul Sister (Proper Records), you'll get all of her best, but four or five versions of several songs seems to be overkill. Even so, she deserves such treatment.
D.S. Martin is the author of the poetry collection Poiema (Wipf & Stock). Visit his website: www.dsmartin.ca. His resource for anyone interested in Christian poetry is at www.kingdompoets.blogspot.com.