The Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll: Sister Rosetta Tharpe

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed the other day when I happened across a viral video of a woman I had never heard of before: Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Fascinated, I clicked on the video and proceeded to watch one of the most amazing live performances I had ever seen. Here was a middle-aged American black woman shredding up the guitar on live television in Manchester, England of all places in 1964. Her personality is simply magnetic, and one can’t help but smile at the honest joy she displays in her performance. I can’t possibly fully explain it, so instead I’ve provided the video below for your viewing pleasure:

Obviously, after watching her simply phenomenal performance I had to know more, and when I researched her I was not disappointed. Sister Rosetta Tharpe, born in Cotton Plant, Arkansas in 1915, was the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin, an evangelist preacher. Growing up in the church, Rosetta learned to sing gospel music and play the guitar at a very young age. From all accounts, Tharpe was a musical prodigy, and her genius began to garner more and more attention as she and her mother traveled across the American South, performing in joint services where mother would preach and daughter would sing and play.

In 1938, Tharpe moved to New York City and signed with Decca Records. Rosetta’s songs were instant hits, and she quickly became America’s first commercially successful gospel singer. Her career continued to skyrocket from there. Rosetta performed at several notable events and venues, including at Carnegie Hall and even alongside jazz legend Cab Calloway at the famous Harlem Cotton Club. For all her success, her journey was not, however, without obstacle.

Many naysayers were offended at the idea of a female guitar-shredding performer. Women who played the guitar in any capacity were in short order in those days, and to some the notion was nothing short of scandalous. Rosetta wouldn’t let this deter her though, and continued to play in her unique style which blended gospel with something new and exciting… They don’t call her the Godmother of Rock ‘n’ Roll for nothing.

Tharpe was among the first to begin developing that classic Rock ‘n’ Roll sound, and future performers like Johnny Cash and Tina Turner would directly cite her as a major influence in their music. Furthermore, her pioneering electric guitar techniques would later be adopted by the likes of Chuck Berry and Elvis Presely. So… why have most people never heard of her?

Well, (surprise, surprise) probably because she was a black woman. While Rock ‘n’ Roll history is as diverse a topic as any, the mainstream understanding of Rock ‘n’ Roll is largely whitewashed and male-centric. I say “Rock ‘n’ Roll,” and you immediately picture Elvis, Cash, and any number of good-looking white dudes who enjoy popularity in public knowledge. Just remember that every time you put in your headphones to enjoy The Beatles or Queen that you have Sister Rosetta Tharpe to thank.

All this new stuff they call rock ’n’ roll, why, I’ve been playing that for years now…
-Sister Rosetta Tharpe in an interview with Daily Mirror in 1957

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